“Once they were kings. A half million strong, they matched their faith with fervor and out-matched the Muslim and Christian tribesmen around them to rule the mountain highlands around Lake Tana. They called themselves Beta Israel—the house of Israel—and 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 Falashas—the 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, November 9, 1979).
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 prisoner—it 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 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’état. 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 villages—though they were denied the right to own the land—with 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 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.
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.
As Ethiopian Jews congregated in Sudanese refugee camps, the Mossad decided to launch Operation Brothers to accelerate their evacuation to Israel by sea. Agents discovered a deserted village on the coast of the Red Sea, in the middle of nowhere and rented it for three years for $320,000. The Mossad turned Arous into a resort where agents taught diving and windsurfing while using it as a cover for rescue operations. The agents would go to Khartoum to meet groups of Ethiopian Jews smuggled out of refugee camps and transport them to a beach near the resort where they were picked up by Israeli navy special forces. They were taken in Zodiac boats to a waiting naval vessel, the INS Bat Galim, which took them to Israel.
After the operation was nearly exposed in March 1982, the Mossad decided to airlift the Jews on C130 Hercules planes from a landing spot in the desert. After two airlifts, the Sudanese authorities because suspicious and the Mossad was instructed to find another airstrip. They found a spot in the desert near Gedaref and another 17 clandestine flights of cargo planes packed with Jews made the trip to Israel.
More than 8,000 Beta Israel came to Israel between 1977 and 1984 through various covert missions, primarily on Operation Brothers. That operation was run over three years in Sudan where the Mossad set up a diving resort along the Red Sea that served as a cover for rescue operations.
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.
The famine in Sudan at the end of 1984 prompted the Mossad to accelerate the evacuations. U.S. Vice President George Bush asked the Sudanese leader, Jaafar Nimeiri, to allow Israel to fly the Jews directly from Khartoum with the caveats that they remain secret and travel via Europe rather than directly to Israel. In a series of 28 covert airlifts, on Boeing 707s lent by a Jewish Belgian airline owner, 6,380 Ethiopian Jews were flown to Brussels and then straight on to Israel between November 18, 1984, and January 5, 1985. The rescue was codenamed Operation Moses.
The operation had been conducted under a news blackout for security reasons, but news leaks (blamed primarily on a December 6, 1983, article in the Washington Jewish Week and full page advertisements placed by the United Jewish Appeal), forced the mission to end prematurely on January 5, 1985, as Arab nations pressured the Sudanese government to prevent more Jews from using Sudan to go to Israel. Sudan ordered an end to the flights and Nimeiri denied colluding with Israel. He was already under domestic pressure unrelated to the rescue operation and was overthrown by army officers on April 6, 1985.
The Mossad was subsequently ordered to evacuate the resort and six agents left on a C130 that landed in the desert. Throughout the operation, the Israelis had continued to run the diving resort and entertain the guests. Arous Village even turned a profit, which was partially used to finance the rescue. Shortly after the agents left, the resort shut down.
By the end of Operation Moses, 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 would occur. 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.
More than 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-130s—seats removed to accommodate the maximum number of Ethiopians—began 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.
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 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 Yosef, 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 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.
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 brought 240 new Ethiopian immigrants.
In July 2012, the government decided to increase the rate of aliyah from Ethiopia to 160 per month over the following 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.”
The Bal Ej Jewish community is a group residing in the North Shewa region of Ethiopia, who hide their Judaism out of fear of persecution. Bal Ej means craftsman in Amharic, the local language. Their neighbors refer to them as buda, or evil-eyed, and believe through superstition that they take the form of hyenas at night. Members of the Bal Ej community are often hunted down and killed by people from neighboring villages, who blame their own hardships on them. The group faces economic exploitation based on false accusations and unsubstantiated claims and cannot sell products that they make directly to consumers. Christian merchants who sell their pottery and weavings for them at the local markets often take most of the profits from the sales.
To keep up appearances, members of the Bal Ej community attend church on Sundays after attending secretive services at their Synagogues lying deep in the woods on Saturday nights. Members of the community adhere to strict religious doctrine, including observing Biblical laws of purity and engaging in animal sacrifice. To the right, please find the trailer for a documentary made on the Bal Ej Jewish community by filmmaker Irene Orleansky.
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, including a group of 450 who arrived 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.
On November 16, 2017, 69 Jews arrived in Israel from Ethiopia.
Just one Ethiopian Jewish family was allowed to immigrate to Israel in 2018.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited Ethiopia with a delegation of business and community leaders in May 2018, the first ever Israeli Head of State to do so. Rivlin met with government officials to discuss cooperation in various areas and held meetings with Falash Mura community members waiting to emigrate to Israel.
