Ethiopia encompasses the largest mountainous area in Africa, characterized by dramatic climatic changes and by a wide variety of natural vegetation. The second largest country in Africa after Nigeria, Ethiopia’s population is over 90 million, most living in rural areas. 80% of the country’s population lives in mountainous terrain 1500 meters above sea level.
The Jews of Ethiopia lived mostly in villages scattered over vast areas in northern and northwestern Ethiopia. Their villages were mostly separate from the Christian villages, and they ran their own social and economic affairs. The history of Ethiopian Jews up until their aliya is one of the great wonders of Jewish survival in the Diaspora. They were isolated from Jerusalem and any connection to the Jewish world, believing that they were the last surviving guardians of the Jewish religion and the Mosaic Torah.
Ethiopian Jews devotedly preserved Jewish traditions. They were often the subject of oppression by the ruling Christian kings. Their efforts continued even after the creation of the State of Israel, was hesitant to consider them Jews and bring them to Israel in the framework of the Law of Return. This uncertainty derived mainly from the religious establishment which to this day has issue with their definition as Jews.
It was in 1973 that Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, then the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, officially recognized the Judaism of the Jews of Ethiopia. In 1977, in response to pressure, Prime Minister Menachem Begin proclaimed: “Bring me the Jews of Ethiopia.” Significant immigration to Israel began only in the 1980′s.
At the end of the 1970′s, community activists began to plan and carry out the journey to Israel through the Sudan. The longing for Zion, the aspiration to realize an ancient dream and reach Jerusalem, to build and be built, reuniting with the Jewish people in the Jewish land, intertwined to make this one of the most extraordinary, momentous journeys in the history of the Jewish people in general and the Ethiopian community in particular.
In 1977, 30 Jewish families moved from Ethiopia to Israel. By 1984, between 3,000-4,000 Jews had immigrated, mostly from the Tigray region. Operation Moses followed, during which about 6,500 Jews made aliya, most from the Gondar area. At the same time, approximately 4,000 Jews lost their lives in the Sudan deserts and refugee camps.
Following a long, frustrating period of separation within families, in 1991, Operation Solomon brought some 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel over the course of 36 hours. During the 1990′s, Jews continued to come to Israel in smaller waves through the embassy in Addis Ababa, after long waits in camps there.
In 2014, there are approximately 130,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin living in Israel.
History of Ethiopian Jews
There are scant written records regarding the point in time when Jews came to Ethiopia and from where. There are three hypotheses in this regard. The most widespread belief is that Ethiopian Jews are the descendants of the Dan tribe. During the split between the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, the Dan tribe decided not to take part in the dispute, traveling to Egypt and from there along the Nile to the land of Kush, where Ethiopia and Sudan are located today. There is a Biblical foundation for this tradition – the prophet Isaiah prophesies the return of the 10 tribes living in exile including those in the land of Kush (Isaiah chapter 11, 11-12). An additional source is a Jewish traveler, likely from Ethiopia, Eldad Hadani, who visited Egypt in the 9th century. He tells Jews there about the Dan tribe who migrated to Ethiopia (Kush) at the time of the dispute between the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel.
Another belief connects the Jews of Ethiopia to the long journey made by the Queen of Sheba. In this story, a son named Menelik is born to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. When Menelik comes of age, he travels to Jerusalem to visit his father and then returns to Ethiopia, together with the Ark of the Covenant and members of the Israelite tribe who established a Jewish kingdom.
Yet another account claims that Ethiopian Jews are the descendants of Jewish immigrants from Egypt and Yemen, who migrated into northern Ethiopia – Axum and Tigray, and gradually into central Ethiopia.
There are additional theories but they are less accepted by the community.
The Survival Period
Ethiopian Jews call themselves “Beta Israel,” meaning House of Israel. Christian Ethiopians called them “Falashas,” meaning intruders, foreigners without land. This name was given to Christian rulers, who attempted to forcefully convert its inhabitants, Jews included. The Jews of Ethiopia were hurt physically and economically by the ongoing conflict. At the beginning of the 15th century, Emperor Isaac (1414-1429) threatened that if the Jews would not convert to Christianity, he would nullify their land-owning rights. When they refused to convert, their land was taken from them and they became known as “Falashsas”.
During the reign of Emperor Zera Yakov, known as the “Jew Annihilator”, the persecution continued, however, the Jews of Ethiopia continued to fight back and even increase their influence. At this time the phenomenon of monasticism developed, unique to Ethiopian Jews. These Jewish “monks” filled a crucial role in preserving tradition and in the efforts against the attempts to force Christianity upon the Jewish community. They copied the Orit (Torah) which was circulated among the community. Religious wars and persecution continued up until the 17th century.
