The History of Ethiopian Jews
Once they were kings. A half million strong, they matched their faith with fervor and out-matched the Moslem and Christian tribesmen around them to rule the mountain highlands around Lake Tana. They called themselves Beta Israelthe house of Israeland used the Torah to guide their prayers and memories of the heights of Jerusalem as they lived in their thatched huts in Ethiopia.
But their neighbors called them Falashasthe alien ones, the invaders. And even three hundred years of rule, even the black features that matched those of all the people around them did not make the Jews of Ethiopia secure governors of their destiny in Africa (Falashas: The Forgotten Jews, Baltimore Jewish Times, 9 November 1979).
For centuries, the world Jewish community was not even aware of the existence of the Jewish community of Ethiopia in the northern province of Gondar. The miracle of Operation Solomon is only now being fully understood; an ancient Jewish community has been brought back from the edge of government-imposed exile and starvation.
But once they were kings. . .
Christianity spread through the Axum dynasty of Ethiopia in the 4th century CE. By the 7th century, however, Islam had surpassed Christianity and had separated Ethiopia from its Christian African neighbors.
Prior to this, the Beta Israel had enjoyed relative independence through the Middle Ages. Their reign was threatened in the 13th century CE under the Solomonic Empire, and intermittent fighting continuing for the next three centuries with other tribes.
In 1624, the Beta Israel fought what would be their last battle for independent autonomy against Portuguese-backed Ethiopians. A graphic eyewitness account described the battle:
Falasha men and women fought to the death from the steep heights of their fortress... they threw themselves over the precipice or cut each other's throats rather than be taken prisonerit was a Falasha Masada. [The rebel leaders] burned all of the Falasha's written history and all of their religious books, it was an attempt to eradicate forever the Judaic memory of Ethiopia (Righteous Jews Honored by Falasha Supporters, AAEJ Press Release, 1981).
Those Jews captured alive were sold into slavery, forced to be baptized, and denied the right to own land. The independence of the Beta Israel was torn from them just as it was from their Israeli brethren at Masada centuries before.
The first modern contact with the now oppressed community came in 1769, when Scottish explorer James Bruce stumbled upon them while searching for the source of the Nile River. His estimates at the time placed the Beta Israel population at 100,000, already greatly decreased from an estimate from centuries before of a half-million.
Little additional contact was made with the community, but in 1935 their stability was greatly threatened as the Italian army marched into Ethiopia. Ethiopia's ruler, Emperor Haile Selassie fled his country and actually took refuge in Jerusalem for a short time. Selassie returned to power in 1941, but the situation for the Beta Israel improved little.
In 1947, Ethiopia abstained on the United Nations Partition Plan for the British Mandate of Palestine, which reestablished the State of Israel. By 1955, the non-governmental Jewish Agency of Israel had already begun construction of schools and a teacher's seminary for the Beta Israel in Ethiopia.
In 1956, Ethiopia and Israel established consular relations, which were improved in 1961 when the two countries established full diplomatic ties. Positive relations between Israel and Ethiopia existed until 1973, when, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Ethiopia (and 28 African nations) broke diplomatic relations with Israel under the threat of an Arab oil embargo.
Months later, Emperor Selassie's regime ended in a coup d'etat. Selassie was replaced by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose Marxist-Leninist dictatorship increased the threat to the Beta Israel. During the weeks surrounding Mariam's coup, an estimated 2,500 Jews were killed and 7,000 became homeless.
Soon Mariam instituted a policy of villagization, relocating millions of peasant farmers onto state-run cooperatives which greatly harmed the Beta Israel by forcing them to share their villagesthough they were denied the right to own the landwith non-Jewish farmers, resulting in increased levels of anti-Semitism throughout the Gondar Province. According to the Ethiopian government, over 30% of the population had been moved from privately owned farms to cooperatives as of 1989.
After taking office in 1977, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was eager to facilitate the rescue of Ethiopia's Jews, and so Israel entered into a period of selling arms to the Mariam government in hopes that Ethiopia would allow Jews to leave for Israel. In 1977, Begin asked President Mengistu to allow 200 Ethiopian Jews to leave for Israel aboard an Israeli military jet that had emptied its military cargo and was returning to Israel. Mariam agreed, and that may have been the precursor to the mass exodus of Operation Moses began.
In the early 1980's, Ethiopia forbade the practice of Judaism and the teaching of Hebrew. Numerous members of the Beta Israel were imprisoned on fabricated charges of being Zionist spies, and Jewish religious leaders, Kesim,(sing. Kes) were harassed and monitored by the government.
