Everybody was quiet.
The silence that filled the air on the C130 on its way to Sudan was not a mistake — it was intentional.
No words. No light. No moon. Just darkness.
The darkness in Sudan is much darker than the darkness in Israel, Asaf Agamon said. Brig, Gen. Asaf Agamon was the pilot on the C130 en route to Sudan. Agamon grazed the Red Sea to avoid any detection from nearby radars. He could not see anything.
“If we will not be able to touch down at the exact point, we will not be able to stop until the end of the runway,” Agamon said.
Before every flight a secret briefing was held by a group of senior officers. Uri Dromi, a navigator for these flights noticed a particular person in this group of senior officers — the Chief of Staff from the Israeli Defense Force. When you see the Chief of Staff, you know what you are doing is a big deal, Dromi said. But his appearance did not just sprinkle in, it was evident. Instead of going over the usual technicalities before an operation, the Chief of Staff paraded them with the weight of his words — Dromi calls it “talking Zionism.”
“Talking Zionism is a euphemism for speaking in a loaded rhetoric,” Dromi said. “Trying to make you more motivated than you are already.”
A sense of belonging is common amongst all Jewish people in Israel. The land is charged politically, religiously, and culturally under the Law of Return. The law, instituted in 1970, allows every Jew to immigrate to Israel with their family. The Zionist movement founded by Theodor Herzl, encouraged a reverse diaspora, which is the return of all Jews to the Jewish state. But for Ethiopian Jews, this return was delayed and carried out in covert missions — such as Operation Brothers (1981-1984), Operation Moses (1984 -1985) and Operation Solomon (1991).
The radio silence accompanied by dark skies did not make the flight any easier. If there was any communication, it was in the cockpit and the minimal amount of words were said. Dromi and Agamon did not fly on the same flight but three planes made the trip. Only two of the planes had intentions of landing. While the other plane was there as a reserve.
The operation outdid the C130’s capabilities, Agamon said. But faced with a weight of responsibility, Agamon could not see himself failing.
“If I fail, I will not be able to forgive myself,” Agamon said.
For the operation to work, flying in the night sky with no lights, almost touching the Red Sea into the Horn of Africa had to be done. But the difficulty of finding the airstrip in Carthago with no air controller forced the Israeli Air Force to think outside the box.
To successfully bring Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia to Sudan — the MOSSAD was placed in Sudan. The MOSSAD is the national intelligence agency of Israel and is responsible for covert missions. A former MOSSAD agent, who participated in Operation Moses, agreed to do an interview but did not want his name used in the article. He would rather use his initials which are Y.G. The difficulties that came with the operation were more than just guiding the plane to its landing, Y.G. said.
“We were working in an enemy country,” Y.G. said. “So we’re working undercover not as Israelis of course, we were under deep cover.”
A diving village in the Red Sea was used as their cover story, Y.G. said. He references the Netflix movie, Red Sea Diving Resort, as overrated because the resort was not the task at hand. But rescuing the Jews were. According to Y.G., the MOSSAD operated in Sudan from 1979 to 1990 and the group spent more time operating without the diving village than with it.
The risks of getting caught usually ended one way, Y.G. said, which was in the death penalty. But after trekking through the desert with Ethiopian Jews getting them to Israel was of the utmost importance.
Seeing the runway was difficult but MOSSAD agents placed their truck in the beginning of the runway with the headlights on so the incoming plane could see. But in order to land, the Israeli Air Force would need more than truck lights to assist their descent. Six flare lights were placed on the runway guiding the plane’s landing.
The landing was low, dangerous, and at the beginning of the runway.
“We came so low that after our first landing nobody from the MOSSAD team agreed to be in the truck the second time,” Agamon said. “They were sure that we were going to crash into them because it was so low.”
The consistent humming of the C130 engine engulfed the silent Sudanese desert. Both Dromi and Agamon had different views after their planes landed. As the pilot, Agamon could only see what was in front of him. But Dromi got up to see the Ethiopian refugees as they entered the back of the plane.
