The Falash Mura
by Mitchell Bard
Ethiopian Jews have been the targets of missionaries for many decades. When the missionary
activity intensified at the end of the 19th century, large numbers of
the Beta Israel community converted. From approximately that time until Israel began to actively help the Jews immigrate, members of the Beta
Israel community have abandoned their faith. Some did so because they
were pressured or persuaded by the missionaries, others responded to
social pressure and some may have viewed conversion as a way to improve
their economic condition (for example, they could then own land). These
people who had once been Jews, or, more often, whose ancestors had been
Jews, are referred to as the Falash
The origin of the term "Falash Mura" is unclear. A census
of converts was conducted in the early 1980's in Ethiopia and the Jew
who helped with the work called them faras muqra, an Arabic phrase that
literally means "crow horses." Another explanation was that
the term came from the Agau and means "someone who changes their
faith." The Falash Mura did not refer to themselves as Beta Israel
until after the Jews had begun to immigrate to Israel.
The Falash Mura were virtually unknown until Operation Solomon, when
a number attempted to board the Israeli planes and were turned away.
The Falash Mura said they were entitled to immigrate because they were
Jews by ancestry, but the Israelis saw them as non-Jews, since most
had never practiced Judaism and were not considered by the Beta Israel
as part of the community.
Ethiopian Jewry activists
maintained that the Falash Mura had been
forced to convert or had done so for pragmatic
reasons without ever really abandoning their
Jewish faith. At The North
American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ)
began to provide aid to the group in Addis
that had not returned to their homes after
being left behind during Operation
Solomon. Once food and medical care
became available, more Falash Mura left
their villages for Addis and soon began
to overload the meager resources of NACOEJ.
Distribution Committee entered
the picture and provided additional assistance
on a humanitarian basis, without accepting
the NACOEJ contention that they were Jews
entitled to go to Israel.
As the number of Falash Mura in Addis grew, the Israeli position hardened.
The official view was that these people were not Jews and, if they had
ever been Jews, it was in the distant past. Most were now practicing
Christians who simply wanted to get out of Ethiopia by any means possible
and saw an opportunity to escape by claiming to be Jewish and thereby
earning the right to immigrate to Israel. The Israelis were convinced
this motivation would encourage tens of thousands, perhaps most of the
Ethiopian population to claim Jewish heritage. The Israeli government
was simply not going to absorb the entire Ethiopian population.
Returning to Judaism
The Falash Mura also viewed
themselves as Jews who just needed help to
reconnect with their faith. Given the opportunity,
the activists argued, they would become
practicing Jews. Subsequently NACOEJ
began to offer them religious instruction.
The Israelis saw the situation differently. They maintained the Falash
Mura were committed Christian believers who were being coached to behave
like Jews for the sole purpose of getting out of the country. After
all, if they were interested in returning to Judaism, why did they wait
until it became clear this was a way to escape? The official line was
that given the opportunity the Falash Mura would abandon any pretense
of being Jews as soon as they arrived in Israel.
Though the Jewish establishment in the United States accepted the Israeli
government view, the congregation of growing numbers of Falash Mura
in Addis Ababa became increasingly embarrassing. Activists pointed to
thousands of poor, starving, sick people who wished only to go to Israel
and the argument over their authenticity became secondary to their welfare.
The Israeli government set up a committee in 1992 to resolve the question
of the Falash Mura. The committee discovered that 2,000 had succeeded
in reaching Israel during Operation Solomon. Some of these people had
already demonstrated they had at least one Jewish grandparent and therefore
qualified under the Law
of Return for automatic citizenship. Some Falash Mura were also
allowed to immigrate on the basis of family reunification. Thus, for
example, if an Ethiopian Jew married a non-Jew, they would be allowed
to bring the non-Jewish spouse's parents with them to Israel. Jews from
other countries were usually not permitted to do this. The committee,
headed by Absorption Minister Yair
Tsaban, decided the Falash Mura should not be allowed to enter Israel
under the Law of Return but nevertheless recommended that the refugees
in Addis be allowed to come on humanitarian grounds.
A Humanitarian Gesture
Finally, in 1997, all the organizations involved with the Falash Mura
decided a solution needed to be found to empty the compounds so no more
people would come. The government agreed to a one-time humanitarian
gesture to bring to Israel everyone in Addis with some connection to
the "seed of Israel." Afterward, the camps were to be closed
and future immigration was to be based on the criteria used for immigration
from all other countries. The government agreed that would be allowed
to come to Israel.
