Jerry Weaver died in May 2016, at age 77. I only learned about his passing through an old friend the other day. I learned as well that there wasn’t even a public funeral service for him in his hometown of Newark, Ohio. He literally vanished in utter obscurity. So no one was reminded, and few of his neighbors ever knew, that Jerry Weaver was a hero. Some 10,000 Beta Israel (Falasha) Jews owe their lives to Jerry Weaver, an American Foreign Service Officer who led a rescue operation in 1984 and 1985 that fused together elements of Entebbe and Schindler’s List.
I was a reporter in Sudan at the time. I met him and got to know Jerry Weaver as I interviewed the principal actors in this amazing story. Though Weaver himself was a rebel within the Foreign Service, “Operation Moses,” as it came to be called, demonstrates just how important an operationally minded State Department is not only to American security but to doing good in the world.
In 1984, due to a famine of biblical proportions in neighboring Ethiopia, the Falashas were among millions of starving Ethiopian peasants who migrated to refugee camps in Sudan. Because they were Jews, they were treated even more miserably in that Arab League member country than the other refugees. But also because they were Jews, they actually had a country in the Middle East willing to take them in. The question was how to get them out of Sudan and to Israel without the Israelis having to stage a rescue operation that would have blown up diplomatic relations between the United States and Sudan, a strategically located country straddling the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
Enter Jerry Weaver. Jerry was a big game hunter who insisted on loading the powder itself into each individual cartridge. He hunted gazelles in eastern Sudan and lions and leopards in southern Sudan. He was also a former high school football star who gave up an opportunity to play for the Ohio State Buckeyes in order to join the U.S. Army. When I met him, he was a man in his mid-forties who happened to speak passable Arabic. He was big, with a trimmed beard, and a devouring expression. He looked more than a little like Ernest Hemingway.
Weaver was already in Sudan for six years by 1984 as the U.S. Embassy’s refugee coordinator, and had made many undercover forays as an American official across the border into famine-wracked Ethiopia. He was awkward at diplomatic cocktail parties. He didn’t drink, but he did smoke marijuana. He also had unmatched social gifts for dealing with peasants, truck drivers, Greek ivory traders, local Pakistani merchants, and almost any kind of smuggler.
The U.S. Ambassador to Sudan at the time, the late Hume Horan, himself the best Arabic linguist in the State Department, described Weaver to me like this: “I knew he had his problems. He was living in the wrong century, a gun-in-pants-type fellow. His personal life was messy, sure…. But Weaver had enough swash and buckle in him to break through any barrier.”
Horan, himself the product of boarding schools, Harvard, and the State Department Arabist elite, essentially deputized Weaver to rescue the Falashas. Horan was backed up crucially by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who took a keen personal interest in the operation, but, in the elder Bush’s typical, self-effacing style, never took credit for it afterwards.
Weaver helped convince the Israelis at a meeting in Geneva in October 1984 not to attempt a rescue mission on their own. Instead, he recommended moving roughly 10,000 Falashas from the refugee camp of Um Raquba to Gedaref, and from Gedaref to Khartoum airport, with the full cooperation of the Sudanese security services—and he would more or less arrange it all. From there, chartered planes would fly the Falashas to Tel Aviv by way of Brussels.
Weaver, acting as a go-between for the Israelis and Sudanese state security—backed by Horan, who negotiated the arrangement at a higher level with Sudanese dictator Jaafar Nimieri—arranged safe houses for the air crews, the communications gear, vehicles, armed escorts, mechanics for both the trucks and the aircraft, gifts for the cooperating Sudanese, and food, potable water, and blankets for the refugees waiting in the trucks and on the tarmac. He even flew to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to buy spare parts for the Toyotas and took suitcases full of cash from Israelis in Geneva to purchase everything he needed.
Between November 21, 1984, and January 5, 1985, 35 Boeing 707 flights, carrying 240 Falashas each, left Khartoum: some 8,400 refugees. The remainder of the 10,000 would leave in March in an operation also planned by Weaver but, this time, executed by the CIA. (Operation Solomon, a covert Israeli operation, rescued the remainder of the Beta Israel community in 1991.) Vice President Bush gave Weaver a Superior Honors award for his work.
Those refugees and their descendants in Israel today owe their lives to Jerry Weaver (as well, of course, to others, notably Associate U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs Richard Krieger). But Weaver was, in effect, pushed out of the Foreign Service soon afterward. People like him simply do not thrive in bureaucracies. (Weaver went on to run a farm in Licking County, Ohio.) That’s why it is to Horan’s credit that he took the risk of giving Weaver such a long leash in the operation.
One night Horan went out to Khartoum airport at 1:30 a.m. to witness the dark sea of humanity streaming into the planes. Entering one plane with Weaver, Horan saw the silent passengers, clothed in rags with no suitcases, with three Israeli doctors going up and down the aisles ministering to them, while Sudanese security forces waited outside on the tarmac. Weaver looked at Horan’s face and told me afterwards: “The Ambassador’s eyes were lit up in shock and amazement, as if the whole thing was a revelation to him [even though he had helped plan it]. He seemed to be saying, ‘Hey, this is neat; we’re really doing something here’.”
While this story may represent the Foreign Service at its very best, there are many hundreds of lesser stories from around the world of Foreign Service officers making small miracles happen in the service of their country and humanity. Theory—the world of ideas, with which the policy elite is obsessed—only gets you so far. Jerry Weaver was not a man of ideas. Ideas only matter in their execution.
But keep in mind that Horan and Weaver could not have done what they did outside the context of a robust State Department that emphasized language skills and area expertise. And they could not have done it without the firm, quiet backing of the elder Bush, a man who, even as President, believed in understatement and giving the credit to others—the real heroes who labor in obscurity out in the field while the Washington elite bathe in the klieg lights.