Skip to main content

Divers by Day, Smugglers by Night: Mossad’s Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry

By Randy Pinsky

It was the stuff of movies: a lost Jewish tribe persecuted in Ethiopia, an abandoned diving resort as cover, and thousands smuggled to Israel, all while under enemy watch. 

Yet that’s exactly what happened. 

A Rescue Like No Other

This act of “brazen deception” was a mission of “subterfuge, trickery and a lot of courage” and was one of many daring humanitarian operations undertaken by Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad.

On March 7, the Azrieli Institute hosted Duki Dror, director of “Inside the Mossad,” breaking the silence on one of the world’s most secretive operatives. Raffi Berg shared the story of “Red Sea Spies” with Montreal’s Jewish Public Library on May 11; a story that inspired the 2019 movie “The Red Sea Diving Resort” starring Chris Evans. 

A Bit of Context

But first- there are Jewish people in Ethiopia?

In fact, the community has been there for thousands of years. Some speculate they originate from the tribe of Dan, while others believe they are descendants of Menelik l, son of the Biblical King Solomon and Queen of Sheba.

Known as ‘Beta Israel’ (‘House of Israel'), they have lived in isolation from the rest of the Jewish world. In addition to keeping traditions, they yearn to return to Jerusalem, a message imbued in their daily actions and prayers (Honest Reporting). 

The community was given the derogatory name of ‘Falashas’ or ‘outsiders’, and routinely subjected to government persecution. Their writings were confiscated or burned, and they were forbidden from practicing their religion. Even when many escaped to Sudan to get to Israel, roadblocks were put in place due to pressure from Arab countries.

In 1975, Beta Israel’s Jewish authenticity was formally recognized and members thereby became eligible for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return. At this announcement, 8,000 Ethiopians immigrated until dictator Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam forbade it in the mid-1980s. 

Ethiopia was by then in the throes of a civil war and the worst famine in its history, with Human Rights Watch estimating a loss of 400,000 between 1983-85. Beta Israel was routinely targeted and split up in refugee camps.

The situation was desperate…

More Than Just Singing

When the world heard about the famine, singers Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones mobilized pop stars to sell copies of “We Are the World” for African relief. Forty-five singers including Kenny Rogers, Cyndi Lauper and Bob Dylan took part in the 1985 recording marathon, and over $60 million was raised. 

As noted by Mossad agent Gad Shimron in Mossad Exodus (1997) however, “Some sang songs…but Israel was the only country to actually do something.”

While Ethiopia and Israel had full ties in 1961, this stopped in the “wake of the Yom Kippur War, [when] Ethiopia (and 28 African nations) broke diplomatic relations with Israel under the threat of an Arab oil embargo.” Members of Beta Israel were imprisoned on charges of being ‘Zionist spies’ and rebel sympathizers, and religious leaders were closely watched (Jewish Virtual Library)

‘But We’re Not Humanitarian Rescuers’

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin heard about the beleaguered Ethiopian Jews and ordered the Mossad to take action.

But why the Mossad? Rescue operations were not in their realm of expertise. And yet they had specially trained personnel and strategizing skills that just might make it work…

Such a mission reinforced Israel’s commitment to kibbutz galuyot or the ‘ingathering of exiles’ and rescue of any Jewish person in danger, as stated in its Declaration of Independence.

No Place to Land

But even if they could help the Ethiopian Jews escape, Israeli planes could never land in the country’s mountains. 

Ethiopian Jewish school teacher Ferede Aklum was wanted by the authorities for suspected collusion with rebels and treason for encouraging people to emigrate to Israel (Berg). After escaping to neighboring Sudan, he was somehow able to send a cryptic letter to a Jewish organization in Europe- a message that came to the Mossad’s attention.

If a teacher could make it to Sudan, they wondered, could the rest of the community?

Pros, Cons…and a Miracle

In theory, Sudan was ideal for rescuing Beta Israel as it was flat to Ethiopia’s mountains. However, it would be a treacherous journey with wild animals, violent bandits and intense heat. In addition, Islamic Sudan was closely tied to the Arab countries and thereby hostile to Israel, necessitating extreme caution in hiding the participants’ Jewish identities. 

Mossad head agent Dani Limor posed as an anthropologist studying native peoples, as that was “the only half-authentic way to be able to be in the area of the camps… [as] white men.”

One day, the agents spotted red roofs in the distance. It was an abandoned hotel, left in disrepair when the government failed to deliver on basic infrastructure amenities. “Any secret agent…intelligence agent…dreams about a perfect cover- and we came across it,” exclaimed Limor ("Red Sea Diving Resort": The True Story).

Come Dive With Us

Posing as hotel managers and diving instructors, Mossad agents bought and renovated the building, claiming to be from a Swiss tourist agency. 

And it worked. The Arous Holiday Village became a new hot spot for diplomats on holiday and divers wishing to explore the Red Sea. Billed as “the divine and desert recreative center of Sudan,” the Mossad now had a legitimate cover. 

Mivtza Achim/Operation Brothers

Members of Beta Israel in the Sudanese refugee camps were secretly contacted and in the middle of the night, escaped by foot and then driven to the resort. They were subsequently guided to small boats and then navy ships en route to Israel via the Red Sea. 

Neither the tourists nor the employees were aware of the resort’s true purpose.[1] By day, the agents would lead diving classes; by night, they would smuggle Ethiopian refugees. They would then return, “carrying on as though nothing had happened.”

Almost Busted…

While the operations took place at night, there was always the danger of being discovered. One complication was the Ethiopians insisted on wearing white due to the trip’s sacred nature.

Another was the airplanes, overwhelmingly foreign to the rural people. As time was of the essence, the planes literally had to land, load and leave in 15 minutes. To get the Ethiopians on board, the Israelis quoted Shemot (Exodus) 19:4 when G-d brought the Israelites out of slavery, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me”. 

It was a mission constantly on the edge of danger. Agents recalled being surrounded by a group of armed Sudanese soldiers just as they were about to load a group. 

“For a second, I thought we were finished,” said agent Shimron. 

Suddenly, one of his colleagues confronted the soldiers; “He was yelling at them for shooting at poor defenseless tourists who had paid good money for a night-dive,” said an astounded Shimron. “The Sudanese, who had never seen any tourists or diving for that matter, were so confused, they folded.” 

Miraculous Rescues

In total, Operations Moses, Joshua and Solomon[2] plus Operation Brothers would airlift over 20,000 Ethiopian Jews out of danger (1984-1991). “For the Ethiopian Jewish community, these operations made possible the fulfillment of a centuries-long dream: to return to their ancient homeland” (Jewish Unpacked). 

As noted by Berg, “there was nothing like it before and nothing like it since.”


[1] Though there was a moment where they were almost exposed by a tourist as he casually observed only Israelis chopped their salads so finely! (

[2] Operation Solomon just marked its 30th anniversary (Jewish Unpacked)

Back to top

© Concordia University