Israel decided the 4,000 Falash Mura then in the capital would be brought
to Israel in groups rather than all at once. Though most did not enter
under the Law of Return, they received all the benefits of immigrants
who did. The only other people who were brought en masse to Israel in
such a humanitarian gesture were refugees from Kosovo and the Vietnamese
boat people. In 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu declared the evacuation of the Falash Mura was complete.
From that point on, the government said, Ethiopians would only be allowed
to immigrate on the basis of the Law of Return.
The government's humanitarian gesture stimulated more Falash Mura to
come to Addis in expectation of similar treatment. After an initial
estimate of fewer than 10,000 Falash Mura, the number soon ballooned
to more than 30,000. As more arrived, conditions worsened, the embarrassment
intensified and the activists called for additional humanitarian steps.
The Situation Today
The Israelis find themselves in a no-win situation. They do not want
to simply accept unlimited immigration from Ethiopia. They are convinced
that tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians
will claim Jewish heritage if they do not follow strict procedures for
determining eligibility to immigrate. In the meantime, the large numbers
of Falash Mura who settled in camps in Gondar and Addis have created
a severe humanitarian problem. They need jobs, shelter, food. These
needs cannot be ignored, but, at the same time, if better services are
provided, it will only attract more Falash Mura to the camps.
The Falash Mura are also in an impossible situation. While Jews virtually
everywhere else in the world stay in their homes until they are given
permission to immigrate, the Ethiopians uprooted themselves and have
nowhere to go. Their land, cattle and homes have been bought or confiscated
by their neighbors. It no longer matters why they left, whether by force,
coercion or encouragement from activists, they are now living as urban
slum dwellers. They will either be cared for by humanitarian organizations,
allowed to immigrate to Israel, live a subsistence existence or die.
In early 2001, nearly 20,000 Falash Mura remained in
camps in Gondar and Addis. Approximately 8,000 live in their villages
near the camps. The Israelis accelerated their consideration of applications.
The first priority was being given to divided families, then those eligible
under the Law of Return and finally humanitarian or rare special cases.
About one of three applicants was found to be eligible.
The Falash Mura received
additional support in 2002 when Rabbi
Ovadiah Yosef, whose 1973 recognition
of the Beta Israel as Jewish had paved the
way for the large-scale immigration of Ethiopian
Jews, declared that the Falash Mura had converted
out of fear and persecution and therefore
should be considered Jews.
Israel established a quota
of 300 immigrants per month and advocates
for the Falash Mura became increasingly upset
by the slow pace of the immigration, especially
as reports began to circulate about worsening
conditions in the camps where thousands lived
awaiting permission to emigrate. In January
2005, Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon decided that all of the Falash
Mura from Ethiopia would
be brought to Israel by
the end of 2007. Beginning in June 2005,
the number of Ethiopian immigrants per
month was supposed to double. This did
not happen and little was done to expedite
the mass immigration of the Falash Mura.
The Israeli government claimed it
was not moving forward on plans for Falash
Mura aliya because of a request by the
Ethiopian government. Israel realizes
that it cannot bring in thousands of Ethiopians
without the cooperation of the government
On the other hand, American
organizations such as the NACOEJ and the
Jewish Agency blamed the Israeli government
and the Interior Ministry in particular
for stalling the immigration. NACOEJ
claimed that Ethiopia did not receive
a written request from the Israeli government.
The UJC is not as quick to blame the Israeli
government and believed the Prime Minister
would keep his word.
The Israeli government approved the entry of the “last group” of Ethiopian Jews in November 2015, aiming to finish what was started by Operation Moses 30 years prior. This announcement comes two years after Israeli government officials claimed that no Jews remained in Ethiopia. There have been several supposedly “last” groups of Ethiopian Jews that have made aliyah to Israel, with the most recent group of 450 arriving in Israel in 2013. It is estimated that this proposal approved the entry into Israel of approximately 9,100 Ethiopian Jews, most of whom were at the time living in refugee camps in Adis Ababa and Gondar. The first group of this new wave of Ethiopian immigration to Israel arrived eleven months after the initial announcement, on October 9, 2016. Knesset members and other government officials met the group of 63 Falash Mura Jews at Ben Gurion Airport, to welcome them to their new lives.
Support and Relief
The Jewish Federations gave
$900,000 to the Falash Mura and voted in
June 2005 to raise $160 million over three
years for Falash Mura aliyah and the continued
integration of Ethiopians already in Israel.
