In 1991, the Israeli government set out on a covert mission to bring members of the Ethiopian Diaspora to the Jewish state.
Tensions were high in the African nation, as Mengistu Haile Mariam’s government was near overthrow. Jewish groups grew wary of what this might mean for Ethiopia’s Jewish population.
These Jews, known as Beta Israel, numbered in the thousands. Under Mariam, Ethiopian Jews faced difficult paths to aliyah. But with military wins by Eritrean and Tigerean rebels, Mariam’s power was on the decline.
The Israel government realized the time to act was at hand.
On May 24, 1991, after extensive negotiations, the largest immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel took place. Aided by the US and a personal letter from President George HW Bush, Mariam was persuaded to allow every single Jew in the nation to pack up and leave.
A mass airlift was arranged. Over the course of 36 hours, 34 separate El Al planes flew nearly 15,000 African Jews to Israel. Conditions were tight, with passengers packed shoulder to shoulder.
There were so many onboard, several women gave birth en route, increasing by five the final number of Beta Israel to land in Tel Aviv.
The operation was historic in scope. It helped immigrate nearly double the number of Ethiopian Jews as Operation Moses, the 1984 mission that rescued African Jews from famine.
Solomon also set a record for the most passengers in a single flight—1,122.
Upon landing, new Israeli citizen Mukat Abag told the media, “We didn’t bring any of our clothes, we didn’t bring any of our things, but we are very glad to be here.”
Today, the population of Ethiopian-Israelis is a vibrant, thriving community for the Jewish state. In fact, the current Miss Israel is the Jewish state’s first title holder of Ethiopian descent.
The Israeli government still works to help Ethiopian Jews make aliyah, including a new group known as the Falash Mura.