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Fact or Fairytale? Ethiopia's Jewish Heritage

Posted by Gil Travel on Mar 27, 2008 1:34:31 PM

fact or fairytale
Photo by Matias Sanchez

Maybe you have heard about the "lost" Ethiopian Jewish tribes. It may seem a little far fetched to think some Jews originate in Africa - but it is true, and their story is nothing short of remarkable.

They just wanted freedom - and when they couldn't have that, they desperately desired the ability to travel to Israel. You too can come see what they so longed for and tour Israel as a group or individually.

Here is their story...

The earliest apparent reference to the Ethiopian Jewish (or Beta Israel) appeared in 9th Century in the diary of Eldad Hadani, a merchant and traveler who claimed to have been a citizen of an autonomous Jewish state in eastern Africa inhabited by the tribes of Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher.

twelve tribes of israelThe Ethiopian Jewish enjoyed a period of independence before the power struggles of the middle ages.

Struggle for Freedom

Christians conquered the Ethiopian Jewish Kingdom in 1622. The vanquished Jews were sold as slaves, forced to baptize, and denied the right to own land.

In 1769 Scottish explorer James Bruce awakened the western world to the existence of the Ethiopian Jews in his travels to discover the source of the Nile. He estimated the Jewish population at 100,000.

Another important event in the history of Ethiopian Jews occurred in 1855 - Daniel Ben Hamdya, an Ethiopian Jew, independently traveled to Jerusalem to meet with rabbis.

In 1864 - Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer, the Rabbi of Eisenstadt, Germany, published a manifesto in the Jewish press calling for the spiritual rescue of Ethiopian Jewry.

Professor Joseph Halevy became the first European Jew to visit the Beta Israel in the year 1867, subsequently becoming an advocate for the community. In 1904 Jacques Faitlovitch, a student of Professor Joseph Halevy, made his first trip to Ethiopia to visit the Beta Israel.

After this trip he committed his life to them and actively tried to reconnect the community with the rest of the Jewish world. He established the first "pro-Falasha" committees in the United States, Britain, and Palestine (under the control of the Ottoman Empire) and took the first Ethiopian Jewish students to Europe and to Israel to increase their Jewish education.

Declared Authentic

jerusalem western wall
Photo by M Nota

In 1908 - Rabbis of 44 countries proclaimed Ethiopian Jews to be authentic Jews. Further in 1955 - Israel's Jewish Agency builds numerous schools and teaches seminary for the Jews of Ethiopia. Israel and Ethiopia established consular relations in 1956.

In 1973 - Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Israel's Chief Sephardic Rabbi, declared that the Beta Israel are from the tribe of Dan and confirmed the Jewish identity of the community.

But in a turnaround the Emperor Haile Selassie, ruler of Ethiopia since 1930, was overthrown in a coup in 1974. A Marxist regime was established and headed by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. This began a wave of violent acts throughout the country, some severely affecting the Jews.

In 1975 - Israel, in an attempt to improve relations with Ethiopia and secure freedom for the Beta Israel, renewed military assistance to Ethiopia after Somalia besieged it on the south-eastern border.

In the same year, Interior Minister Shlomo Hillel signed an ordinance to accept all Ethiopian Jews officially under the Israeli Law of Return. Ethiopian Jews were granted full citizenship and received the full rights given to new immigrants.

Journey to Israel

jewish freedom
Photo by Matias Sanchez

During 1977 to 1984 approximately 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel by covert action. Further in 1984 a massive airlift known as Operation Moses was initiated to bring about 6,500 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel.

Attempts were made to keep the rescue effort secret, but public disclosure forced an abrupt end. An estimated 2,000 Jews died en route to Sudan or in Sudanese refugee camps.

The Ethiopian Jewish community was 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 managed the journey to Israel.

In 1989 Ethiopian and Israeli diplomatic relations were renewed. This created high hopes among Jewry for the reunification of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

These hopes were further strengthened by public statement of Ethiopia's ruler, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, expressing desire to allow Ethiopian Jews to be reunited with family members in Israel.

In 1991 with Eritrean rebels advancing on the capital each day, Colonel Mengistu fleed Ethiopia. Israel asked the United States to urge rebels to allow a rescue operation for Ethiopian Jews to travel to Israel.

Spanning the 24th-25th of May, Operation Solomon airlifted 14,324 Jews to Israel aboard thirty-four El Al jets in just over thirty-six hours - setting a world record, and a new standard for Jewish freedom.

Don't forget you too can come see what they so loved and travel to Israel individually, or tour Israel as a group.

Further Reading:

  1. United Jewish Communities - History of Ethiopian Jews

  2. Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews

  3. Jewish Virtual Library - Timeline of Ethiopian Jewish History

Topics: Israel Travel, World Travel