Israel’s First Ethiopian Air Force Pilot

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In her recent piece sharply distinguishing Zionism from pan-Africanism and white nationalism in Tablet Magazine, my friend and colleague Chloe Valdary makes the case that “Zionism concerns itself with a particular ethnic group, it does not concern itself with a particular race insofar as race connotes skin color.” She notes that “Zionism aimed to liberate all Jews and Jews come in all colors….What binds the community transcends skin color.”

This lack of focus or care on skin tone in the Zionist narrative reminded me of something Daniel Gordis wrote in Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn. Even before Ethiopian Jews were flown to Israel in the 1980s, from 1948 to 1951, Israel absorbed no less than 686,739 Jews, hailing from 70 countries. Gordis notes that this was amongst the most “extraordinary absorptions of immigrants in modern history.” Naturally, this came with some challenges, but the notion that Israel might be an immigrant country for European Jews was simply shattered. Operation Ezra and Nehemia saved the Jews from Iraq. Operation Magic Carpet saved the Jews from Yemen. The famed Operation Moses and Operation Solomon later transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. This moment of caucasian pilots loading up airplanes with thousands of black immigrants is captured well by Gordis, who notes that this “illustrated the Jewish state’s commitment to saving the Jewish people transcended race and color.”

Yet, Israel is real and not mythical. Israel is a country with challenges. It’s not Disneyland. For Ethiopian Jews, there were sometimes overt cases of racism, and it has taken a few decades to climb the social, political, and economic ladders. But something newsworthy happened this past week that you may have missed.

Let’s celebrate this moment and also use it as an opportunity to learn more, ask more questions, and continue to celebrate the diverse communities living in Israel.

See below to learn more.

First Ethiopian-Israeli Air Force Pilot

What Happened? 

Israel graduated its first air force pilot from the Ethiopian-Israeli community. Lieutenant “Yod” completed the intensive and prestigious three-year pilot training course and will serve as a navigator on Israeli Air Force fighter jets. Completing this course is a tremendous accomplishment (only 41 made it through this year), and it is a particular achievement in the Ethiopian community, which has faced challenges in Israel and has been slow to rise through its military ranks.


There are about 140,000 Jews of Ethiopian extraction in Israel today. The Ethiopian community was not present during the early years of the State of Israel and did not experience the natural growth of the Israeli population, but was resettled in Israel decades later due to direct government intervention. The Jews of Ethiopia, self-named “Beta Israel,” trace their heritage back to the lost tribe Dan, one of the original 12 tribes of Israel. These Ethiopian Jews had been disconnected from the rest of Jewish society, both Ashkenazi Jews of European descent and Mizrahi Jews from mostly Arab lands, for over 2000 years. Yet, throughout the years they held onto their Jewish beliefs and customs and yearned to return to the Land of Israel.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Israeli government made this dream a reality. Amid several civil wars and famines in Ethiopia, which killed thousands and endangered the Jewish community, Israel ran Operation Moses in 1984. Over seven weeks, 8,000 Ethiopian Jews traveled through Sudan and Brussels to Israel. An additional 4,000 people who set out on their journey died along the way.

In 1991, Israel completed an even greater feat: Operation Solomon. Over the course of 36 hours, 35 El Al planes (with their seats removed) transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi Chief rabbi in Israel, declared in 1973 that these Ethiopians were in fact Jews from a Jewish legal perspective, but the Ashkenazi Chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, was more tepid about their status as Jews. There is some distinction between two Ethiopian communities and their status as Jews  – Beta Israel and Falash Mura – but that is beyond the scope of this column. Notwithstanding this rabbinic dispute, upon arrival in Israel, Israelis welcomed the Ethiopians warmly, for the most part.

While Israel prepared an elaborate absorption program for the new arrivals, covering issues of housing, education, and employment, it largely ignored vast social and cultural differences, which proved to be a significant obstacle to successful absorption. Ethiopians were coming from remote, rural villages, and were not prepared to work and live in a modern industrialized society, resulting in a strong social marginalization. Today, many complain of poverty, lack of opportunity, and police harassment.

