Jews of Ethiopia

Beta Israel, the “House of Israel,” is the name of the community of Jews which existed in some 500 separate villages scattered throughout the former kingdom of Aksum, in today’s Ethiopia. This community, also known as “falashas,” are Africans yet they have been Jewish since biblical times. Today next to all of them have immigrated to Israel.

Before the Common Era — before Christianity and Islam came to be established — much of the Arabian peninsula was Jewish. There were, for example, a strong Jewish community in Yemen. They, in turn, traded with people on the other side of the Red Sea and this is how Jewish culture came to spread here. [Read more:Coffee and croissants“] The Jews of Ethiopia themselves insist that they descend from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

After the rise of Christianity and Islam, the Jews in Ethiopia were cut off culturally from other Jews, but they survived as an independent community, following their own religious rituals and celebrating their own holiday. They were farmers, and visitors were amazed at the way women had they same status as men in the community. They made a sharp distinction between things they considered “pure” and “unpure.”

After the establishment of Israel in 1948, they obtained the right to immigrate there — a right which some took advantage of during the famines, wars and military dictatorship in Ethiopia in the 1980s. The Israeli government, with American support, organized two elaborate rescue operations, “Operation Moses” in 1984 and “Operation Solomon” in 1991, in which tens of thousands of people clandestinely were airlifted to Israel. At the time, some Israelis questioned their Jewishness, and the very notion of a “black Jew,” while others identified them as one of the “lost tribes of Israel.”

Today there are 120,000 thousand people in Israel who claim Ethiopian descent. Some complain that Israeli society is racist, others are nostalgic for their old way of life, and many in the older generation have little education and find life in Israel difficult. A majority cannot read and write Hebrew and unemployment rates are high. But not many have decided to return to Ethiopia. It is estimated that there still are some 8,000 people of Jewish descent living in Ethiopia. They Israeli government is committed to bringing them to Israel.

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