Between 1984 and 1985, a covert series of airlifts known as Operation Moses” transported more than 12,000 Ethiopian Jews from neighboring Sudan to the State of Israel.1 In 1989, diplomatic relations were restored between Jerusalem and Addis Ababa and, “At the heart of this agreement was a commitment on Ethiopia’s part to allow the Falashas2—all the Falashas—to emigrate to Israel.”3
To date, an estimated 64,000 Ethiopian Jews have emigrated to Israel. Some have bright prospects for the future there; many others have met with tremendous difficulties. Meanwhile, thousands of Jews remain on Ethiopian soil, pinning all their hopes on the Promised Land.
I traveled to Ethiopia in October 1999 to learn about the Jewish community in this oldest independent African nation. Having lived in rural parts of my native South Africa, I imagined that I had experienced something of the third-world. But Ethiopia is a third-world country on a vastly different scale, and I found the story of her Jewish people both surprising and shocking.
I had to have six vaccinations and a heavy dose of malaria tablets before I could even board the airplane to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capitol. Upon arrival, I stepped into a different world. Disease and poverty were everywhere. Many legitimate beggars suffering from leprosy or polio lined the red-dirt streets. Despite the destitution, the people of Ethiopia have dignity, even happiness, and they are quite patriotic. I quickly discovered that few people there speak English and that foreigners like myself are looked upon as aliens and referred to as “forenjis”—outsiders.
The Jewish people of Addis Ababa are not native to the town; they were attracted to a compound in the city a decade ago by the Israeli offer of a new life in a new world. The traditional homelands of the Beta Israel (as the Ethiopian Jews refer to themselves) lie far to the north of this compound in the northern provinces of Gonder, Welo and Gojam. Thousands of families have left their rural communities to move into the compounds (there is one in Gonder as well as Addis) and apply personally for acceptance into Israel at the nearby embassy. The process involves proof of an authentic Jewish identity. Once the embassy has been satisfied, Ethiopian Jews are introduced to Israeli culture in the compounds. I saw crowds of Ethiopian Jewish children returning home from school, each holding old, worn Hebrew textbooks. Some proudly showed me their initial attempts to form the Hebrew letters. The compounds also house a synagogue complex where Orthodox Judaism and contemporary forms of the Orthodox Jewish festivals are imparted to Ethiopian Jews (whose Jewish customs and culture are far different and, in fact, far more ancient)4.
Those who have qualified for the next wave of emigration sport temporary Israeli identification cards marked with the flag of Israel. These cards are cherished above all else and those holding them would not do anything to jeopardize their hope of some day reaching Israel. The mentality truly seems to be that all will be well if they can but reach the Land. It is looked upon as a kind of salvation. And the hope of that salvation has cost many of the people dearly.
Because the Beta Israel of Ethiopia have historically lived by subsistence farming, the move to the city means the loss of their homes and livelihood. They find themselves in an African-urban context and try to ply rural-type trades (like metal-working, sewing or clay-production) in order to continue making a living. They don’t always succeed. Hunger and poverty loom larger in the cities than they did back on the farms. Alcoholism has become a major menace.
Not all Beta Israel who come to the compounds fly out of Ethiopia on jets. Thousands of individuals have been waiting for their “exodus” voyage for up to nine years! There are some 12,000 in Addis, another 5,000 in the compound in Gonder and another 6,000 in the vicinity of Gonder. Hundreds of families have been torn apart when husbands are granted permission to move to Israel ahead of wives and children, “to establish the home.” Some never return and their wives and children have not been granted passage in order to follow them. Where once mountains rolled and children played and community thrived, now single people and disconnected segments of families try to make do in a place far less beautiful.
