"Let My People Go"
The History of Ethiopian Jews
“Once they were kings. A half million strong, they matched their faith with and out-matched the Moslem and Christian tribesmen around them to rule mountain highlands around Lake Tana. They called themselves Beta Israel-house of Israel-and used the Torah to guide their prayers and memories of 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, 9
For centuries, the world Jewish community was not even aware of the existence of the Jewish community of Ethiopia in the northern province of Gondar. The miracle of Operation Solomon is only now being fully understood; an ancient Jewish community has been brought back from the edge of government-imposed exile and starvation.
But once they were kings. . .
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 actually 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’etat. 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 into 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 began.
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.
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.
Over 8,000 Beta Israel came to Israel between 1977 and 1984. But these efforts pale in
comparison with the modern exodus that took place during 1984’s Operation Moses.
Under a news blackout for security reasons, Operation Moses began on November 18, 1984, and ended six weeks later on January 5, 1985. In that time, almost 8,000 Jews were rescued and brought to Israel.
But the mission was not without problems. Because of news leaks (blamed primarily on a December 6 article in the Washington Jewish Week and full page advertisements placed by the United Jewish Appeal), the mission ended prematurely as Arab nations pressured the Sudanese government to prevent any more Jews from using Sudan to go to Israel. Almost 15,0000 Jews were left behind in Ethiopia.
Thus, by the end of Operation Moses in January 1985, 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 actually occurr. 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 800 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.
Over 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 twice the number of Jews in Operation Moses and Joshua, in a mere fraction of the time. Though it is too early to predict their impact on Israeli society, the 36,000 Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel (rescue efforts are under way to transport the remaining 2,100 Ethiopians who wish to emigrate to Israel) will play an important role in Israel for generations to come.
Four Theories on the Origins of Ethiopian Jewry
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:
- The Beta Israel may be the lost Israelite tribe of Dan.
- They may be descendants of Menelik I, son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba.
- They may be descendants of Ethiopian Christians and pagans who converted to Judaism centuries ago.
- They may be descendants of Jews who fled Israel for Egypt after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and eventually settled in Ethiopia.
Excerpted from “Reunify Ethiopian Jewry,” World Union of Jewish Students
Community Origins and History
How did the Jews reach Abyssinia?
The early days of the Beta Israel (House of Israel) community in Abyssinia remain a mystery. There is no doubt that the roots of Judaism were influential in this part of Africa at a very early date –perhaps even as far back as the First Temple period. Since there are no factual data from those times, and given the Ethiopian Jews’ racial resemblance to native Ethiopians, various theories have been proposed concerning the origins of the community, based on superficial research of their traditions, customs and roots.
Many aspects of Ethiopian culture still show traces of Judaic influence. The Abyssinian Church is considered very close to ancient Judaism, with customs such as circumcision, a form of Sabbath observance, dietary laws similar to those found in the Tora, and other practices preserved in its doctrine. We know that before the spread of Christianity in the 4th century CE, the Mosaic faith was practiced in Abyssinia, alongside the idol worship which still remains widespread.
According to Ethiopia national legend, the founder of the royal dynasty, whose last monarch was Negus (Emperor) Haile Selassie –the symbolic and titular “Lion of Judah” –was the son of the Queen of Sheba (Makida, according to the legend) and King Solomon. The son, Menelik, as an educated adult, returned to his father in Jerusalem, and then resettled in Ethiopia together with many members of the Israelite tribes, including priests and Levites. He also smuggled the Ark of the Covenant and the Tablets of the Law out from Jerusalem, and brought them to Aksum, capital of ancient Abyssinia. The Jews of Ethiopia do not generally accept this legend, and take it to be mere fabrication. However, this old tradition only strengthens what we know from other sources –that there was an early Jewish influence in Abyssinia .
