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One Person's Story, a Huge Nation's Saga

This post is dedicated to Major General Amnon Lipkin Shachak, who passed away last week after long fight with cancer. In the words of President Peres: “This is the only battle which he lost.” Shachak was the 15th IDF Chief of Staff, a decorated hero of Israel, but above all, a unique, admired, modest, and charismatic person. He was a super mensch, which is so hard to find any more in our public life. I will never forget how that every year during the Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) ceremony in our community of Maccabim, even when it was clear that he was in pain, during the siren blast he would always be in the first row, standing ramrod straight, showing pride and grief at the same time. This image will always stay with me, symbolizing our nation’s saga. Amnon Lipkin Shachak was the commander of Operation Solomon.

 

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Our story starts 28 years ago. November of 1984. Eight thousand Jews from Ethiopia, who were crossing the Sudanese desert, in a courageous and highly dangerous act of Zionism, were rescued and brought to Israel by an “air train” of Israeli Air Force carriers.

 

The world was amazed to see how Israel became the only nation in history that was actively, heroically, and enthusiastically bringing new immigrants from Africa. The entire Jewish community joined forces in this modern exodus of our people. It was symbolically named “Operation Moses.”

 

A few years later in yet another epic operation, Israeli Air Force planes flew home another 14,000 Ethiopian olim (immigrants) within 32 hours. It was called “Operation Solomon.” Thereafter, Israel and Diaspora Jewry became heavily involved in an attempt to absorb and integrate this beautiful community of Ethiopian Israeli olim into our society. A highly challenging, but very rewarding task.

 

In the beginning of the nineties, I was the director of the Israel Religious Action Center and as part of the nation’s absorption efforts, we created a network of free legal aid centers for new olim. We were constantly looking for legal advisors among the immigrants in order to help bridge the cultural gaps. We found many Former Soviet Union lawyers but no Ethiopians. It was very frustrating.

 

One day I read in the paper that the first Ethiopian Israeli law student, an “Operation Moses” kid, was beginning his second year in Haifa University. The next day I went with Anat Ben-Dor, one of our leading lawyers, to look for him and try to recruit him to work with us.

 

I remember the scene vividly: we found a shy, soft speaking and good looking young man, who felt that the entire community, not to say the Jewish world, looked up to him. He said that he wanted to concentrate on his studies and does not have much time to work with us. We explained to him that he can’t really refuse, since his community relies on him. We also offered him a nice scholarship. He agreed but not because of the scholarship.

 

Amir with Yitzchak Desse (photo by Koby Hemo)
Amir with Yitzchak Desse
(photo by Koby Hemo)
Yitzchak (Itzik) Desse worked with us for a while, graduated successfully, became a lawyer, went into the private sector, completed his master’s degree at American University in Washington, D.C., and then, not surprisingly, decided to give back to his own community. In 2000, he created Tebeka (tebeka.org.il), a nonprofit legal aid organization serving the Ethiopian Israeli community. Itzik is a true role model. He paved the way for more than 300 Israeli Ethiopians lawyers, integrated in all segments of life.

 

I lost contact with Itzik but followed him from afar and felt very proud. A few months ago he asked to meet with me. Over lunch, we discussed potential cooperation between Tebeka and Atzmaut, our own Greater MetroWest Ethiopian integration initiative in Rishon LeZion. Soon enough we found ourselves sharing memories from the old days of the aliyah operations and recalled our first meeting at Haifa University. We have changed and so has the world.

 

At the end of the meeting I asked Itzik for a photo opportunity with him. I thought I might use his story in one of my future blogs but I didn’t expect the following twist: I looked around the café for someone to take our picture. At one of the tables I unexpectedly saw an old childhood friend of mine, Koby Hemo.

 

I approached Koby, asked him to take our picture outside in the garden, and in the meantime caught up with him and told him about Itzik. Koby is an El Al captain and a retired air force pilot. He told us proudly that he will never forget his last operational flight in reserve duty, which became a highlight in his career. It was to Adis Ababa to rescue the remaining Ethiopian community during “Operation Solomon.”

 

He also said that he always hoped to meet with someone who was on his flight that day. Itzik said that he indeed came few years earlier on “Operation Moses” but if he gets the exact day and time, he will look for people who were on Koby’s flight. Itzik, in return, shared his own dream with us, to meet with the Israeli pilot who flew him to Israel as a child in “Operation Moses.” Koby said that if he gets the exact day and time, he will try to find the specific pilot him.

 

We went back to the café. Koby and Itzik shared with each other, on a simple napkin, the unforgettable exact details of their most significant flights. I looked at the scene with tears in my eyes. Two people of my personal history are trying to explore their own and their nation’s history.

 

I haven’t checked with Kobi or Itzik whether they were able to follow up and find the people. It might be too much emotion for one blog. However, another symbolic development happened only few days after this meeting. Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir passed away. When the media discussed his legacy, one of the main achievements that was mentioned was his leadership in commanding and supporting Operations Moses and Solomon.

 

This story for me, on so many levels, is one of the rare occasions in which one experiences a real time encounter between the national and the personal. This will happen again, next month, when two Greater MetroWest leaders, Gary Aidekman and Max Kleinman, will visit the remaining community of Ethiopian Jews in Gondar. It will probably be the last opportunity to see them still living in their country of birth before they all gather in Israel, their homeland.

 

Drishat Shalom,

 





Amir

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