Nonetheless, many Ethiopian-Israelis have succeeded in integrating into Israeli society and accomplishing great things. The country is still young, and the immigrants relatively new and advancing towards full equality is something the country’s citizens are moving towards.

Why This Matters 

Integration of Ethiopian Community – The original Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Israel with no formal education. Unemployment rates in the community have been higher than in the rest of the population. This has been steadily improving over time. A 2015 government initiative to aid integration has proven successful; it includes programs to advance Ethiopians’ education, employment, and army opportunities. The initiative intends to close gaps in the “top” of society, and this young man’s military achievement does just that.

Systemic Racism or Subtle Discrimination – Unlike the United States and its past history of institutionalized racism, when African Americans were condemned to slavery or even more recently in the Jim Crow South, and nothing like South Africa’s policies of apartheid, Israel’s treatment of the African community has in many ways been the exact opposite. It’s simply not part of the country’s history. In fact, Israel is one of the only countries in human history to bring black people to its shores for the purpose of rescuing them from persecution as opposed to oppressing them. That said, there have been complaints of racism in Israel throughout the years, such as police violence and high rates of Ethiopians in army jails (13% of military prison population, though they are 3% of the military). A recent example occurred at the Barkan winery, which prohibited Ethiopians from occupying certain jobs in order to maintain a stricter kashrut standard, in which people of questionable Jewishness would not be allowed to come into contact with the wine. The Israeli public was outraged; Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef condemned that behavior, declaring: “There is no excuse for issuing such instructions other than pure racism.”

Discussion Questions

  1. If Israel has no history of institutionalized racism, where might racist attitudes come from? See this link of the controversial “doll test.” Are racism and discrimination innate qualities or learned?
  2. Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel under very different circumstances than most Jews who choose to move to Israel today. Given the hardships they have faced in Israel, was their move worth it? Do you think most of the group is happy to be living in Israel?
  3. Even though the Ethiopians spoke Amharic and not Hebrew, had never heard of the Holocaust, and rabbinic holidays like Hanukkah were not part of their tradition, Israelis have always felt like they are part of the Jewish people, and saving those people was critical for the Israeli government. What is the common link that unites all Jewish people?

Practical Classroom Tools

  1. Play this video about Operation Solomon. Ask students to journal. What was the immigrant experience like? What were the Ethiopians thinking and feeling when they arrived in Israel? Putting yourself in their shoes; what were the dreams/aspirations, and what were their fears and anxieties?
  2. Some of your students might know this popular Israeli song by Ethiopian-Israeli band Cafe Shahor Hazak (“Strong Black Coffee”), but do they know what it means?
    Here’s a translation of the last few lines:
    My dad always said we must not give up /We are not a generation afraid to speak /
    There is truth that kicks, the walls to monitor, /With rhythms that take you to another place /
    I am Ethiopian / Do not say “I did not know” /
    They didn’t want to give so I took /They’re busy with wars, I kicked

    Part 1: Listen to the song without translation and ask:
    How does this song make you feel?
    What are you feeling in your gut?
    What do you think they are singing about?

    Part 2: Listen to the song with translation and ask:
    How does this song make you feel?
    What are you feeling in your gut?
    What do you think about the artists’ lyrics?

  3. Pose this scenario: You are the mayor of an American city and are told that a large group of Chinese people from rural China are coming to settle in your city. What would you do to ease their transition? How would you make sure they integrate properly? Write out a plan of action. Groups of students can form “city councils” and be responsible for different areas of concern.

Further Reading

  1. Learn about this “mixed” couple who produced a comic book about the plight of Ethiopian Jews.
  2. Read about Dr. Avraham Yitzhak, the IDF’s first Ethiopian Lieutenant and doctor. He is the highest-ranking Ethiopian officer in the IDF.
  3. Listen to the story of Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom, the first Ethiopian-Israeli rabbi.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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