A 9th-century tradition, based on the story of Eldad ha-Dani (the Danite), maintains that during the rift between Rehoboam, son of Solomon, and Jeroboam, son of Nebat –leaders of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel respectively –the tribe of Dan chose not to be drawn into tribal disputes. To avoid the impending civil war they resettled in Egypt. Once there, the Danites continued southwards up the Nile to the historic Land of Cush (today in Sudan and Ethiopia) and found it to be rich in resources. Eldad ha-Dani himself was probably from this area. According to his report, members of the tribes of Naftali, Gad and Asher lived there together with the Danites, and he himself could trace his ancestry back to Dan, son of Jacob.
This tradition, which may have a certain Biblical basis, is also found in other medieval sources. Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro came across two Abyssinian Jewish prisoners of war in Egypt in the late 15th century and wrote that they claimed to be descended from the tribe of Dan. Rabbi David ben-Zimra (RaDBaZ) ruled in his 16th century responsa that the Jews of Ethiopia were unquestionably Danites who had settled in Abyssinia, possibly even before the Second Temple period. The tradition appears to have been widely held by the Jews of Abyssinia and the surrounding areas until recently, though this is no longer the case today.
At the time when the Ten Tribes were exiled to Assyria (during the reign of King Hosea, son of Elah of Israel, approximately one century before the First Temple was destroyed and Judah was exiled), the Prophet Isaiah prophesied the End of Days, when the dispersed people of Israel and Judah would be gathered in from their place of exile. Cush is one of the places mentioned.
And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord will set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant of His people, that shall remain from Assyria and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. And He will set up an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the dispersed of Israel, and gather together the scattered of Judah from the four corners of the earth. (Isaiah 11:11-12)
The return of the people living “beyond the rivers of Abyssinia” to “the place of the name of the Lord of Hosts” is prophesied in detail in Isaiah 18:7 and Zephania 3:10. These sources are sufficient to demonstrate Jewish presence in Ethiopia towards the end of the First Temple period.
After the destruction of the First Temple, the Jewish community in Egypt expanded. Findings discovered at the beginning of this century in Yev (Elephantine) in southern Egypt on the Nile, near Aswan (the area of Biblical Pathros) indicate there were Jewish communities near the Sudanese border dating at least to the Return to Zion in the Persian period. The Jews of Yev, like those of Abyssinia, built a temple and performed sacrifices, but did not reject the sanctity of Jerusalem and its Temple. Similarly, Onias’ Temple, in Lower Egypt, dates from the Second Temple period. Other similarities in traditions and special customs support the evidence of a link between the ancient Egyptian Jews and those of Ethiopia.
Other sources tell of many Jews who were brought as prisoners of war from Eretz Israel by Ptolemy I (322-285 B.C.E.) and also settled on the border of his kingdom with Nubia (Sudan).
It can therefore be assumed that the Jewish communities in Pathros were destroyed and that the Jews headed south in search of a new place to live along the most convenient route –up the Nile via Sudan to its sources around Lake Tana in northwest Ethiopia. Ethiopian Jews live there to this day.
Another tradition handed down in the community from father to son asserts that they arrived either via the Quara district in western Ethiopia, or via the Guango River, where the Nile tributaries flow into Sudan. Some accounts even specify the route taken by the forefathers on their way upstream from Egypt.
These waves of exiles, each arriving in a different period, probably converted some of the native people, which could explain the physical resemblance between Ethiopian Jews and non-Jews. It should be made clear that Jewish sources do not regard external appearance and skin color as indicative of Jewishness in any way. Indeed, it is well known that Jews bear a resemblance to the Gentile populations of their various Diaspora surroundings.
Various scholars have provided other theories. Some view Beta Israel as descendants of the tribe of Agau, which converted to Judaism in ancient times. Others regard the community as descendants of converted Yemenite Arabs or of Yemenite Jews who were brought to Abyssinia during the Abyssinian rule of the Yemen and who intermarried with the Agau tribe in the early centuries of the Common Era. Some even consider Beta Israel a Gentile community with traces of Jewish tradition.
There are inconclusive theories, based chiefly on racial similarity and a superficial study of traditions, community customs and Hebrew sources.
In summary, it may be assumed that Jews reached Abyssinia as early as the last First Temple period, and that additional groups came after its destruction, and during the Second Temple period, via Egypt and the Nile. Converts, and perhaps even Jews from the Yemen, probably reinforced and increased the Jewish community, which was already established and exerting great influence in the regions surrounding Lake Tana.