Contact with the Jewish World
During the eighteenth century, diplomatic connections between Ethiopia and the European countries increased. As a result, European politicians and missionaries were able to visit Ethiopia. Passage in and out of Ethiopia allowed for the spread of information regarding the Jewish tribe living there and the Jews of Ethiopia discovered that they have kinfolks in Jerusalem. This knowledge strengthened their desire to return to Jerusalem and they believed that they would succeed in doing so with the help of European and American Jews.
In the 16th century, the leader of the Egyptian Jews, Rabbi David Shlomo Ben Avi Zimra determined that the Beta Israel community is Jewish, according to Halacha. In 1855, Daniel Ben Hamediah, a member of the Beta Israel community, was the first Ethiopian who visited Israel and met with the head Jerusalem rabbi in order to discuss the authenticity of Beta Israel’s Judaism.
Between 1855-1862, a messianic movement grew and in 1862, Abba Mahari, a monk and Beta Israel leader set off, together with thousands of followers, for Jerusalem through the Red Sea. They believed that God would miraculously part the sea, as He did during the exodus from Egypt. The end was tragic – many died from hunger and disease while still in Ethiopia. The failed attempt to go to Jerusalem strengthened the feeling of despair that there is no way to reach the Holy Land.
Towards the end of the 1860s, a number of European Jewish leaders recognized Beta Israel as a Jewish community. In 1868 the organization “Alliance Israélite Universelle” decided to send the Jewish-French Orientalist Joseph Halévy to Ethiopia in order to study the conditions of the Ethiopian Jews. Upon his return to Europe, Halévy made a very favorable report of the Beta Israel community in which he called for world Jewish community to save the Ethiopian Jews, to establish Jewish schools in Ethiopia. In 1904, Jacques (Yaakov) Faitlovitch, a student of Joseph Halévy who was intrigued by his former teacher’s findings, began his work on behalf of Jews in Ethiopia. Faitlovitch’s mission to Ethiopia in 1904 and his ensuing activities were of great benefit to the community.
Much of Faitlovitch’s efforts were dedicated to education. He sent about 25 Beta Israel Youths to study in Europe – Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany – and in Jerusalem. In 1923, Faitlovitch established the first modern Jewish school in Addis Ababa, continuing all the while to spread awareness of the Ethiopian Jewish community around the world.
Professor Taamrat Emmanuel, one of the young scholars who had studied in France and Italy, was appointed principal of the school. Following the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, the Emperor fled to England. The Jewish school in Addis Ababa was school was closed in 1936. In subsequent years, Taamrat continued to champion the cause of Beta Israel, often interceding on behalf of the community with Emperor Haile Selassie, to whom he was close.
In 1941, Ethiopia was liberated from Italian occupation by the British, and Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia. From the 1940′s and until the 1970′s there were good diplomatic ties between Ethiopia and Israel and the Ethiopian Jews benefitted from fair conditions.
In 1955 and 1956, groups of Beta Israel youths came to Israel, to study Hebrew and Judaism at Kfar Batya. They later returned to Ethiopia to teach the community.
In 1973 Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, then the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, based on the Radbaz and other accounts, ruled that the Beta Israel were Jews and should be brought to Israel. He was later joined by a number of other authorities who made similar rulings, including the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Shlomo Goren.
The Jews of Ethiopia were isolated from the Jewish world and believed that they were the last remaining Jews. Their dream was to return to their homeland.
The story of the first major aliya of the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel after the failed attempts to do so began with a handful of activists. Some of these activists were suspected of Zionist activity by the Ethiopian regime, and escaped to Sudan in an effort to reach Israel or Europe. From Sudan, they sent letters to acquaintances, some of whom were members of Jewish organizations, recounting their story. The news traveled, reaching Mossad agents in Israel. The agents contacted Khartoum and asked the activists to locate additional Jews and then assisted the aliya of small numbers who then continued to aid the aliya efforts.
One of the activists who were asked to return to the Sudan together with the Mossad was Ferede Aklum. Despite his initial hesitance, he agreed to do so, but before setting out for Sudan, he sent a telegram to his family in Ethiopia, asking them to travel to Sudan where he would wait for them. When Ferede arrived in Sudan, his family members were waiting for him. The rumor about the route to Jerusalem through Sudan spread through Tigray and Wolqayt and Jews began to arrive at refugee camps there, where they were met by Mossad agents and Ethiopian Jews (committee members) who were the contact people.
At first, the waiting periods in Sudan were brief, but as increasing numbers arrived, the operation became more complex. The evacuation was slow, and many families waited for months and even years in the refugee camps in Sudan in horrible conditions.