“I’m sure they told them an aircraft would come and land and pick them up,” Dromi said. “But it’s one thing to be told about this, it’s another thing to wait there in the dark and see a huge metal bird assaulting the airstrip.”
The turnaround was quick as the refugees got on the plane en route to Ben Gurion. For many, this was the first time an Ethiopian saw a plane, Dromi said. Dromi had a conversation with a refugee, he saw shaking from the sequence of events. The refugee told Dromi not only has he never flown on an aircraft before, he has never seen up close. The refugee Dromi spoke to knew Hebrew but not everyone on the plane. The little Hebrew some of the Ethiopians knew was because of prayer but Amharic is the language they speak, Dromi said.
Everybody was quiet.
The flight back was much easier, Agamon said. But an emphasis on not relaxing was made because now 200 people are on the plane wanting to get to Israel. Four hours later they landed at Ben Gurion airport in Israel.
“I was so fully concentrated on what I was doing I didn’t let my mind think differently,” Agamon said. “Only afterwards, I found myself dreaming about this operation and the special feelings I had for it. This will stay with me forever.”
To keep the secrecy of the operation, the Ethiopian refugees were rushed onto buses. Some kissed the ground and thanked God for making it to the Promised Land. But the land was not so promised at all — at least not for them.
The quiet reserved nature of the Ethiopian Jews did not mesh well with the loud and aggressive nature of Israeli society. Dromi loves the humanitarian effort they did but he admits Israel made a lot of mistakes in absorbing them.
“We played down the cultural shock that they suffered from,” Dromi said.
The adjustment Ethiopians had to make resembled a quantum leap, Dromi said. The great wave of immigration that came to Israel during the 1950s was more accounted for. But the influx of Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society disregarded cultural competency and crushed the status of the father in Ethiopian families, Dromi said.
“The status of the father was crushed because the fathers could not speak Hebrew,” Dromi said. “The kids were quick to learn Hebrew. So suddenly the kids were the ones who could communicate with society.”
Racism is embedded in every society, Dromi said. Dromi calls out the hypocrisy of Israeli society in its non-acceptance of Ethiopian Jews.
“We Jews should be ashamed of it because we were on the receiving end of racism all the time,” Dromi said. “It’s a miracle that they came and if I could have a part in this I treasure it. We tried to do the good thing for them, their objective situation was not good to start with. The gap, the leap, they had to do was maybe too much for the people and the community. And we made a mistake.”
The second generation of Ethiopian Jews have adapted better to Israeli society but there is still a lot to work on, Dromi said. The landscape for Ethiopian Jews in high ranking positions has improved as Pnina Tamano Shata is now the Minister of Immigration and Absorption and Gadi Yevarken is a Knesset member.
Inroads have been made to integrate Ethiopian Jews into society but the covert operations that brought Ethiopians to Israel victimize and don’t recognize the tall order Ethiopian Jews experienced, Rina Ayalin-Gorelik said.
“These heroic men and women faced danger, hardship, and in many cases imprisonment and torutre,” Gorelik said. “Yet in school books, the media, and public perception is that Ethiopian Jews were victims who were suddenly rescued by the Israeli Government’s MOSSAD and Air Force heroes disregarding the heroic original impetus and actions that Ethiopian Jews demonstrated including significant loss of lives that made them the true heroes.”
Gorelik is an Ethiopian Jewish woman and is the Director of the Association of Ethiopian Jews. Making plans, setting up routes, walking over 500 kilometers, encountering mercenaries, dying on the way, and hiding in Sudanese refugee camps were all efforts made by Ethiopian Jews to get back to Israel, Gorelik said.
Rescue operations that end up being movies, documentaries or stories tend to exude a sort of savior complex. Public discourse engulfed the making of Red Sea Diving Resort and provided transparency throughout Israeli society. But the accounts from each individual who took part in these operations whether pilot, navigator, agent, or Ethiopian Jew is a necessity to the history of the world.