July/August 1999

A public secret: The rescue of the Quara Jews

By Elli Wohlgelernter

(July 30) -- An exclusive behind-the-scenes look at this summer's operation to bring home the remaining Jews from the Gondar region of Ethiopia --

Last night's planeload of 91 Quara immigrants marked the end of the beginning of their rescue: for two months a concerted effort has been made to bring the remaining Jews from the Gondar region of Ethiopia to Israel.

During that time, The Jerusalem Post deliberately held back information, so as not to jeopardize the campaign. After last night's flight, the Post is now at liberty to divulge some of what has transpired since the beginning of June.

If Ethiopian Jewry is, as some believe, one of the Ten Lost Tribes, then the Jews of Quara have been the most abandoned and deserted of the lost. When Israel airlifted 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in 24 hours in May 1991, the Quara Jews were left behind, since their province was under rebel control and they could not make their way to Addis Ababa to take part in Operation Solomon.

The following year, some 3,500 Jews living in Upper Quara were brought to Israel, while the 2,500 Jews of Lower Quara were once again left behind - left off Israel's list because of a feud with their Jewish neighbors.

Finally, in May 1998, the government decided to accelerate Ethiopian immigration. Then, in November 1998, the government determined that the process was moving too slowly and named an interministerial committee headed by Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein to speed it up.

In the meantime, the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea escalated, further deteriorating the already desperate situation of the Quara Jews and making it more difficult to get them out, as there were no flights to Gondar. But about 90 percent of those Jews, hearing that they would be taken to Israel, sold their land and moved to the outskirts of the town of Gondar. Still, air fare to Israel was way beyond their means.

The Jewish Agency brought around 500 to Israel in the first half of this year, but the pace was slow. The insufferable conditions in Ethiopia began to kill off some of those left behind, and pressure mounted on the government to do something.

In early May, Edelstein and Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, charged the government with dragging its feet and causing the deaths of those waiting in Gondar.

Edelstein says he wrote to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu urging him to get things moving. Eckstein, who was fundamental in raising awareness about the plight of the Jews of Quara, was told by the Interior Ministry in January that it would take $1.5 million to bring them over, and another $500,000 to hire more personnel to handle the paperwork.

"We immediately sent $100,000 to the UJA to get the ball rolling," Eckstein says of his organization, which pledged $2 million toward the operation.

Then the election campaign pushed the issue temporarily aside, and on June 6 a story in the American Jewish press blasted the government's inactivity. Three days later the ball really got rolling.

JUNE 9: Sallai Meridor, the acting chairman of the Jewish Agency, issues a press release describing the need to get the remaining Jews out of Quara.

"There are 3,000 Jews living in very difficult conditions and we need to accelerate the pace to bring these people home in a concerted effort," Meridor writes.

Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon issues his own statement, going one step farther by calling for an airlift on the scale of the two previous Ethiopian rescue missions, Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991.

The two statements are released for a variety of reasons, some having to do with internal Israeli politics and pressure from American Jews.

But the situation in Ethiopia has also changed: the security concerns have eased up, flights to Gondar have resumed, personnel is available, and so is the money to pay for them, from Eckstein's group.

The No. 1 target of blame for the rescue's delay is Interior Minister Eli Suissa, who is roundly criticized by politicians and the media for dragging his feet in issuing permits to the Quara Jews.

"The problem now is not a matter of having seats on regular planes or arranging for an airlift," says Meridor. "The problem now is that there are not enough people with permits, and we hope that this will be dramatically changed."

JUNE 10: Suissa issues a statement describing the situation as one of pikuah nefesh (mortal danger), and says the ministry will do all it can to facilitate the Quara Jews' immigration to Israel.He says seven ministry officials are currently on the ground in Ethiopia, but because of the seriousness of the situation, another emissary will be sent.

JUNE 13: Suissa convenes a meeting in his office with the Ambassador to Ethiopia Ariel Karmi, representatives of the Interior and Foreign ministries and officials from the Jewish Agency. The attacks from other ministries and ministers, as well as from the press has gotten to Suissa, and he throws up his hands.

"He basically said, 'I can't take it anymore, I don't want to be the one blamed,' " says Mike Rosenberg, director of the Jewish Agency's Aliya Department, who was at the meeting. According to Rosenberg, Suissa said, "You guys want to deal with it? Bring them over any way you want to. Give anyone a visa you want ... and then deport those who aren't eligible. I don't care."It is also pointed out at the meeting that Sharon's call for an airlift could jeopardize the whole operation.

"There was nothing that would get the Ethiopians more upset than an airlift," says Rosenberg. "The ambassador said that at the meeting as well, very clearly, that as long as we did it with minimal press, quietly, on regularly scheduled Ethiopian Airlines flights, he didn't expect that there would be a problem."