The situation remained exceedingly bleak through the early 1980's. Forced conscription at age 12 took many Jewish boys away from their parents, some never to be heard from again. Additionally, with the constant threat of war, famine, and horrendous health conditions (Ethiopia has one of the world's worst infant mortality rates and doctor to patient ratios), the Beta Israel's position became more precarious as time progressed.
The government began to slightly soften its treatment of the Jews, however, during the mid-1980's when terrible famines wreaked havoc on the economy. Ethiopia was forced to ask Western nations for famine relief, including the United States of America and Israel, allowing them both to exert a modicum of pressure for the release of the Beta Israel.
Over 8,000 Beta Israel came to Israel between 1977 and 1984. But these efforts pale in comparison with the modern exodus that took place during 1984's Operation Moses.
Under a news blackout for security reasons, Operation Moses began on November 18, 1984, and ended six weeks later on January 5, 1985. In that time, just over 7,000 Jews were rescued and brought to Israel.
But the mission was not without problems. Because of news leaks (blamed primarily on a December 6 article in the Washington Jewish Week and full page advertisements placed by the United Jewish Appeal), the mission ended prematurely as Arab nations pressured the Sudanese government to prevent any more Jews from using Sudan to go to Israel. Almost 15,0000 Jews were left behind in Ethiopia.
Thus, by the end of Operation Moses in January 1985, almost two-thirds of the Beta Israel remained in Ethiopia. They were comprised almost entirely of women, young children, and the sick, since only the strongest members of the community were encouraged to make the harrowing trek to Sudan where the airlift actually occurr. In addition, many young boys were encouraged to make the dangerous trek to freedom due to the low age of conscription, often as young as age twelve.
As Babu Yakov, a Beta Israel leader, summed up, Those who could not flee are elderly, sick, and infants. Those least capable of defending themselves are now facing their enemies alone.
In 1985, then Vice President George Bush arranged a CIA-sponsored follow-up mission to Operation Moses. Operation Joshua brought an additional 500 Beta Israel from Sudan to Israel. But in the following five years, a virtual stalemate occurred in the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. All efforts on behalf of the Beta Israel fell on the closed ears of the Mariam dictatorship.
Meanwhile, those Jews who did escape during Operation Moses were separated from their loved ones while attempting to adjust to Israeli society. The new arrivals spent between six months and two years in absorption centers learning Hebrew, being retrained for Israel's industrial society, and learning how to live in a modern society (most Ethiopian villages had no running water or electricity). Suicide, all but unheard of in their tukuls in Ethiopia, even claimed a few of the new arrivals due to the anxiety of separation and departure.
Over 1,600 orphans of circumstance lived day to day separated from their families, not knowing the fate of their parents, brothers, sisters, and loved ones.
The grim prospect of thousands of Jewish children growing up separated from their parents in Israel almost became a reality. Little could be done to persuade the Mariam government to increase the trickle of Jews leaving Ethiopia in the years between Operations Joshua and Solomon. But in November 1990, Ethiopia and Israel reached an agreement that would allow Ethiopian Jews to move to Israel under the context of family reunification. It soon became clear, however, that Mengistu was willing to allow Ethiopian Jews to leave outside of the guise of reunification. November and December, 1990, showed increased numbers of Ethiopians leaving for Israel. The Ethiopian Jews were finally ready to come home.
In early 1991, Eritrean and Tigrean rebels began a concerted attack on Mengistu forces, meeting with surprising success for the first time since the civil war began in 1975. With the rebel armies advancing each day, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam fled his country in early May. Rebels claimed control of the capital Addis Ababa shortly thereafter, and the situation of the Beta Israel took top priority in Israel. The Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir authorized a special permit for the Israeli airline, El Al, to fly on the Jewish Sabbath. On Friday, May 24, and continuing non-stop for 36 hours, a total of 34 El Al jumbo jets and Hercules C-130sseats removed to accommodate the maximum number of Ethiopiansbegan a new chapter in the struggle for the freedom of Ethiopian Jewry.
Operation Solomon, named for the king from whom one of the theories suggest that the Beta Israel draw their lineage, ended almost as quickly as it began. Timing was crucial, since any delay by Israel could have allowed the rebels to hold the Jews as bargaining chips with Israel or the United States. A total of 14,324 Ethiopian Jews were rescued and resettled in Israel, a modern exodus of the grandest design. Operation Solomon rescued nearly double the number of Jews as were saved during Operation Moses and Joshua, and it did so in a mere fraction of the time.
More than 36,000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel and despite both economic and social hardships, their community has an integral part in Israeli society. In 1999, Avraham Yitzhak became the first Ethiopian immigrant to earn an MD degree from an Israeli medical school. In 2011, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed Rachamim Elazar as Israel's Ambassador to Ethiopia, making him the first Israeli of Ethiopian descent to ever serve as an ambassador for the State of Israel. There are still many problems within the Ethiopian community in Israel - poverty, lack of education, etc - but large strides are being made every day.
