Dangerous diplomacy

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“Operation Solomon,” the clandestine airlift of 14,200 black Ethiopian Jews to Israel within 25 hours, was one of history’s more amazing mass immigrations.

Asher Naim, the former Israeli ambassador who played a key role in the May 24, 1991 operation, tells the story in his first book, “Saving the Lost Tribe: The Rescue and Redemption of the Ethiopian Jews.”

The book reads like an expert thriller, building up to the taut excitement of “Operation Solomon” in its last 50 pages.

It opens with Naim’s arrival on Nov. 11, 1990, in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, which struck him at first as a typical sub-Saharan African city; later he would realize its remarkable nature. Protected from its neighbors by the Red Sea, ferociously hot deserts of sulfur and tar, gorges, jungles and scrubland, Ethiopia is the only African country never colonized by a Western power. It has its own language and maintains one of the world’s oldest forms of Christianity.

Perhaps its most isolated inhabitants were a group of Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Israel. They lived for centuries — perhaps millennia — in the rocky terrain of northern Ethiopia, practicing Judaism according to the Hebrew Bible.

Between 1982 and 1984, Israel’s Mossad and the CIA had rescued thousands of these lost Jews — in a secretive airlift known as “Operation Moses” — from famine, drought and massacre by a bloody dictatorship. When the news came to light, bringing the expected outburst of Muslim wrath, Ethiopian President Mengistu Miriam halted the operation and severed relations with Israel.

It was only after he’d lost the USSR as supplier of weapons that he made overtures to Israel, hoping to get arms in return for releasing the remaining Beta Israel.

Caught between the dictatorial “Butcher of Addis” and the advancing rebel armies, whose victory would plunge the country into a chaos in which mob rule might scapegoat the Jews, the Beta Israel were on the brink of annihilation.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had no intention of supplying “arms for Jews,” but re-established diplomatic relations with Ethiopia anyway. Naim was drafted as ambassador, and neither he nor his valiant American-born wife, Hilda, turned down the assignment to rescue the Ethiopians.

Naim’s style has both humor and power. His observations on the sociology and geography of Ethiopia are informative, and he lets us in on the convoluted inner workings of diplomacy in a dangerous world — with encouraging results.

He details how he had to strike a delicate balance between the interests of the Beta Israel and those of Ethiopia, and later, between saving the remnant of Mengistu Miriam’s ousted regime and establishing good relations with the new government.

Naim calls the rescue and redemption “an inspiration and a reminder of the sacredness of human life that is at the core of Judaism and Western consciousness.

“We especially need to be reminded of this core value in light of events in the Middle East today.”

“Saving the Lost Tribe: The Rescue and Redemption of the Ethiopian Jews” by Asher Naim (288 pages, Ballantine Books, $25.95)