Nir Merry during his time with the Israeli navy
Nir Merry during his time with the Israeli navy

South Bay man, former Israeli commando, helped smuggle Ethiopian Jews to Israel

While Netflix subscribers can now get their dose of spies, guns and bare-chested warriors in the just-released “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” an action-thriller about Israel’s secret mission to extricate Ethiopian Jews from Sudan, a real hero of the story lives right here in the Bay Area.

As a former Israeli Navy commando, Mountain View resident Nir Merry was on the ground (and in the water) in Sudan taking part in the operation to save the Ethiopian Jews in the early ’80s.

“Most of my operations were with guns and blowing things [up]. This operation … we didn’t need to use guns,” Merry told J.

Born in 1959, Merry grew up in Ma’agan Michael, a kibbutz founded in 1949 on the Mediterranean coast an hour’s drive north of Tel Aviv. It was there he learned to love the sea. “For me, being in the water was being [in my] element,” Merry said.

Nir Merry at Applied Materials in Santa Clara, where he has worked since 1995. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Nir Merry at Applied Materials in Santa Clara, where he has worked since 1995. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

At 18, Merry joined the Israel Defense Forces, specifically trying out for Shayetet 13, the Israeli equivalent to the U.S. Navy SEALs. His passion for the water was not his only reason for choosing the elite unit; Yochay Ben-Nun and Yosef Dror, both founders of Shayetet 13, were Merry’s neighbors and mentors while growing up in Ma’agan Michael.

The 20-month training period was “grueling,” according to Merry. Hundreds were denied entry into Shayetet 13, but Merry passed and soon found himself taking part in secret operations in various Middle Eastern countries.

Merry’s stint with Shayetet 13 in the late 1970s and early ’80s coincided with an increasingly deteriorating situation for Jews in Ethiopia, known as the Beta Israel, whose synagogues and homes were attacked during a period of increasing violence in the country.

In response, the Israeli government instructed Shayetet 13 and Mossad, the country’s intelligence service, to plan a mission to evacuate as many Ethiopian Jews as possible and bring them to Israel. It was part of Operation Moses.

Nir Merry (on right holding hammer) with his Israeli Navy commando unit (Photo/Courtesy Nir Merry)
Nir Merry (on right holding hammer) with his Israeli Navy commando unit. (Photo/Courtesy Nir Merry)

Merry described the mission as complex; the bay in Sudan where his naval team picked up the Ethiopians and placed them on rubber boats was surrounded by hazardous coral reefs. His team had to scout the reefs during the day, dressed as tourists, and hammer radar reflectors into the coral so they could later pick up the Ethiopians under the cover of darkness.

Merry said that many of the refugees he boarded onto the boats were already in bad health.

“We covered them with wool blankets because we knew it was going to be pretty rough seas, and cold,” Merry said.

Merry spent nights picking up Ethiopian Jews who had hiked for days, sometimes weeks, to reach the rendezvous point. He recalled avoiding armed Sudanese patrols on the coastline and ferrying the refugees to a disguised Israeli Navy ship in the Red Sea.

“We were tired but really excited,” Merry said. “I remember picking [up] an [Ethiopian] lady and you could hear little squeaks. And I realized it was a baby tucked in her dress close to her body. That was eye-opening for me.”

After finishing missions, Merry would join the refugees as they arrived back in Israel, which he vividly remembers. “We really liked them,” Merry said. “They were gentle. We didn’t speak, but we really thought there was a bond. We were both Jews.”

Merry says it’s hard to estimate how many Ethiopians he personally loaded onto boats. “At the Shayetet, nobody claims an accomplishment as their own — it was done as a team,” Merry said.

After his service with Shayetet 13, Merry attended UC Berkeley for undergraduate and graduate studies in mechanical engineering. Since 1995, he has worked at the Santa Clara-based Applied Materials, which makes equipment to make semiconductor chips for consumer goods and solar panels.

Nir Merry (right) diving with his sons Elan (left) and Oren. (Photo/Courtesy Nir Merry)
Nir Merry (right) diving with his sons Elan (left) and Oren. (Photo/Courtesy Nir Merry)

Merry lives in Mountain View with his wife, Linda, and regularly takes diving trips with his children, Elan, Oren and Noa.

His favorite place in the world to dive? It’s a tie among three spots continents away from Africa: Mexico, Malaysia and Belize.

And his specialty is no longer the art of war, but taking photos while diving. “These days, I only shoot photos of fish under the water,” Merry said.

Gabriel Greschler
Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is J.'s editorial assistant.