Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Addis on the Mind: Operation Solomon from a Veteran

Ethiopia, a country of devastating poverty and unbelievable cultural wealth, is a land that speaks to the imaginary realms most folks leave behind in childhood. Perhaps the country touched me like nowhere else I have ever visited because I have never quite relinquished my childhood imagination. My ten days in Ethiopia last January were filled with all sort of madcap adventures, from the Christmas night I spent with thousand of barefoot pilgrims in the catacombs of Lalibela to nearly getting arrested for espionage in the Chinese Embassy. Yet the Abyssinia that lingers in my mind is the pull of the Blue Nile, the staffs slung over the shoulders of pilgrims en route to hidden shrines, and the wondrous indigo eyes that held my own as I hiked with village children through the mountains.

My memories of Ethiopia came flooding back tonight when a kibbutz member shared his first hand experience from Operation Solomon with my garin. Operation Solomon was the crowning moment of the aliyah of the Beta Israel, the Jewish Ethiopian community. Over thirty-six hours, on May 24 1991, the IDF flew some 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers took part in the complex operation, with some thirty-four military and civilian jets taking part in the airlift. One of the first flights even set a world record for single flight passenger load when 1,122 slim Ethiopians squeezed aboard. If you have ever taken a subway in New York City or Beijing during rush hour, just imagine the car taking flight and you can begin to feel what it must have been like!

Security for the covert operation was provided by Shaldag, the elite Israeli Air Force commando squad. The kibbutz member who spoke to us had been an officer in Shaldag and so his tale of dressing as a student and scoping out the airport the week before the operation had the gritty feel of a true insider's account. I was not surprised at the swell of emotion I felt as he told his story. It is a tale that reminds me of the responsibilities I have adopted by joining a military force whose mandate is to defend Jews around the world.

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