There are plenty of movies based on true stories these days, but probably none quite as wild as The Red Sea Diving Resort starring Chris Evans. The upcoming Netflix film tells the story of an unusual spy mission: rescuing Jewish refugees under the guise of running a cheesy beachfront resort.
In the 1980s, following the Ethiopian Civil War, a large number of Ethiopian Jews needed to leave Africa and emigrate to Israel, but getting out of war-torn Ethiopia to Israel proved to be a challenge. Activists who supported the immigration of diaspora Jews to Israel, as well as Israeli Mossad agents, formed a plan. The agents were based in Sudan, and they put out a call to the Ethiopian Jewish community with a promise: come to Sudan, and we'll get you to Israel. They called the operation "Operation Brothers," and it's this operation that The Red Sea Diving Resort depicts.
The general idea was to help the Ethiopian Jews, also referred to as "Beta Israel," get to Israel by taking them in a roundabout way on a journey through Europe. At the time, Ethiopian Jews were facing prejudice and persecution in their home country, as well as general famine and strife following the civil war. In theory, this could get them out of what was becoming an unsafe situation, and it was supported by Israel, which was encouraging diaspora Jews to settle in Israel.
Of course, things didn't quite go to plan. In 1983, with travel restrictions in Ethiopia loosened, more and more Jewish refugees began arriving at the camps in Sudan. The camps weren't prepared for such an influx, and situations rapidly deteriorated. Camps had poor conditions and a lack of food, resulting in thousands of deaths by 1984 as the Mossad was unable to get everyone out in a timely manner.
In the film, Mossad agents and their Ethiopian allies take over a deserted holiday resort in Sudan, using the retreat as a front in order to start smuggling thousands of the remaining refugees out of Sudan and get them to their final destination of Israel. The resort is called "Arous on the Red Sea" (hence the film's name) and is operated, at least in the film's version of events, by the Mossad. Agents would bring groups of refugees to the resort under cover of darkness, then help them onto rafts out to sea, where they could be met by Israeli naval forces to help complete their journey.
In real life, international intervention had to happen before all of the refugees were able to be moved out of Sudan. In November 1984, "Operation Moses" began, with the Sudanese government submitting to American pressure and allowing around 7,200 Ethiopian Jewish refugees to emigrate out of Sudan and to Europe, where they were then able to make the trip directly to Israel. A second wave, in early 1985, was overseen by the US Air Force directly and evacuated the remaining 494 refugees who had not made the first wave for one reason or another.
It's a story that entangles international politics, immigration bureaucracy, and some downright wacky spy hijinks. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, the film's writer-director Gideon Raff explains how some of the details of the "resort" cover wound up a little too good of a cover.
"Real tourists were the best cover they could ask for," Raff explains, and that's exactly what happened: actual tourists showed up, and the agents had to maintain cover by running the hotel, teaching classes on the beach, and even sending travel brochures for their fake resort to European travel agents. It's one of those stories that's so strange, you wouldn't believe it — except that it really happened.