JUNE 14: Netanyahu convenes a meeting with Sharon, Suissa, Edelstein and Meridor. Sharon is charged with coordinating the overall transport of the immigrants to Israel; Edelstein with their absorption. There is still talk of an airlift, but Edelstein argues against it.

"I said it was not necessary," says Edelstein. "I said if we work properly, there's no need for a dramatic operation, we'll bring all of them in several weeks."

Netanyahu announces at the end of the meeting that 3,500 Ethiopian Jews stuck in Quara will soon be on their way to Israel.

JUNE 15: Word gets out that the first plane of Quara Jews will arrive the following week, and the Jewish Agency begins rehousing immigrants currently residing in absorption centers to make space for the new arrivals. Some 1,000 beds are already available at the Mevasseret Zion center.

On the ground in Ethiopia, the Jewish Agency is sending busloads from Quara, one at a time, then three at a time, on the two-day journey to Addis to wait for a flight to Israel.

JUNE 17: The Finance Ministry announces that it does not have the money to pay for the operation, nor the mandate to grant such funds.

"We are not against the idea of this project," a Finance Ministry spokesman says. "However, the economic significance [of financing such an undertaking] has not been discussed in the proper forums."

The Jewish Agency responds that the operation is a top priority and that it will proceed no matter what.

"If the State of Israel won't pay for it the Jewish people will," says a Jewish Agency source, adding that the Treasury's move was "a bureaucratic hassle... a cynical move of shortsighted people without vision."

Meanwhile, representatives of the ruling party in Ethiopia announce that while Ethiopians are free to leave, no "mass operation" will be permitted. Agency officials say this is one of the reasons why an airlift was not being launched.

JUNE 20: Four more representatives of the Interior Ministry leave for Gondar accompanied by Dr. Eli Schwartz, an expert in infectious diseases who helps provide medical aid to those waiting to emigrate to Israel. The agents of the Interior Ministry, now numbering 11, begin processing the remaining Jews in Quara and issuing permits on the spot.

JUNE 22: Ethiopian Air Flight 424 arrives here at 6 p.m. with 76 new immigrants, greeted by a crowd of reporters and photographers. It is the beginning of this last operation.

"The wrong that has been done to the Jews of Quara is now being corrected," says Michael Jankelowitz, foreign press spokesman for the Jewish Agency.

Jankelowitz, in fact, is the only "official" who is there to greet the newcomers; no one else from the Agency or the government takes part in the arrival, despite the swarming media.

It is part of the official policy to keep as low a profile as possible.

Nevertheless, a Jewish Agency cameraman takes video footage of the arrival, then drives to Beit She'an to show it to delegates at the Jewish Agency General Assembly.

It is what Jankelowitz calls "the ambiguity of the secrecy," a balancing act between wanting everyone to know that the Jewish Agency was playing a major role in this operation and being scared of being blamed if anything went wrong.

"Everyone knows they're coming - they're coming on Ethiopian Air! The agreement with Ethiopia is not to embarrass them. How don't you embarrass them? You don't have an official press conference. That's why when that first flight landed, there was nobody there at the airport. It's an open secret, but don't make it official as regards them coming."

Jankelowitz says his instructions, when he was sent to the airport, were to "remind people that the Agency is there, without going overboard and making a headline out of it. That's the directive I'm being given all the time."

It was a tough line for the Agency to walk, wanting on the one hand to publicize their efforts and garner kudos for bringing over the Jews, yet being aware of the inherent danger of doing so. In fact, in 1985 during Operation Moses, when then head of the Agency's Aliya Department, Yehuda Dominitz, leaked the story to Nekuda, the publication of the Council of Jewish Communities if Judea and Samaria, the disclosure led to a halt in the operation.

The Agency never forgot that fiasco.

"We remembered that," says Rosenberg, about his predecessor, "and we said we didn't want what happened before, that because of PR and the press, because of a leak, an operation was jeopardized."

JUNE 23: The weekly, London-based newsletter Foreign Report is set to publish an article the next day saying that Israel promised to deliver a ramified military package to Ethiopia in exchange for the emigration of the Quara Jews.

The package was reportedly negotiated in Ethiopia by senior Defense Ministry and Mossad officials after the Ethiopian government rejected requests from Israel and the US to allow the Quara Jews to emigrate.

The Defense Ministry flatly denies the report, saying Israel does not trade arms for people.

JUNE 27: A Jewish Agency official dismisses a report in Ma'ariv which says that an airlift is planned for this week.

JUNE 29: The second group of Quara Jews arrives, totalling 92. They are taken to the Mevasseret Zion absorption center, where they are housed along with the group of 76 which arrived last Tuesday.

But in Ethiopia there is trouble on the ground: a bus traveling from Gondar to Addis is held up at gunpoint, and detained for 10 hours.

