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. . .
- Modern Contact
- The Mengistu Threat
- Operations Moses & Joshua
- Operation Solomon
- Authentic Jews
- Jewish Apathy & its Defeat
- Operation Dove's Wings
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
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
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 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
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
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.
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:
1) The Beta Israel may be the lost Israelite
tribe of Dan.
2) They may be descendants of Menelik I, son of
King Solomon and Queen Sheba.
3) They may be descendants of Ethiopian
Christians and pagans who converted to Judaism centuries ago.
4) They may be descendants of Jews who fled
Israel for Egypt after the destruction of the First Temple in 586
BCE and settled in Ethiopia.
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
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
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
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
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
Operation Dove's Wings
In December 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to bring to the Jewish State the few thousands Jews remaining in the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia. Nicknamed Operation Dove's Wings, the plan sought to fly a few hundred each month to Israel. The first flight brough 240 new Ethiopian immigrants.
In July 2012, the government decided to increase the rate of aliyah from Ethiopia to 160 per month over the proceeding 10 months. In August 2013, the final two flights of Operation Dove's Wings arrived in Israel with 450 immigrants. In a ceremony held at Ben-Gurion Airport, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said: "We are closing a 3,000-year-old circle."
To mark the occasion, Prime Minister Netanyahu released a statement saying, "I am proud that as Prime Minister, beginning in my first term, I upheld the Zionist and Jewish imperative of bringing to Israel our brothers and sisters from Ethiopia. I see this as a moral obligation."
Since the creation of Israel in 1948, more than 125,000 Ethiopian Jews have immigrated to Israel.
Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ). Written by the staff of PRIMER
- Promoting Research in the Middle East Region; Israel Hayom (August 29, 2013); Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs