On Eagles' Wings: Operation Solomon
An airlift


On May 24, 1991, in a record-breaking airlift of 36 planes, the Israeli Air Force smuggled more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa International Airport to Israel. It was a Herculean task in many ways, not only because C-130 Hercules planes were used in the operation, but because the job was so enormous, unprecedented, and almost incomprehensible.


Wenda Busena stepped anxiously onto a jet plane at Addis Ababa Airport in Ethiopia. She had never seen an airplane before, much less flown on one, but what made her most nervous was the fact that she was nine months pregnant. What if she went into labor on the airplane? Could she give birth to her baby...in the sky?

Wenda settled into a space on the aircraft's floor, where the seats had been removed to allow twice as many passengers to squeeze onto the plane. Then she watched as more than 900 of her fellow villagers packed onto the jet.

Wenda rubbed her belly. Pregnant or not, she was staying on this airplane! She had prayed for this journey her whole life.

Hours earlier, in the night's still darkness, covert operatives working for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had nudged Wenda awake in her hut in Addis Ababa. It was only then that she--and the other Ethiopian Jews--learned what was about to happen. The operatives instructed them to get dressed and head to the Israeli Embassy; they were being taken to Israel.

There was no time to pack--not that Wenda and her neighbors had much to take with them anyway. Like all the Ethiopian Jews, Wenda and her husband were poor, living day to day in a land plagued with famine. A civil war raged throughout Ethiopia. Rebel forces were closing in on Addis Ababa in an effort to control Ethiopia. Wenda knew if the rebels succeeded, they would imprison or kill any Jews they found.

Wenda said nothing as she dressed quickly. She knew that a better life awaited her and her baby in the promised Land of Israel, in Jerusalem--a city she'd only dreamed about. She and her husband boarded the first bus that arrived at the Israeli Ebassy in Addis Ababa, and without a look back, their journey began.


Wenda and the 14,000 other Ethiopian Jews transported to Israel in May 1991 are believed to be descendants of King Solomon. Cut off from the rest of the world for centuries, they thought they were the only Jews in the world. Still, they practiced Judaism, always believing that they would someday return to Zion.

They called themselves Beta Israel, but their Ethiopian neighbors called them Falashas, "Outsiders." Throughout the years, these neighbors confiscated their writings, burned their religious books, and forbade practicing Judaism. With the creation of the State of Israel, the Beta Israel looked there as a safe haven.

In the 1980s, Israel began smuggling in Ethiopian Jews, rescuing 8,000 in 1984's Operation Moses. By 1991, the political and economic situation in Ethiopia had completely deteriorated. The Israeli government knew the time had come to put their biggest plan--Operation Solomon--into action. After months of secret negotiations with the Israeli government, the Ethiopians agreed to let Beta Israel leave in exchange for $35 million.


When Wenda's bus pulled into Addis Ababa Airport, she couldn't believe her eyes. Standing on the tarmac was a huge, silver El Al airplane, its wings stretched out like a giant eagle's wings. Her first thought was of a story her parents had told her when she was a little girl: "One day, we will all be free," they said, "lifted up on the wings of an eagle to a place called Zion."

Was this the "eagle" her parents had told her about? Were their prayers about to be answered?

Again, Wenda touched her pregnant belly. When her turn came to board the plane, she was overwhelmed with anxiety.

"No need to worry," a nice man told her. He introduced himself as an Israeli doctor, Dr. David Raveh. "We will take good care of you and your baby."

Dr. Raveh was right. The Israeli government along with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had meticulously planned every detail--painstakingly keeping it all secret. At 4:00 a.m. on May 24 in Addis Ababa, the phones rang in the rooms of the Americans involved in the operation. "We need you to give blood," an Israeli caller said, invoking the secret code words that would put Operation Solomon into action. The American operatives began summoning the Beta Israel.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Air Force closely oversaw the actual transport from the moment the first plane left Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport for Ethiopia at 4:41 a.m. on May 24 until the last of the 36 rescue planes landed safely back home 36 hours later. The air force had reconfigured planes to hold more passengers. Seats had been removed, arm rests folded up, and rubber mats laid out on the floors. One jumbo jet, which usually carried fewer than 500 passengers, carried 1,087, setting a Guinness Book world record.

By 10 a.m., the first plane in the convoy landed in Addis Ababa. By noon, Wenda and the others were quickly and silently shuttled onto the planes.

"Nobody said anything," recalled Dr. Raveh. "It was totally quiet. It was like the Exodus out of Egypt."

Plane after plane arrived at Addis Ababa, and one by one they were loaded, refueled, then sent down the runway for take-off to Israel. There were 36 airplanes in all--each one crammed to capacity with Ethiopian men, women, and children. Wenda sat on a rubber mattress on the floor, among her neighbors. Every available inch of the aircraft was taken. She saw children on the laps of their mothers. And even younger siblings on their laps.

Probably because of all the excitement, Wenda went into labor on the plane. Dr. Raveh was right by her side, ready to help deliver her baby. Wenda was no longer anxious. Knowing she was headed to Israel was all the comfort she needed.

"It's a boy!" Dr. Raveh exclaimed happily. Wenda held her new son, Yarus, close. His life was filled with promise. He would never know the horrors of growing up in Ethiopia. Her son, born on an eagle's wings, would grow up in Israel. In Zion.

An Ambassador for Ethiopian Jews

Mehereta Baruch’s long journey to success took her from famine-plagued Ethiopia to a runner-up on Israel’s reality show “The Ambassador,” in which Israelis compete for the position of communications director at an advocacy organization. One of 105,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, Mehereta made aliyah at age 10.

Although she didn’t win the title of “The Ambassador,” Mehereta’s leap into fame has made her an ambassador for Ethiopian Jews. Operation Solomon was only one step in helping Ethiopians successfully immigrate to Israel. Today, Israel still faces the challenge of integrating Ethiopian olim, who were uneducated and living in poverty in Ethiopia. Some government officials estimate that it costs between $40,000 and $100,000 to help each new Ethiopian immigrant settle into Israeli life. Mehereta is a shining example of how Ethiopian Jews can successfully integrate into Israeli society.

A Bar Mitzvah for Operation Solomon

Hundreds of family, friends, and Israeli officials looked on proudly at a special ceremony in Jerusalem in May 2004 to celebrate Yarus Busena and five other Ethiopian olim becoming b’nai mitzvah. The onlookers were proud, not only because these six teens had managed to learn their Torah portions flawlessly, but because they all had something else in common: All six were born thousands of miles up in the sky, aboard a convoy of planes making their way from Ethiopia to Israel as part of Operation Solomon.

At the ceremony, on his 13th birthday, Yarus stood next to the other children born during the airlift. He felt lucky to have been born on the airplane, during the historic airlift. In Israel, he had been able to attend school and practice Judaism—something he would never have been able to do in Ethiopia—while maintaining his Ethiopian heritage.

Wearing the proudest smile of all at the ceremony was Wenda Busena. She closed her eyes and prayed silently, remembering her parents’ tales of a journey on eagles’ wings. Their prayers had been answered.