Because much of the Beta Israel's history is passed orally from generation to generation, we may never truly know their origins. Four main theories exist concerning the beginnings of the Beta Israel community:
Without regard as to which theory may actually be correct (and each theory has its support), the authenticity of the Jewishness of the community became an issue.
As early as the 16th century, Egypt's Chief Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Avi Zimra (Radbaz) declared that in Halachic (Jewish legal) issues, the Beta Israel were indeed Jews. In 1855, Daniel ben Hamdya, a member of the Beta Israel, was the first Ethiopian Jew to visit Israel, meeting with a council of rabbis in Jerusalem concerning the authenticity of the Beta Israel. By 1864, almost all leading Jewish authorities, most notably Rabbi Azriel Hildsheimer of Eisenstadt, Germany, accepted the Beta Israel as true Jews. In 1908 the chief rabbis of forty-five countries had heeded Rabbi Hildsheimer's call and officially recognized the Beta Israel as fellow Jews.
In reaffirming the Radbaz's position centuries before, Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, Israel's Chief Sephardic Rabbi, stated in 1972, I have come to the conclusion that Falashas are Jews who must be saved from absorption and assimilation. We are obliged to speed up their immigration to Israel and educate them in the spirit of the holy Torah, making them partners in the building of the Holy Land.
In 1975, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren wrote to the Beta Israel telling them, You are our brothers, you are our blood and our flesh. You are true Jews. Later that same year the Israeli Interministerial Commission officially recognized the Beta Israel as Jews under Israel's Law of Return, a law designed to aid in Jewish immigration to Israel. The Beta Israel were ready to come home.
Indeed, the Beta Israel were strictly observant in pre-Talmudic Jewish traditions. The women went to the mikvah, or ritual bath, just as observant Jewish women do to this day, and they continue to carry out ancient festivals, such as Seged, that have been passed down through the generations of Beta Israel. The Kesim, or religious leaders, are as widely revered and respected as the great rabbis in each community, passing the Jewish customs through storytelling and maintaining the few Jewish books and Torahs some communities were fortunate enough to have written in the liturgical language of Ge'ez.
The struggle to free the Beta Israel was not fought solely against the Ethiopian government. Much like some timid Jewish leaders during the Holocaust, some recent Jews sought to prevent a shanda fur de goyim (an embarrassment in front of the non-Jews) by not stirring up waves over Ethiopian Jewry.
The history of the Beta Israel's rescue is at times open to debate regarding the heroes of the Ethiopian Jewry movement. As with many struggles to free oppressed Jewry around the world, many advocated and vocalized opposition to those responsible for the lack of action on their behalf. Others, however, argued for a more quiet diplomacy, void of the public demonstrations and arrests that marked the struggle for Soviet Jewry.
Though over 8,000 Beta Israel managed to flee to Israel during his tenure, it was an Israeli official in charge of the Ethiopian Jews' absorption who may best symbolize the insensitivity that an extreme minority of people once held. Yehuda Dominitz who served as Director General of the Jewish Agency's Department of Immigration and Absorption, declared in 1980 that, [taking] a Falasha (sic) out of his village, it's like taking a fish out of water...I'm not in favor of bringing them [to Israel]. Dominitz also refused to allow his agency to rent buses so Ethiopian Jews in Israel could travel to Jerusalem to observe their ancient holiday of Seged (Dominitz eventually relented, but had the buses take the Beta Israel to Haifa instead of Jerusalem).
Malkah Raymist, a writer for the World Zionist Organization, wrote in 1956 in The Jewish Horizon (of the Hapoel Hamizrachi of America Movement) that, the reasons [for not bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel] are simple and weighty. On one hand, they are well off where they are, while their development and mental outlook is that of children; they could fall an easy prey of exploitation, if brought here without any preparation. On the other hand, being a backward element, they would be and it would take several years before they could be educated towards a minimum of progressive thinking.
In an American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) press release, the AAEJ quoted its founder, Dr. Graenum Berger, as criticizing those who sought any delay in the rescue of the Beta Israel. Berger declared, Not when Jews are dying...these revelations show once again that the policy of influencing factions of the government of Israel always have been against the immigration of the Ethiopian Jews. And, the same people who controlled their immigration then are controlling it now. These are the same people who gave instructions to the Israeli Embassy in Ethiopia (1956-1973) not to issue immigration visas to any Jew from Ethiopia.
Berger himself came under criticism for his outspoken remarks concerning the Israeli efforts to rescue the Beta Israel, showing that nobody was immune from the rhetoric surrounding the issue.
See also The Falash Mura
Source: Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ). Written by the staff of PRIMER - Promoting Research in the Middle East Region.