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Ethiopian Jewry: The Falash Mura

by Mitchell Bard

Falash Mura woman making Injera in Gondar in 1996

Returning to Judaism
A Humanitarian Gesture
The Situation Today
American Support and Relief


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. The Joint 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 of Ethiopia.

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.

American 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 Mura.

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 Minister Silvan Shalom said, referring to Falash Mura waiting in compounds for permission to come to Israel. “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 Moses.

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 government criteria.

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 to 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 120,000 people.

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.

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.

On November 16, 2017, 69 Jews arrived in Israel from Ethiopia.

Just one Ethiopian Jewish family was allowed to immigrate to Israel in 2018.

On September 17, 2018, Israel announced plans to accept 1,000 more Ethiopian Jews out of an estimated population of 8,000. 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 are able to bring their partners and any unmarried children who do not have children of their own.

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.

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.

For further updates on immigration and absorption in Israel, see The Situation of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Sources: Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (July 19, November 10, 2005, August 5, 2008; September 18, 2008; October 29, 2012).
Jerusalem Post, (July 7 & November 10, 2005; July 13, 2007); Ynet, (January 19, 2010).
Stephen Spector, Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Jerusalem Post, (January 31, 2004).

“Cabinet approves immigration of 1,000 Ethiopian Falashmura to Israel,” Times of Israel, (October 7, 2018).
Michael Bachner and Melanie Lidman, “Ending long wait, Israel welcomes 82 Ethiopian immigrants,” Times of Israel, (February 5, 2019).

Photo: monaxle, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.