On September 17, 2018, Israel announced plans to accept 1,000 more Ethiopian Jews out of an estimated population of 8,000; the fate of the remainder is uncertain. The first of these, a group of 82, landed in Israel on February 4, 2019. Only Jews with first degree family already in Israel were included in the government’s decision. They can bring their partners and any unmarried children who do not have children of their own.
Israel has repeatedly pledged to bring all the Ethiopian Jews to Israel, but each time it thinks it has done so, thousands more appear claiming to be Jews. Many Ethiopians see immigration to Israel to escape their situation in Ethiopia and Israeli officials have expressed skepticism about their connection to Judaism.
Although a cabinet decision in 2015 promised to bring the entire Falash Mura community to Israel over a five-year period, the government never budgeted the roughly $55 million per year needed to absorb them.
On February 9, 2020, the government approved the immigration of 398 Ethiopian immigrants, including 43 who arrived late February and 72 (14 families) who arrived on March 24 just before Ethiopia officially closed its land borders as a response to the COVID-19 virus.
More than 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel. The Ethiopian community in Israel still faces many problems, such as poverty, lack of education, and racism, but large strides are being made every day.
Israel has long had a strategic interest in Ethiopia, which is the second most populous country on the continent, with 100 million inhabitants. In late 1957 and 1958, Ben-Gurion sent agents to three non-Arab countries – Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia – to explore possibilities for an alliance. In the case of Ethiopia, the nation is located in the Horn of Africa and has a coastline along the Red Sea.
The approach to Ethiopia was made after the Suez War and the Gulf of Aqaba had been recognized as an international waterway. Hence, Israel saw Ethiopia’s port as a gateway not only to Ethiopia but to the rest of Africa. In addition, as a predominantly Christian nation, Ethiopia is, along with Israel, the only non-Muslim riparian state and therefore a deterrent to Arab efforts to make the Red Sea either an Arab or an Islamic lake. When Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran in 1956, it became particularly clear to Israel’s leaders that it was necessary to have a friend on the Red Sea coast in order to avert any future blockades. That waterway would become progressively more important as the amount of Persian Gulf oil moving to Israel from its new friend in Iran increased. It became even more significant in the 1970s after the Suez Canal reopened and traffic resumed between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.
In addition to Ethiopia’s strategic location, Israel believed that Ethiopia’s stability was a key to the stability of the Horn of Africa, and that it was in Israel’s interest to prevent Ethiopia’s subversion by Egypt or Saudi Arabia. The most overt threat to Ethiopia came from Somalia, which Israel had also approached in the hope of establishing diplomatic ties, and by which it had been consistently rebuffed. That predominantly Muslim country, moreover, joined the Arab League, thereby convincing Israel of the need to solidify its relationship with Ethiopia.
From Ethiopia’s perspective, the alliance with Israel was also advantageous since the late 1950s was the period of Nasser’s greatest influence and, hence, most threatening to Ethiopia. There were also long historical ties between Ethiopia and the Jewish people, and personal ties between Emperor Haile Selassie and not only the Jewish people but also Palestine.
Haile Selassie considered himself “the Lion of Judah,” a direct descendant of the Jewish people. Moreover, after the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1936, Haile Selassie and his family as well as many other Ethiopians spent part of their time in exile in Jerusalem. Six years later, when he returned to Ethiopia, the Emperor established the first modern links with the Jews of Palestine. The first Israeli delegation arrived in Ethiopia in 1955 for the celebration of the Emperor’s Silver Jubilee. The following year the Israeli consulate opened to handle not only the diplomatic activity, but also the commercial relations which had begun when Israel built a meat-packing plant in Asmara.
By 1959, the trilateral alliance was informally in place, and Haile Selassie derived an almost immediate benefit when Israel helped save his reign. In December 1960, when Haile Selassie was visiting Brazil, a coup was attempted in Ethiopia. On December 14, supporters of the Emperor sent out signals to alert the Israelis. Ben-Gurion ordered a plane to pick up the Emperor and transport him to Asmara. Here he rallied his forces and smashed the rebellion.(17)
Despite the alliance, official diplomatic relations were kept in low profile until May 1962, when the Emperor announced the Israeli consulate would be upgraded to an embassy. Prior to that, there had been some hesitancy to associate openly with Israel. One of the main reasons for Ethiopia’s earlier reluctance to establish ties with Israel relates to the issue mentioned above regarding the need for Arab votes in the UN. As long as the future of Eritrea remained in doubt, Ethiopia could not afford to alienate the Arabs. In addition, Ethiopia hoped to obtain UN support for its claim to Italian Somaliland, but that territory became independent Somalia in July 1960.