While waiting, large numbers succumbed to disease, hunger, thirst and infection – women and men, but mostly the elderly and young children who were not strong enough to survive. It is estimated that 2,000 members of the Beta Yisrael community died in the Sudanese camps.
During 1977-1984, 4,000 Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel through the secret operation; most were from Tigray and Wolqayt, while some came from the Gondar area. They left the camps in the middle of the night dressed in dark clothing, arriving at the pick-up points, from which they continued on to the Sudanese coast or a port. There Mossad agents and naval officers waited for them, and transferred the immigrants to airplanes or ships. The first stop in Israel was Eilat and from there they went on to absorption centers around the country.
Because of the increasing dangers in the camps in Sudan, it was decided to find ways to bring the whole community to Israel. Operation Moses, which began in November 1984 and ended in January 1985, airlifted 6,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, most of who came from the Gondar area.
Aliya through Sudan was secret, and its details were known only to a few senior Sudanese officials, and Ethiopian Jews were not permitted to expose their Jewish identity.
The operation came to a premature ending as a result of a leak by a public figure in Israel to the press regarding the secret aliya of Ethiopian Jews to Israel through Sudan. Thousands Jews were left stranded; many died of hunger and disease in the camps in Sudan, some traveled back to Ethiopia and some remained in Sudan. Others, who had not heard that the gates from Sudan had closed, came to Sudan and were then forced to return to Ethiopia.
In the following year, a number of smaller operations brought Jews who had remained in Sudan and Ethiopia to Israel: Operation Joshua, which was conducted by the U.S Air Force, and brought 494 Jewish refugees remaining in Sudan to Israel.
American Jewry, led by the AAEJ (American Association for Ethiopian Jews) played a key role in the lobby for bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel and in raising funds for this effort.
At the time of the sudden halt of Operation Moses, as a result of the exposure of the secret aliya, the political map changed. The Sudanese ruler, who had turned a blind eye to the use of his country as a transfer point for Jews emigrating from Ethiopia to Israel, was removed from office. Pressure rose among Ethiopian Jews, as the community was now split, with large numbers remaining in Ethiopia. Families had broken up. Those who had already arrived in Israel were worried and frustrated. Agitated demonstrations took place, calling to bring the rest of the community to Israel. In 1989, following the renewed ties between Israel and Ethiopia, aliya activities resumed. Many villagers left for Addis Ababa, hoping to reach their loved ones in Israel.
In 1991, rebels against Ethiopian ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam and his army mounted attacks, besieged and eventually took control of Addis Ababa. At that time, about 20,000 Ethiopian Jews crowded together in camps near the Israeli embassy, close to the airport. While tensions heightened, secret talks between Israeli and Ethiopian authorities took place. In addition, American Jewry and the US government were essential in reaching an agreement to undertake the operation.
Operation Solomon took place one weekend in May 1991, led by the Israeli Air Force over the course of 36 hours. In El Al jumbo jets and military C-130 Hercules aircrafts stripped of their seats in order to maximize the number of passengers, 14,325 Ethiopian Jews flew to Israel.(The operation set a world record for a single-flight passenger load, when an El Al 747 carried 1,122 passengers to Israel.) The entire operation was conducted under total military censorship, which was not lifted by the Israeli government until the operation was completed.
The massive airlift is considered one of the most spectacular events in the history of Israeli and the Jewish people.
Since Operation Solomon, Falashmura have been coming to Israel, small groups at a time. About 100 years ago, Christian missionaries working in Ethiopia made great efforts to convert Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews to Christianity. While large numbers held fast to their religious beliefs, others converted as a result of economic pressures and the desire to integrate into Ethiopian society. Those who converted became known as “Falashmura”. At the time of Operation Solomon, hundreds of Falashmura also arrived at the gates of the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa, asking to immigrate to Israel. Prime Minster Shamir was quoted as saying, “First the Jews, and then we’ll see.” Thus, at that time, the Falashmura were not allowed to immigrate to Israel. As increasing numbers arrived at the site where the Beta Israel had camped near the embassy, the demand to allow them into Israel grew, since large numbers had relatives in the country. During the latter half of the 1990′s, the Ministry of Absorption decided to allow those with first degree relatives in Israel to immigrate. Thus began the aliya of the Falashmura, under the heading of family union. This aliya continued in slowly up until recently. In October 2012, the government announced that the Falashmura aliya would conclude in 2013. In October, 2013, 5000 Falashmura who had been waiting in a camp in Gondar, arrived in Israel on Operation Dove’s Wings. Yet, there are still those who remain in Ethiopia whose family members in Israel claim are Jewish. Today an effort to allow them to immigrate continues.