Movie review - Red Sea Diving Resort

When we started this series, the initial idea was that we'd end up with a list of film recommendations which would educate and entertain the Green Olive community on issues related to Israel and Palestine. No movie is perfect, but the concept was that each blog post would be about a good film worth watching.

This article, however, does not recommend the film the Dead Sea Diving Resort (2019, directed by Ari Levinson). It is a fascinating, true story, but its retelling is so flawed, with historic inaccuracies and offensive racism, that it is nevertheless a worthy subject to examine.


The plot revolves around the plan to smuggle Ethiopian Jews out of their war-torn and famine-stricken country, via Sudan, to Israel. A bold group of Israeli secret agents, played entirely by American and European actors, manage to open a diving resort in Sudan near the Ethiopian border as a cover to ferry refugees to offshore Israeli navy ships. When the cover works so well that real tourists actually start arriving they don't turn them away, so although they are frequently people smuggling by night, they find themselves actually running a hotel during the day. This amazing true story is enough to get most people excited on its own. Unfortunately, it's all downhill from here.

Muscles, lots of muscles
The characters are bland, the dialogue clichéd, and the plot exposition laboured. A bigger problem is the unashamed white saviour complex which the movie doesn't even seem to recognise as an issue. The heroes of the film are almost entirely English speaking, white, men. The one woman in the team stays at home while the tough guys complete the mission on at least one occasion, and none of the supposedly Israeli characters speak a word of Hebrew throughout the film. The African characters are non-existent or cardboard cut outs.

The main Sudanese character, the arch-villan army general, is a stock African bad guy - groping women, putting his cigar out in a plate of food, and angrily firing a machine gun into the air. Meanwhile, the disdain for Arabic and Islamic culture in Sudan is thinly veiled. Jokes are made at the expense of the American embassy's cultural attaché in Khartoum (for what culture could there possibly be in Sudan?) and our heroes strut around confidently but speak exactly one word of Arabic throughout their supposedly slick negotiations with locals ("shoukran", three times).

But the most offensive treatment is reserved for the Ethiopian characters. Only one is named - Kabede Bimro - played by the underused Michael Kenneth Williams. He speaks in broken English (the Israelis are also played by Americans, but of course manage to perfect their accents) and delivers just a few lines from a predictable script. His role in the real story is even more heroic, having made dozens of trips back and forth to rescue people. The other Ethiopian characters appear only as scared, hungry masses with no autonomy or individual agency. In fact, none of the African characters are given anything other than one emotion throughout.

If only the plot, script and characters were as well formed
Mossad team leader Ari Levinson (played by Captain America's Chris Evans) is the most frequent culprit for delivering many of the film's troubling moments. Several times he says some version of, “we leave no one behind”, usually while shirtless and looking into the sunset. This line is troublesome not only because it is so overused, but also because it reveals a historic inaccuracy which plagues the film's main plot. The plight of the Ethiopian people in the 1970s and 1980s deserves to be examined with more accuracy.


The Jewish community of Ethiopia is known as Beta Israel, and you can read our full article on this fascinating group of people here. Experts are divided on its origins, but most Beta Israelis themselves say they are the Biblical lost tribe of Dan, while others argue they descent from the offspring of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. There are non-Biblical records of Jewish communities in Ethiopia from at least 300 CE and it is thought that by the mid-1800s, somewhere between 200000 and 350000 Jews lived in Ethiopia. This is when many Europeans, mostly British Protestants, launched attempts to convert these people to Christianity.

Sparse links with Jerusalem were maintained only by the very religious, very lucky, and usually, very wealthy. After the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 migration could have theoretically been possible for these people under the 'Law of Return', which allows anyone with a Jewish grandparent to claim Israeli citizenship. But Ethiopia at this time was ruled first by Emperor Haile Salaise and then a Communist military junta, both of whom prohibited people from leaving. In a traditional, rural society there was a severe lack of education and information, so for many Beta Israel Jerusalem existed only in their prayers.

Throughout history many influential Jewish religious and secular leaders have reasserted the Jewishness of Beta Israelis, including the likes of Rabbi David ibn Zimra (1500s), Professor Joseph Halévy (1900s), Ashkenazi Rabbi Abraham Kook (1921), Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1973) and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1975). But there are also influential, shameful, racist attempts to create doubt about the Ethiopians' Jewishness, largely because of the remoteness of this community and the colour of their skin. Disagreement among Jewish religious leaders in the late 1970s over the proper status of Ethiopian Jewry meant that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate forced most immigrants to 'convert' to Judaism upon arrival. After so much historic suffering in their native country for being Jewish, having to prove their Judaism once they arrived in Israel was, for many, deeply insulting.

It is thought something like 8000 people were smuggled out of the diving resort, which is a truly remarkable number - especially when compared with the pitiful number of Ethiopian refugees many larger Western countries agreed to take in. There were also other operations not covered in the film, like Operations Moses and Joshua (which each brought about 8000, mostly on flights via Europe), and Operation Solomon (which transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours). But despite what the Red Sea Diving Resort may tell us, each of these operations left people behind.

Hundreds were left behind by bad luck and circumstance. At least five thousand died during the grueling march through the desert and in Sudanese refugee camps, though the real number will never be known. Many tens of thousands of so-called Falash Mura were left behind, because of their ancestral conversion to Christianity. Many in this group still practice Judaism in Ethiopia today, but the fact that their ancestors may have at some point abandoned the religion (many under duress) throws their status into doubt. In 2019 the Israeli government agreed to allow 1000 of the remaining ~8000 to make aliyah (migrate to Israel) but this decision was reversed in the wake of the corona virus outbreak with little logical explanation. Then of course there were the nearly 50 million Ethiopians with no ties to Judaism. That they were never even considered for rescue shows us how ultimately flawed the Israeli system of prioritsing Jewish people over all others really is.

Many would argue that the Jews of the world claim just one small state, and what is wrong with wanting to keep it Jewish? History shows us that they need it. But the reality is that this land remains, and has always been, mixed. As well as Israeli Jews, Palestinians of many faiths share this space with refugees from places like Eritrea and Sudan, as well an ever-growing number of legal foreign workers from places like India, the Philippines, China and Thailand.

Several times throughout the film we hear of the Beta Israelis' yearning for Jerusalem. They dream of a better life in the holy city. But for the majority of those who made it to Israel, a very different reality awaited them. Adjusting to life in an industrialised, often individualistic society was very difficult. The vast majority of Israel's approximately 130000 citizens of Ethiopian descent do not live in Jerusalem. Typically, the new migrants were given below-par housing in difficult conditions in the country's periphery. Usually without mastery of the Hebrew language, and as the first large group of black people to arrive here, many suffered from terrible racism. Indeed, many still do.

A 2005 Jerusalem Post survey found that 43% of Israelis would not marry someone of Ethiopian descent, and would not want their children to marry someone from the community either. Unemployment is still much higher among Ethiopians and a 2012 report found that on average they earn 30%-40% less than even Arab citizens of Israel (who are themselves a severely under-privileged group). Protests reminiscent of the 'Black Lives Matter' movement in the US gripped several big Israeli cities in 2019 after an off-duty officer killed young Ethiopian-Israeli Solomon Teka in Haifa and many young black men revealed they too suffered from frequent racial profiling and abuse.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating what the Red Sea Diving Resort, and missions like it, achieved. Indeed such remarkable feats should be widely praised. However the hyperbolic way which the film does this is highly problematic, especially when we discover the untold role of many real heroes, when we appreciate the suffering of those who were left behind, and when we understand the difficulties faced by those who did eventually make it to Israel.

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