Ethiopia was also concerned over the threat posed by Nasser, but after his military defeat in 1956, Ethiopia recognized that Israel could help it right communist and Nasserist subversion. Thus, when Israeli representatives approached Haile Selassie after the Suez War to discuss the possibility of joint political and economic cooperation, the Emperor was amenable. Soon after, in fact, an Israeli consulate was opened in Addis Ababa and an Ethiopian consul was sent to Jerusalem. By the time the Emperor gave Israel de jure recognition in 1962, the Israeli secret service Mossad had sent agents to train the Ethiopian police, and economic and cultural relations between the two countries had begun to flourish.
While Nasser vowed to expel Israel from Africa, Israel’s presence in Ethiopia grew. In fact, Israel’s military mission became second in size only to that of the United States. Israel also ran a variety of foreign assistance programs in the fields of education, agriculture, industry, banking, and urban planning. Nevertheless, the number of Israeli experts in Ethiopia never exceeded 100. As for trading benefits, however, Ethiopia was not a very useful trading partner since it could not provide for Israel’s most pressing needs. Consequently, trade between Israel and Ethiopia never grew beyond small quantities of marginal goods.
The beginning of the decline in Israel’s relationship with Ethiopia might be traced to the civil war in Eritrea. Asrate Kassa, appointed as Eritrea’s enderase (regent) in 1964, advocated close relations with Israel because of his concern am pan-Arabism and the politicization of Islam in the Horn of Africa. Kassa had 10 to 12 Israeli advisers on counterinsurgency working closely with him to build and strengthen his police force and commandos. The Ethiopian army, according to one Israeli military official, was efficient only in killing innocent civilians and was succeeding only in alienating the Eritrean people. As Kassa’s influence waned, he was eclipsed by his rival, Prime Minister Habta-Wald Akilu, who opposed Ethiopia’s de facto alliance with Israel and preferred to solve the Eritrean problem by appeasing the Eritreans’ Arab allies and by eliminating the rebel organizations through military force. As Akilu’s influence increased, Israel’s diminished; at the same time, the Arab and Muslim influences in Addis Ababa also increased.
Israel and Ethiopia continued to share common interests such as sending weapons to the Anya-Aya rebels in the Sudan. But Akilu’s pressure on Haile Selassie to sever relations with Israel intensified. In May 1973, Libya used the OAU meeting in Addis Ababa to press Ethiopia to sever its relations with Israel. In the following months, Saudi Arabia also increased the anti-Israel pressure. Similar pressures applied to the no of black Africa finally resulted in all of Israel’s friends on the continent severing their ties with the Jewish state.
The Arab members of the OAU achieved their goal by threatening to move the organization’s headquarters from Addis to another capital such as Cairo. Ethiopia caved into this threat, and formally severed relations with Israel an October 23, 1973, thus breaking the Ethiopian link in Israel’s periphery policy.
Although the Arabs put great pressure on Ethiopia to sever relations, Chanan Aynor, a former Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia blames the United States for Haile Selassie’s decision and the subsequent rebellion that ended his reign. According to Aynor, the Emperor went to the United States in the spring of 1973 to ask President Nixon for urgently needed aid to counter the Somali threat to Ethiopia. Since Nixon was already embroiled in Watergate. however, the Emperor’s mission was a failure. Haile Selassie told Aynor that Ethiopia would have to break relations with Israel because it could not afford to defy the Muslims. He denied being hostile to Israel, but complained that he had no money, and his supply of arms would last only a few days. The Emperor’s subsequent effort to finance Ethiopia’s requirements by raising taxes precipitated Ethiopia’s social revolution.
Breaking relations with Israel hastened Haile Selassie’s fall because the withdrawal of his Israeli military advisers disrupted the military. According to Professor Haggai Erlich, the Israelis served as the only communication link between the lower- and higher-ranking soldiers. Since the top Ethiopian officers were not in the least concerned about the mood of the lower ranks, the departure of the Israelis prevented the top officers from learning of the lower ranks’ growing disaffection which soon expressed itself as a revolution. Erlich also claims that when the Emperor expelled the Israelis, the Ethiopian people saw this as an indication that the Emperor was becoming senile, for they regarded this action as a betrayal of their history and tradition.
Haile Selassie was deposed, a bloody revolution ensued, and a Marxist council came to power. Although the Dergue, as the council was called, did not restore diplomatic relations with Israel, the two nations remained friendly. Thus, for example, Ethiopia abstained from voting for the Arab-sponsored “Zionism is racism“ resolution at the United Nations in 1975. Under the Marxist regime, Israeli involvement and trade with Ethiopia gradually increased. Israeli “ports to Ethiopia, for example, more than doubled from 1975 to 1979.
