Ex-ambassador coming here on mission to aid Ethiopians

It was one of the greatest moments in modern Israeli history: the day 20,000 Ethiopian Jews flew on eagles' wings to the Land of Milk and Honey.

Operation Solomon was the name of the miraculous airlift that brought this forgotten tribe of Jews out of their impoverished, war-torn nation and into Israel.

On May 23, 1991, the Ethiopian exodus made headlines around the world. But in the years since, the immigrants' absorption into and acceptance by mainstream Israeli society has been a mixed bag.

That's the assessment of Asher Naim, Israel's former ambassador to Ethiopia and one of the Jewish state's most experienced diplomats.

He was a key player in Operation Solomon and has never lost his love for the people he helped rescue. He even wrote a book chronicling these experiences, "Saving the Lost Tribe: The Rescue and Redemption of the Ethiopian Jews."

Though officially retired, Naim has dedicated the rest of his life to this cause, primarily through

his Scholarship Fund for

Ethiopian Jews, on the Web at


Based in Jerusalem, Naim will be in the Bay Area for a string of speaking engagements to increase awareness of the scholarship fund and the Israeli citizens it helps. He will speak at synagogues in Los Altos Hills, San Francisco and Oakland.

The problems Ethiopians face in their adopted homeland are many, according to Naim. "In one four-hour flight, these people went from a barter society to a dot-com society. They were illiterate, living in isolation in the mountains. Now, in Israel they face very high unemployment."

Naim adds: "They also come from a paternalistic family structure. In Israel, everyone's equal, and they didn't know how to handle that. It caused quite a number of divorces."

Most troubling are reports of immigrants facing blatant racism. Not true, says Naim. "There have been some cases of prejudice, but it's not because of race. It's socio-economic."

On the bright side, Naim sees the younger generation of Ethiopians adapting to Israeli life, learning Hebrew and taking advantage of educational opportunities.

"They're doing very well in the army," notes Naim. "It's the best melting pot in Israel, and 94 percent of young Ethiopian Jews want to go into the army."

Moreover, with a population now topping 85,000, the Ethiopians have made an impact on Israeli politics. All of the various political parties reach out for Ethiopians' support, and a number of immigrants have run for office as well.

No one could be happier for the Ethiopians than Naim. Born in Tripoli, Libya, he immigrated to Israel as a teenager, fighting in Israel's War of Independence. He went on to a distinguished diplomatic career, with postings in Japan, Kenya, Uganda, the United States, Finland, South Korea and Ethiopia.

As Israel's ambassador to Ethiopia, he was in a unique position to help the so-called "Lost Tribe of Israel." As revolution, famine and civil war convulsed the country, Naim saw an opportunity to extract all 20,000 Jews.

"The most amazing moment was when the foreign minister informed me it was OK for the operation to go on," Naim recalls. "The rebels were seven miles from the city, war was looming, and we had a window of only 48 hours."

The Israeli air force swooped in, and in an operation that lasted 25 hours, thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to freedom.

"When we came back, after Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Shamir congratulated me, I said, 'What do we do next?' Getting them here was the small part of the miracle. The big miracle would be absorbing them."

Early on, the culture clash could not have been more pronounced. The government tried placing some immigrants on farms, but the new Israelis had trouble understanding modern farming.

For Naim, the best hope for the Ethiopian Jews is simple: increased educational opportunities. Currently 1,800 young Ethiopian immigrants are enrolled in Israeli universities, with more to come.

"Eight years ago we sent five kids to college," says Naim of his scholarship program. "This year, it's 246."

The work continues for Naim and others involved with the absorption effort. "When I was sent to Ethiopia, I met a wonderful people, poor but cultured," he says. "Now they're here and I don't ever want to see black ghettos in Israel. We can't allow that as Israelis or as Jews."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.