JUNE 30: There is panic in the Jewish Agency building. No one is sure why the bus was stopped, but there is growing concern that the whole operation is in danger.

A news conference is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in Meridor's office with Eckstein, who is to present his $2 million check for the rescue and resettlement operation. Reporters and photographers are told first that the ceremony is delayed, then that it is being done privately, with no photographers allowed.

"The Agency didn't want a word about it in the paper, because they weren't yet sure what was happening on the ground in Ethiopia," says Jankelowitz.

"Sallai told Eckstein this could jeopardize the whole operation, and Eckstein understood and agreed. He presented the check to Meridor, with only an in-house photographer present."

It is decided that, if asked, Eckstein will only say that he is giving the money for absorption, not for the rescue of Quara Jews. "I told the Agency that we certainly want to have it known that our organization participated in the operation and that Christians are doing this, but if in any way this press conference would jeopardize the operation then certainly let's pass on it, and we'll do it in the right time."

That same day, Rosenberg and others from the Agency are set to fly to Ethiopia to oversee the operation and find out exactly how many Jews were waiting to come. But the group quickly gets pared down to one.

"I was supposed to go with a video photographer, and with [incoming communications director] Avinoam Bar-Yosef, Sallai's advisor. They already had their [vaccination] shots, they were supposed to go, but they were taken off a couple of hours before the flight because they were considered not a security risk but a publicity risk.

"Aaron Abramovich, the new director-general of the Agency, took himself off five days before, after the Foreign Ministry asked him not to go because it would attract too much attention. But the publicity people were taken off that afternoon, at 5-6 in the afternoon of the day I left."

Rosenberg isn't sure what he'll find when he gets there, and an hour after landing he meets Ambassador Karmi at the embassy.

"An hour after that he was called in to the minister of Foreign Affairs in Ethiopia and reprimanded about the press. At that time there were some rumors about Israel giving arms, and he was very upset about Ethiopia being portrayed as such an awful place that people had to be rescued from it.

"And in general, because they were at war, and are still at war, the exit of a population was something that was sensitive. So the ambassador was reprimanded."

Rosenberg also learns that the incident the night before was not a government initiative, and had nothing to do with the operation.

"The bus was stopped because the driver didn't have the right papers. This I knew later. He didn't behave. They were detained for 10 hours or so and they let them go. It didn't have anything to do with where they were going, it wasn't an antisemitic act," he says with a little smile.

JULY 1: Rosenberg flies with Karmi to Gondar, and meets up with a reporter from Ha'aretz, who was there to do a story on the operation.

"The ambassador was very clear that the reporter would not be allowed to come in and see the immigration process - we didn't want any press whatsoever," Rosenberg says.

JULY 6: Flight No. 3 arrives with 132 aboard. It is now routine, so there is no media to greet them.

JULY 7: Ha'aretz prints an article claiming the Agency and Interior Ministry are in cahoots to bring as few Jews as possible from Ethiopia. A larger feature appears prominently in the weekend section two days later, but the Agency decides not to call any more attention to the issue by releasing any statement.

"Ha'aretz never asked the Agency for a response," says Jankelowitz. "But more importantly, we're lucky that there were no repercussions because of the article on Friday. The Hebrew story was inside, but the English article was on the front page of the feature section. God forbid something would have happened, and Ha'aretz would have been the reason that the operation to bring the Jews of Quara was stopped. Just like the article with Nekuda in 1985 was the reason that people say Operation Moses got stopped."

JULY 8: Flight No. 4 arrives with 165 immigrants. It is an additional commercial flight that has been arranged with Ethiopian Air for every Thursday, providing two additional weekday flights to double the number of new immigrants that can be accommodated. The timetable for completing the ingathering now looks to be cut in half.

JULY 12: The team sent by the Jewish Agency to Gondar on June 20 returns to Israel, after processing and approving 1,135 people in 22 days.

JULY 13: Flight No. 5 arrives with 173 immigrants, including one woman in the last stages of pregnancy.

JULY 14: The last bus is sent from Gondar to Addis.

July 15: Flight No. 6 arrives with 207 immigrants.

The pregnant woman who arrived two days ago gives birth in the Lod absorption center. Mother and daughter are taken to Assaf Harofeh Hospital, where they are reportedly doing fine.

JULY 20: Flight No. 7 arrives with 160 immigrants. It is supposed to be 180, but 20 people get bumped for technical reasons.

JULY 22: Flight No. 8 arrives with 148 immigrants.

JULY 27: Flight No. 9 arrives with 138 immigrants.

JULY 29: Flight No. 10 arrives with 91 immigrants.

There are still a few hundred Jews left, both in Addis and in Gondar; all are expected to be brought out at the end of the rainy season in the fall, when the roads clear again for travel.

Still, the result of the operation is impressive: In 37 days, 1,388 Quara Jews have been brought to Israel.

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