The Arab world continued to support the Eritrean rebels who were now fighting their fellow Marxists, while Israel continued to support the central government. Recognizing this, the revolutionary government under Haile-Mariam Mengistu secretly invited Israeli military advisers to return to Ethiopia in December 1975. By the middle of 1977, probably no more than 25 or 30 Israeli military advisers had been posted to Ethiopia, and they were providing only low-level military training for the Ethiopian troops. They were also carrying out intelligence work for the Mossad, probably with the blessing of the United States whose influence in the country was waning.
Having begun selling the new government small amounts of arms, Israel succeeded in negotiating an exchange of arms for Ethiopian Jews in 1977. That agreement was shattered when Moshe Dayan revealed the secret Israeli arms pipeline to Ethiopia in a press conference in February 1978. Thereupon, the furious Ethiopians expelled the Israelis. Within four years, however, the Israelis were back in Ethiopia and were once again selling arms to the Ethiopian government. In the interim a significant change had taken place in Ethiopia, with the government shifting its loyalty away from the United States and toward the Soviet Union.
On February 24, 1977, President Carter announced the United States was cutting off all military aid to Ethiopia because of its human rights violations. The unstated reason was the U.S. desire to cooperate with Saudi Arabia to lure Somalia’s from the Soviet camp, an effort which was ultimately successful.
Ethiopia retaliated by closing the American consulate in Asmara, the Kagnew station, and the United States information programs. The following week, the Dergue abrogated the military assistance agreement.
While the Israelis foresaw that these actions would give the Soviets their long-sought opening, they were still able to retain the favor of the Ethiopians by continuing the Israeli opposition to Arab and Muslim expansionism and to the rebellion in Eritrea. When Menachem Begin made his first trip to the United States after being elected in the summer of 1977, he tried unsuccessfully to persuade President Carter to resume aid to the Ethiopians.
Since the Soviet Union was rather slow about moving into Ethiopia, Israel was still able to play a role in Ethiopia, primarily by providing spare parts for American weapons. After the Ethiopian army failed to defeat the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in November 1982, Mengistu invited the Israelis back as technical advisers to his intelligence service. Following the Lebanon war, Israel sold Ethiopia Soviet arms which it had captured from the PLO in Lebanon.
Israel sought to repair its relations not only with Ethiopia, but with the rest of Africa as well. The African nations gradually realized that the Arab oil-producing nations were not only unwilling to provide them with promised aid but were even undermining their economics by maintaining exorbitant oil prices. With this realization came the revival of African interest in resuming relationships with Israel which they had previously found beneficial.
In 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the first visit of an Israeli head of government to Ethiopia, seat of the African Union. Three years later, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to Jerusalem and discussed increasing trade and strengthening security cooperation. “We believe that we can offer some experience, some shared experience that we have garnered because of our unfortunate need to defend ourselves,” Netanyahu told Ahmed.
From Israel’s perspective, according to Daniel Benaim, a former adviser to President Obama, the relationship could help “deny Iran a foothold on the African side of the Red Sea from which it could transship weapons into Gaza and beyond.”
In April 2021, Israel dispatched a medical team to aid in Ethiopia in fighting the coronavirus.
Sources: Mitchell Bard, From Tragedy to Triumph: The Politics behind the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry, (CO: Greenwood: 2002);
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;
“Israel approves 'last' round of Ethiopian immigration,” Al Arabiya (November 15, 2015);
The Secret Jews of Ethiopia, Jerusalem Post, (August 16, 2015);
The 'secret Jews' of Ethiopia emerge from the shadows, Arutz Sheva, (December 20, 2015);
Raffi Berg, “The holiday village run by spies,” BBC News, (April 19, 2018);
Rivlin lands in Ethiopia for first visit by an Israeli president, Times of Israel, (May 1, 2018).
“1,000 Ethiopian Jews allowed to immigrate,” AP, (September 17, 2018);
Michael Bachner and Melanie Lidman, “Ending long wait, Israel welcomes 82 Ethiopian immigrants,” Times of Israel, (February 5, 2019);
“Netanyahu looks to boost security coordination with Ethiopia,” AFP, (September 1, 2019);
Lisa Klug, “Hours before border closes, 72 Ethiopian immigrants land in Israel overnight,” Times of Israel, (March 24, 2020).
“Israel to dispatch medical team to aid in Ethiopia's COVID battle,” Ynet, (April 22, 2021).