One fact is clear from all the sources: The Falashas have always regarded themselves as Jews, believers in the Faith of Moses, exiled from Eretz Israel, and quite distinct from the native Gentiles. They were also regarded as such by the Christian, Muslim and idol-worshipping Ethiopian communities around them.
Timeline of Ethiopian Jewish History
4th Century CE – Christianity is introduced into the Axum dynasty in Ethiopia.
7th Century – With the spread of Islam, Ethiopia is isolated from most of the Christian world. The Beta Israel enjoy a period of independence before the power struggles of the middle ages.
9th Century – The earliest apparent reference to the Beta Israel appears in the diary of Eldad Hadani, a merchant and traveler claiming to have been a citizen of an autonomous Jewish state in eastern Africa inhabited by the tribes of Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher.
13th Century – The Solominic dynasty (which claims decent from Solomon and Sheba)
assumes control. During the next 300 years (1320-1620), intermittent wars are fought between the Christian kings of Ethiopia and those of the Beta Israel, which finally result in the Beta Israel’s loss of independence.
16th Century – Rabbi David B. Zimra, known as the Radbaz, issues a legal response in Cairo declaring that “those who come from the land Cush (Ethiopia) are without a doubt the Tribe of Dan…” He confirms that Ethiopian Jews are fully Jewish.
1622 – Christians conquer the Ethiopian Jewish Kingdom following 300 years of warfare. The vanquished Jews are sold as slaves, forced to baptize, and denied the right to own land.
1769 – Scottish explorer James Bruce awakens the western world to the existence of the Ethiopian Jews in his travels to discover the source of the Nile. He estimates the Jewish population at 100,000.
1855 – Daniel Ben Hamdya, an Ethiopian Jew, independently travels to Jerusalem to meet with rabbis.
1864 – Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer, the Rabbi of Eisenstadt, Germany, publishes a manifesto in the Jewish press calling for the spiritual rescue of Ethiopian Jewry.
1867 – Professor Joseph Halevy is the first European Jew to visit the Beta Israel, subsequently becoming an advocate for the community.
1904 – Jacques Faitlovitch, a student of Professor Joseph Halevy, makes his first trip to Ethiopia to visit the Beta Israel. He commits his life on their behalf and actively tries to reconnect the community with the rest of world Jewry. He establishes the first “pro-Falasha” committees in the United States, Britain, and Palestine (under the control of the Ottoman Empire) and takes the first Ethiopian Jewish students to Europe and to Israel to increase their Jewish education.
1908 – Rabbis of 44 countries proclaim Ethiopian Jews to be authentic Jews.
1935-1941 – The Italian fascist army conquers Ethiopia and meets fierce resistance from the Ethiopian partisans, including the Jews.
1947 – Ethiopia abstains in the United Nations vote for the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine.
1955 – Israel’s Jewish Agency builds numerous schools and a teachers seminary for the Jews of Ethiopia. Two groups of Ethiopian Jewish students are sent to the Israeli youth village of Kfar Batya to learn Hebrew and other Jewish subjects.
1956 – Israel and Ethiopia establish consular relations.
1958 – Israel sends two public health teams to Ambober in the Gondar Province where most Jews are located.
1961 – Ethiopia and Israel begin full diplomatic relations.
1969 – The American Association for Ethiopian Jews is founded by Dr. Graenum Berger.
1970’s – ORT (Organization for the Rýehabilitation and Training) sets up schools, clinics, and vocational training centers in Ethiopia.
1973 – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, rules, following the Radbaz, that the Beta Israel are from the tribe of Dan and confirms the Jewish identity of the community.
1974 – Emperor Haile Selassie, ruler of Ethiopia since 1930, is overthrown in a coup. A Marxist regime is established and headed by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. This begins a wave of violent acts throughout the country, some severely affecting the Jews.
