The Story of Ethiopian Jewry
By Rolene Marks
The dream of Jerusalem sustained them through the centuries. The hope of one day returning home to Jerusalem has been the song in the heart of Ethiopian Jews and home they came.
The story of Israel’s Ethiopian community is extraordinary. It is a story of hardship, tragedy and loss – but it is also a story of incredible hope, survival and fortitude.
Ethiopia’s Jewish community (Beta Israel – House of Israel) had existed in that country for centuries. The origins of Jews in Ethiopia are unclear; though most believe that they are the descendants of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. There are many theories though, some believing they are the lost tribe of Dan, while others believe they are the descendants of Christians who converted to Judaism. The Jews of Ethiopia maintained their independence for over 1000 years in spite of continuous massacres, religious persecution, enslavement, and forced conversions.
In 1616, using modern Portuguese weapons, the Amhara finally conquered the Jews, enslaving, converting or killing many of them. They were referred to as “Falashas” – a derogatory name meaning “stranger” or “exile” – Ethiopian Jews could no longer own land or be educated.
But the dreams of Zion sustained them.
In 1974, civil unrest broke out and a pro-communist military junta, known as the “Derg” (“committee”), seized power after ousting the emperor Haile Selassie I. The Derg installed a government which was socialist in name but military in rule. Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam assumed power as the head of state and Derg chairman. Mengistu’s years in office were marked by a totalitarian-style government and Ethiopia became extremely militarized with heavy financing from the former Soviet Union and the former Eastern Bloc countries as well as Cuba. Ethiopia was effectively a communist state in the 1970’s and 80’s. With this, Ethiopia took on the communist mantles of being both anti-religion and anti-Israel.
The Jews of Ethiopia bore the brunt of this.
Ethiopia in the 1980’s endured a series of famines and hundreds of thousands lost their lives. The images of starving children with distended bellies are seared into our global consciousness.
The situation for Beta Israel became untenable and many started to leave Ethiopia. Ethiopian Jews started the long, arduous journey on foot through neighbouring Sudan to reach the Promised Land. The journey was fraught with danger and many died along the way.
In late 1984, over six weeks, about seven thousand Beta Israel were covertly flown from Sudan to Israel in Operation Moses. Due to pressure from Arab states, Sudan ceased allowing the emigration in January 1985, leaving many Ethiopian Jews stranded.
Months later, the United States evacuated five hundred Jews from Sudan to Israel in Operation Joshua. However, after this operation, Israeli leaders struggled to convince Mengistu to allow the remaining Beta Israel to leave. Finally, in 1990, Israel and Ethiopia reached an agreement that allowed Jewish emigration.
The situation became increasingly more desperate and in 1991, rebel forces seized control of Addis Ababa, the capital, threatening the country with political collapse. Israeli officials embarked on an emergency mission to evacuate as many Jews as possible, dispatching thirty-four planes. Many of these planes had their seats removed to increase their passenger capacity; one set the record for passengers carried aboard a Boeing 747 at 1,087 people. Over thirty-six hours, starting on May 24, 1991, more than fourteen thousand Beta Israel were flown to Israel in the remarkable Operation Solomon. Several babies were born aboard the flights, and numerous doctors were mobilised to assist the sick and the new born babies and moms upon arrival in Israel.
Israel’s rescue was the only time in history that a Westernised country brought out Africans to liberate rather than to enslave.
Today there are an estimate 170 000 + Jews of Ethiopian origin in Israel and many have gone on to achieve extraordinary things in a variety of areas including the Rabbinate, politics, military, fashion, journalism, the arts and many more.
Despite economic and social challenges, including incidents of racism, the community has largely integrated into Israeli society. Efforts continue to bring the remaining Ethiopians with Jewish origins, whose total number is disputed, to Israel.
Israel’s vibrant Ethiopian community, who have fulfilled the dream of returning home to Jerusalem, Zion form a strong part of the fabric of society that makes Israel so very special.
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