In July 2005, the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee (JDC) decided to increase its aid
to Addis Ababa. The JDC gave $40,000 to help
curb persistent hunger in the area.
Before 2005, the JDC was
adamant that their aid be used to fund medical
care or to feed the community's children.
According to the NACOEJ, the JDC's contribution
was not sufficient. An increase of hunger
and unemployment, however, was largely caused
by the closing of the NACOEJ compound in
Addis Ababa. The closure of the building
also resulted in a discontinuation of the
NACOEJ's food supply to the community.
The JDC did not respond
to NACOEJ's requests, but rather, to pleas
by Ethiopia's Justice Ministry. The JDC also
conducted its own investigations, and concluded
that hunger is increasing among the Falash
The $40,000 was intended
for the temporary survival of the Falash
Mura. The JDC plans to support the community
until they are allowed to make aliya. Although
Prime Minister Sharon has granted the community
permission to come to Israel, the group's
immigration has been delayed by both the
Israeli and Ethiopian governments.
In November 2005, Ethiopian
and Israeli government officials signed an
understanding that would double the rate
of Ethiopian immigration to Israel from 300
to 600. “We have worked,
and will continue to work at all levels to
end the suffering of those in the camps living
in difficult conditions,” Foreign
Shalom said, referring to Falash Mura
waiting in compounds for permission to come
“I hope that by the end of 2007,
we can complete the immigration of the
entire Falash Mura community.” The
operation will be called the Yona program
after both the biblical prophet and Yona
Bagola, an Ethiopian Jewish leader during Operation
In 2007, an estimated 3,000
Falash Mura lived in Addis and another 12,000
in Gondar City. Altogether, approximately
18,000 Falash Mura were believed to still
be in Ethiopia.
A senior Jewish
Agency official in Ethiopia said
in July 2007 that the Israeli government
planned to bring all the remaining Ethiopians
eligible to make aliya to Israel before the
end of 2008. The official said 1,816 Falash
Mura had received permission to emigrate
and approximately 4,000 would ultimately
be accepted. Another 4,000, however, would
be refused entry because they did not meet
The last official airlift
of Ethiopian Jews landed in Tel
Aviv on August
5, 2008, bringing to an end Israel’s
30-year effort to bring all of the Jews to
Israel. The Jewish Agency said its emissary
to Addis Ababa had been recalled, though
officials may still be sent out
to help an estimated 1,400 Falash Mura apply
to immigrate as part of efforts to reunite
them with relatives already in Israel. A
month later, the Israeli Cabinet agreed to
allow additional Ethiopians petition for aliyah and said they would be permitted
entry if they satisfied three criteria: They
must be listed on a 1999 census of the Falash
Mura; have been living for at least a year
in Gondar where Jewish aid groups have provided
services; and have relatives in Israel who
can petition on their behalf. The number
of Ethiopians who could qualify may be as
high as 8,700. Some activists maintain that
still more Jews remain in Ethiopia, but the
government said it had brought the
entire community to Israel, a total of roughly
Still, more Falash Mura
remained in Ethiopia after the “final” airlift.
Several thousand were in a Gondar transit
camp as of the end of 2009. In early January
2010, Israel began to accept small numbers
out of Ethiopia again, with the first group
of 82 arriving on January 19 and another
group of 61 expected a day later. The Israeli
government said it would accept approximately
3,000 Falash Mura. Jewish organizations have continued to provide aid, medical care and education to the Jews in Gondar.
In July 2012, the Israeli government decided to increase the rate of aliyah from Ethiopia to 160 per month for the next 10 months. In November 2012, the government launched Operation Dove's Wings to bring the remainder of the Falash Mura to Israel more quickly. The first flight in this operation brought 240 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Meanwhile, Ethiopian Jews
in Israel continue to have mixed feelings
about the Falash Mura. Some feel resentment
because they maintained their identity despite
the pressures and opportunities while the
Falash Mura did not. Others have relatives
among the Falash Mura and want to be reunited.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials say many of
the Falash Mura reverted to their Christian
ways as soon as they reached Israel, while
the activists insist the opposite is true,
that most have converted back to Judaism.
Telegraphic Agency, (July 19, November
10, 2005, August
5, 2008; September 18, 2008; October 29, 2012 )
Post, (July 7 & November
10, 2005; July 13, 2007); Ynet,
(January 19, 2010)
Spector, Stephen. Operation
Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian
Jews. NY: Oxford University Press,
Post, (January 31, 2004)