The Ethiopian Jewish community, known as "Beta Israel" is an ancient community which was cut off from the rest of the Jewish Diaspora centuries ago. There are differing theories as to the community's origins and when they came to Ethiopia.
Most members of the community settled in the northern and north-western sections of Ethiopia. In the 9th century, rumors of the community's existence reached world Jewry through a mysterious tourist called Eldad Hadani and also via Benjamin of Tudela - the most famous Jewish traveler of the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, Rabbi David Ben Zimra (Radbaz) met with a Beta Israel captive in Egypt and determined that the members of this community belonged to the Jewish people.
In 1867 Professor Joseph Halevy was sent to the community as a representative of the French "Alliance Israelite Universelle" organization, subsequently followed in 1904 by his student, Dr. Jacob Faitlovitz. Dr. Faitlovitz dedicated himself to the community and among other projects he worked to establish a Jewish school there.
In the mid-1950's the Jewish Agency for Israel brought two small groups of Beta Israel youths to Israel, where they studied at the Kfar Batya youth village. Some of them later returned to Ethiopia to serve as teachers in their community. The Jewish Agency and Ort Israel worked jointly among the Jews in Ethiopia and founded a school to teach the Hebrew language.
The large Aliyah from Ethiopia began after rulings were issued by the Chief Rabbis of Israel at that time, Rabbi Ovadia Yossef in 1973 and Rabbi Shlomo Goren in 1975, declaring Beta Israel members to be Jews. The first community activists arrived in Sudan in the late 1970's, where they began— with the help of the Mossad — to implement plans to smuggle Jews from Ethiopia to Israel. Between 1977 and 1984 a total of some 7,000 Jews came to Israel on foot, via IDF naval ships and by plane in numerous small operations.
The peak of the trek came in 1984, when thousands of Jews, including women, children and the elderly, arrived in Sudan, led by community and spiritual leaders (Kies).
More then 4,000 members of the Beta Israel community died during the course of the arduous and dangerous journey, which sometimes took months, or during the long waiting period in refugee camps. Most perished as the result of disease, starvation and murderous attacks by marauders.
Due to the imminent danger that threatened the Jews remaining in hostile Ethiopia, a covert aerial evacuation operation was planned. The operation, called "Operation Moses" brought 6,700 Ethiopian Jews to Israel between November 1984 and January 1985. However, the operation was prematurely publicized by the media, causing it to be halted before all the Jews were evacuated. This resulted in families being separated, with some members in Israel and others returning to their villages in Ethiopia. A number of months later, in 1985, within the framework of a small covert operation called "Operation Sheba" an additional 650 people were flown to Israel.
Following a long interruption, a large wave of immigrants left in 1991 in yet another operation, called "Operation Solomon". This complex, well planned operation airlifted some 14,400 people from Addis Ababa to Israel in a single day.
Following Operation Solomon, additional waves of immigrants from the Falash Mura community also began to arrive in Israel. Members of this group, which originally belonged to Beta Israel, returned to Judaism after having converted to Christianity for various historical reasons.
The Aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry represents one of the most fascinating and wonderful stories of the Jewish people and of Zionism. It expresses the fulfillment of an ancient dream as well as the longing for and lasting bond with Eretz Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem.
Educator and translator