The Netflix original movie Red Sea Diving Resort is a dramatization of events in East Africa from 1979-84. The story centers on the migration of Ethiopian Jews out of their suffering in war-ravaged Ethiopia in search of the land of their ancestral hope, Israel. The story centers on Chris Evans’ Mossad officer, who gathers a group of Israelis to help smuggle these Ethiopian Jews into Israel. The purpose of this review isn’t to discuss the movie itself so much as the events it describes and ideas regarding religion that the it generates.
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Are you not familiar with Ethiopian Jews? You are not alone. They often used the self-identification “Beta Israel” (House of Israel), though the other Ethiopians often called them “Falasha” (a pejorative term meaning “outsider”). There are a number of different theories about Beta Israel’s origins. Some think the group broke away from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church at some point in the past due to theological differences, namely a more rigorous holding to the covenant rules of the Christian Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Others, however, have argued that they are from Jewish ancestry. Some think they emerged in the middle of the first millennia from merchants or migrants, either coming from the Arabian peninsula or from the Mediterranean via Egypt and Sudan.
The only tradition presented in the movie, that they are the descendants of the Queen of Sheba who was impregnated by Solomon when she visited him (1 Ki ), is the least plausible of any of the theories. There is a tradition among Beta Israel itself that they are members of the tribe of Dan. Whatever their origin, it is clear that they have a number of differences from Talmudic Judaism. While the argument they are not truly Jewish is one way to explain these differences, a long period of isolation and persecution (including periods of forced “conversion” to Christianity under certain monarchs) could also explain many of the differences. Some examples of the unique elements of Ethiopian Judaism are the existence of a monastic order devoted to preserving Jewish practices against Christian influence as well as the use of the term “Orit” for the Torah (possibly a corruption of the Aramaic term for Torah, Oraita). Overall , however,their practices seem distinctly Jewish.
Unfortunately, the racial discrimination in America that underlies the Black Lives Matter movement is not limited to the United States. It also exists in Israeli society. Although the first Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel in 1977, they were not officially accepted as Jews by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate until January 2020. In the decades between, they have lived in Israel not only as a minority group, but often they have faced the same discrimination and persecution they encountered previously in Ethiopia. They have been the racially targeted by police, including a higher incarceration rate. Donations of their blood in the early 1980s was destroyed for fear it contained HIV (due to their African origins). They also have struggled with high unemployment rates. Even now, the Israeli right of return is denied to the Falash Mura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who “converted” to Christianity under duress–even though these modern descendants identify as Jew and not Christian.
In the movie, there are several Exodus parallels to the story of the Ethiopian Jews. Federe Yazazao Aklum is the Moses-like leader of this exodus. He smuggles members of Beta Israel out of Ethiopia into U.N.-supported Sudanese refugee camps, then coordinates with Chris Evans’ character to get them the rest of the way to Israel. While the movie focuses on Evans’ character, Aklum seems to have been the one who pushed for this operation, writing a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin with a request for assistance. The operation depicted in the movie was known as Operation Brothers. It was later followed by the better known Operation Moses in the mid-1980s and Operation Solomon in 1991. Not only is Aklum the “Moses” to his people, but the story’s escape route literally takes them through the Red Sea in order to reach the promised land of Israel, the land that they had been longing for in the stories they told one another for generations. One delicious irony in the story is the unexpected arrival of a group of German tourists, who think the resort is a real vacation spot. Thus, descendants of Nazi Germany unknowingly bolster the operation’s cover and help Israeli agents to smuggle persecuted Jews out of danger to life and freedom!
If you visit Israel, you should go to the Memorial for the Jewish Immigrants from Ethiopia on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. It is part of the national cemetery, a short walk from Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum). Sadly, the day I visited, I was the only person there during my 30-45 minutes visit. The memorial is an outdoor tribute to those Ethiopian Jews who died in their struggle for freedom and dignity immigrating to Israel. (The photos in this post were taken during my visit in 2019.)