An interview with the U.S. Foreign Service Officer who engineered a secret plan to shepherd thousands of desperate Ethiopian Jewish refugees from Sudan to Israel.
The mass rescue of approximately 10,000 Ethiopian Jews from November 1984 through early January 1985 in Operation Moses followed on the heels of a series of smaller rescue operations. From 1980 to 1983, Israel spirited about 700 Ethiopian Jews per year out of Sudan. In 1982, AAEJ officer Henry Rosenberg paid a surprise visit to the Khartoum embassy, during which Foreign Service Officer Jerry Weaver learned of America's concern for the Ethiopian Jews in the refugee camps; Weaver then played an instrumental role in getting the International Committee for Migration (ICM) to extract an additional 1,440 Ethiopian Jews from the Sudan the following year. Also in 1983, Rosenberg's team of AAEJ volunteers saved another 128 refugees.
The following conversation with Jerry Weaver is adapted from Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes: The Untold Stories of Grassroots Activists (Gefen Press), the memoir of Professor Howard Lenhoff, president of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews from 1978 to 1982.
LENHOFF: When did you first meet Henry Rosenberg?
One fall day in 1982, while I was at my desk at the U.S. embassy in Khartoum, I received a phone call from the secretary to C. William Kontos, the U.S. Ambassador to Sudan--"The boss wants to see you right away." I walked into Kontos' office and he introduced me to Henry Rosenberg, an American from New York. Rosenberg immediately launched into a heated criticism of the embassy for not protecting the Falasha. "Hundreds" of Falasha were being mistreated in the Tawara refugee camp, he said, and he was here "to straighten things out."
Rosenberg handed Kontos a letter from Congressman Stephen Solarz, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee for Africa, requesting that Kontos give Rosenberg, "an important personage," all help possible. Kontos assured Rosenberg that the embassy would do everything necessary to facilitate his mission.
Rosenberg was barely out the door when Kontos barked at me: "Who are the Falasha and why is the U.S. interested in them?" He was furious. Neither he nor I had been briefed about an American concern for the Ethiopian Jews, a group of people we knew nothing about. He told me to find out what was going on.
I called the Refugee Bureau in Washington and reached Deputy Assistant Secretary Arthur E. Dewey, who explained that the U.S. government had a special interest in working with the ICM (International Committee for Migration, an organization of approximately 100 member nations dedicated to addressing the migration and resettlement of refugees) to move as many Ethiopian Jews as possible out of Sudan. At this juncture, I was handling the migration of just a few Ethiopian Jews per year through the U.S. Resettlement of African Refugees program.
LENHOFF: What happened next?
A month or two after Rosenberg's visit, it became clear that the U.S. government, or at least its Refugee Bureau, had been energized to transport Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan. ICM had responsibility for moving the Falasha. They would do the work and bear the risk if something went wrong. Israel, a member state, would underwrite the transport costs.
The U.S. resettlement program was now open to Ethiopian Jews who wanted to come to the U.S. or to Israel via America. The Netherlands also helped out--during 1982- 1984, several hundred Ethiopian Jews were taken out of Sudan on Dutch travel papers. My role was to monitor ICM's progress; make reports to the State Department; serve as liaison among the Sudanese authorities, ICM, and the United Nations' High Commission on Refugees; and troubleshoot when problems arose.
The collaborative program among the U.S., Israel, Holland, and ICM proved extremely successful. In 1983 an average of 120 Ethiopian Jews per month left through the ICM channel.
LENHOFF: Some Mossad agents have said that the AAEJ operation thwarted Israel's own rescue operations. Do you agree that AAEJ activists endangered the Israelis' rescue efforts?
No. I don't believe that AAEJ actions endangered other rescue operations. They did, however, embarrass the Israelis, who were doing very little beyond engaging in a few small-scale operations and paying the freight to transport the Falasha out of the country. Nonetheless, the Mossad agents saw themselves as supreme pros, and therefore distrusted and disliked "amateurs."
It's also true that mistakes were made by inexperienced, though well-intentioned, private individuals who were attempting to spirit Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan. Occasionally, Sudanese security officials would arrest them, but they were quickly released.
To the Sudanese, AAEJ operations were as significant as a bottle floating on Lake Erie. They chose to turn a blind eye to what had become an obvious migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. My Sudanese counterparts in state security only became "concerned" in May 1984 when an Israeli military cargo plane landed in the desert to airlift about 130 Ethiopian Jews from Tawawa. The rescue mission was revealed by trash left behind on the ground. The Sudanese told me they would shoot down any future incursion. I passed this along to Washington and Tel Aviv, and to my knowledge, no further airlifts were attempted.
LENHOFF: How important was Henry Rosenberg's intervention in involving the U.S. Embassy in Operation Moses?
Rosenberg was the flare that illuminated the landscape. His unexpected and flamboyant entrance to Ambassador Kontos' office galvanized the U.S. government's involvement, and, I believe, paved the way for the expanded role of ICM and the success of Operations Moses and Sheba in 1984 and 1985.
LENHOFF: In 1994 you were invited to Israel for the 10-year anniversary celebration of Operation Moses. What were your impressions of that visit?
As a former refugee coordinator in the Sudan, I had seen literally thousands of dead. Thus my most moving impressions were how healthy the Ethiopian immigrants looked, their neat and clean clothes, and how many babies and young children there were.I had seen very few babies enter the airplanes in Operation Moses; most had died of disease and dehydration. Here, those refugees who had survived had prospered in their new homeland. While some, especially the elderly, were having difficulties integrating into a modern, technological society, it was obvious that their children and grandchildren were in a better place, living free in Israel.
LENHOFF: Those are my impressions too. When I joined the AAEJ in 1974, only about 170 Ethiopian Jews lived in Israel. Today, they number more than 90,000 and are active participants in all facets of Israeli life--lawyers, nurses, teachers, social workers, fashion models, military officers, artists, elected officials, and more. Some, however, are living below the poverty level, and there remains much to do to help them adapt. It will require special effort and resources, but as someone who's witnessed firsthand their determination to live in Israel, I feel confident they will make it.