Yeshi Emabet is one example of a woman who became a single parent through this process. Her husband was taken to Israel while she was denied passage because the Israeli authorities had judged that she was too assimilated (influenced by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). Yeshi proudly showed me her Amharic/Hebrew siddur, which she kept next to her bed. She also showed me her Ethiopian Orthodox stylized picture of Jesus. She had no Bible and has never read one. Yeshi expressed her pain about being rejected for immigration. Her four children have remained with her and she bears the burden for their upbringing. None of them carry Israeli ID cards since their mother’s Jewish identity is in question. I met other adults whose children had been given their tickets but where the parents themselves had been denied air-passage. Now these aged parents live in the compound, waiting and waiting to be reunited with their families. For many like Yeshi, that day may never come.
I sensed, from within the compounds of Addis and Gonder, a quiet disillusionment in those who are slowly beginning to realize they have been left behind. It seems as if Israeli officials are convinced that most of the undoubtedly “Jewish” people have already been removed. Those who remain may not be as easy to qualify. I have heard that, oftentimes, Ethiopians who arrive in Israel do not feel warmly welcomed because of the difference in their culture and skin color. Some believe that pressure is being exerted from Israel to prevent further Ethiopian immigration.
There are Ethiopian Jews outside the compounds. An estimated 15,000 Beta Israel remain in their traditional dwellings, scattered in and around approximately thirty-five different villages in the northern parts of the country. I took a four hour walk from a main road into one of these highland villages. There, an old Jewish man informed me (through an interpreter) that some Beta Israel will not go to the compound because they regard Ethiopia as their country, and the mountains as their home. We spoke about the day when all the Jewish people would be gathered back to the Holy Land. He smiled and said, “In that day, God will gather us. We won’t have to choose.”
I wish that all the Jews of Ethiopia had this confidence in God, because it provides a freedom of thought that is missing for so many who have put their trust in “the system.” In what amounts to a form of religious bribery, Ethiopian Jews must embrace modern Orthodox Judaism if they hope to move to Israel as Jews. Some Christians have tried to tell people in the compounds about Jesus, but the powers that be have threatened to revoke the Israeli temporary ID cards of anyone who listens. People are afraid to consider the gospel because, as many told me, it is imperative that they die and are buried in Israel. “It doesn’t matter where you die or where you are buried,” I replied. “What matters is whether you are at peace with God when you die, and in His Kingdom when you are buried.” Still, I watched them cling to those Israeli ID cards as though they were the keys to the Kingdom.
I remember Yeshi Emabet, who was so emphatic in her desire to go to Israel despite the fact that she could not prove her Jewishness to the rabbis’ satisfaction. I challenged her (through my interpreter) saying, “Yeshi, God will bring our people to His Land one day. You may or may not see it. But for now, He is far more concerned to bring His people, like you and me, to Himself, through Jesus the Messiah who died for our sins and rose again to prove it, no matter where we live or what we’ve done or who we might be.”
I left Ethiopia saddened that thousands of people’s lives are, in a sense, suspended as they await passports to a new home that may never materialize. If they only knew that their salvation is not in a place, but in a person. If they only knew that He will meet them wherever they are.
- The Independent, London, 20 November 1990, p.11
- “Falasha” is the term used in Hancock’s text. The term means, “those who flee” and is a derogatory reference to the Jewish people of Ethiopia who have “fled” from persecution in Ethiopia since the 4th century, C.E. The Jewish people refer to themselves as, “Beta Yisrael” which is literally rendered, “the House of Israel.”
- Graham Hancock, The Signs and the Seal, Mandarin, London, 1993, p. 240
- Modern Jewish religious observance extends from the Talmudic era, circa 100-600 C.E. History demonstrates that the Ethiopian Jews probably left Israel in various waves, some as early as 1000-900 B.C.E., others around 687 (during the wicked reign of Manasseh) and yet others during the Babylonian persecution around 586 B.C.E. In any event, Jewish scholars are aware that the religious customs of the Ethiopian Jews predate the reforms of King Josiah which were effected in the land of Israel circa 640 B.C.E. Therefore, Jews must have left Israel for Ethiopia before that date. There is no reference at all to the oral law within Ethiopian Jewish tradition or religion.