1975 – Agrarian Reform, meant to benefit tenant farmers, including Jews, creates a violent backlash by traditional landowners and much suffering for all of Ethiopia’s citizens. Israel, in an attempt to improve relations with Ethiopia and secure freedom for the Beta Israel, renews military assistance to Ethiopia after Somalia besieges it on the southeastern border. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren agrees with the 1973 opinion of Rabbi Yosef. Interior Minister Shlomo Hillel signs an ordinance to accept all Ethiopian Jews officially under the Israeli Law of Return. Ethiopian Jews are granted full citizenship and receive the full rights given to new immigrants.
1976 – Approximately 250 Ethiopians Jews are living in Israel.
1977 – Prime Minister Menachem Begin comes to power in Israel. He requests that Colonel Mariam allow Israel to transport approximately 200 Jews to Israel in an empty Israel military jet returning to Israel from Ethiopia.
1977-1984 – Approximately 8,000 Ethiopian Jews are brought to Israel by covert action.
1980 – Canadian Association for Ethiopian Jews is founded in Toronto, Canada.
1982 – North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry is founded by Barbara Ribakov
Gordon, in New York.
1984 – The massive airlift known as Operation Moses begins on November 18th and ends on January 5th, 1985. During those six weeks, some 6,500 Ethiopian Jews are flown from Sudan to Israel. Attempts are made to keep the rescue effort secret, but public disclosure forces an abrupt end. In the end, an estimated 2,000 Jews die en route to Sudan or in Sudanese refugee camps.
1984-1988 – With the abrupt halting of Operation Joshua in 1985, the Ethiopian Jewish community is split in half, with some 15,000 souls in Israel, and more than 15,000 still stranded in Ethiopia. For the next five years, only very small numbers of Jews reach Israel.
1986 – The United States Congressional Caucus for Ethiopian Jewry is established with over 140 representatives currently listed.
1987 – The Ethiopian leaders in Israel organize an assembly at Binyanei Ha’uma in Jerusalem, where the Israeli public comes together in solidarity for reunification of Ethiopian Jewry. Prime Minister Shamir, Absorption Minister Yacov Tsur, Knesset Speaker Shlomo Hillel, International Human Rights Lawyer Erwin Cotler, and Natan Scharansky participate in the conference.
1988 – The World Union of Jewish Students holds a conference on Ethiopian Jewry in Ashkelon with a closing ceremony at President Herzog’s home. Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Pinchas Eliav, makes a formal statement at the United Nations Human Rights Commission for the reunification of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
1989 – Ethiopia and Israel renew diplomatic relations. This creates high hopes among Jewry for the reunification of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
1990 – Ethiopia’s ruler, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, makes a public statement expressing desire to allow Ethiopian Jews to be reunited with family members in Israel.
1991 – With Eritrean rebels advancing on the capital each day, Colonel Mengistu flees Ethiopia. Israel asks the United States to urge rebels to allow a rescue operation for Ethiopian Jews. Spanning the 24th-25th of May, Operation Solomon airlifts 14,324 Jews to Israel aboard thirty-four El Al jets in just over thirty-six hours. Despite letters from the chief Rabbis of Israel Prime Minister Shamir refuses to allow the Falash Mora to board the planes
Present – Because of their decrease in population, some Jews in Ethiopia are attacked. Together with their relatives urging them to leave their villages for Gondar so that they can get to Israel, 18,000 leave their villages for these two cities. Refugees International conducts an investigation concluding that it is, “unconscionable for Israel to delay, year after year, the consideration of claims by Judaic Ethiopians that they are eligible for immigration.” It suggests that aid be provided immediately and that a census be conducted to determine the size of the community. The census is conducted by an independent body and concludes that the Falash Mura constitute an inclusive group. The religious revival continues with 2,400 children attending Hebrew School and many thousands attending daily prayers. Prominent Israeli Rabbis as well as the leadership of the Conservative, Reform, and Modern Orthodox movements call on Israel to bring them in immediately. Israel delays processing them. The Joint Distribution Committee stops all assistance aside from limited medical treatment. Hundreds die. A famine begins in Ethiopia as the world awaits the deaths of over 8 million people in danger of starvation. The Jewish community fails to react. The Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry is formed to awaken world Jewry’s conscious.