The 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 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 to Africa [Read more: “Coffee and croissants“] The Jews of Ethiopia insist that they are the descendants of 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 holidays.
After the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Jews of Ethiopia obtained the right to immigrate there – a right which some took advantage of during the famines and wars of the 1980s. The Israeli government, with American support, organized two 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; 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 officially committed to bringing them to Israel.