Exodus from Ethiopia: The story of Beta Israel’s homecoming

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Preserving ancient Jewish traditions

Jewish Ethiopians claim a few different origins stories. Some believe they are descendants of the lost tribe of Dan, which the Assyrians exiled before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians. Others think they come from Yemenite or Egyptian Jews. Others say they descend from the Israelites who accompanied King Solomon’s son and the Queen of Sheba back to Ethiopia. While the origin story of Ethiopian Jews remains unclear, their courage, faith, and love for the Jewish homeland, along with the daring of the Mossad and the activism of North American Jews, resulted in the return of thousands of Jews to Israel.

The Beta Israel, as they call themselves, are proud of their rich heritage, which they have preserved for over a thousand years in the mountains of East Africa. Isolated from other Jewish communities, they believed they were the only Jews in the world, continuing to observe Shabbat, Kosher, and Jewish holidays, even unaware that the First Temple had been destroyed.

Persecution and resistance

When Christianity swept through Ethiopia, Beta Israel’s newly Christian neighbors tried everything to destroy the Jewish community, from massacres and forced conversions to enslavement and isolation. They were labeled “Falasha,” meaning invader or stranger, despite their ancient roots that predated the advent of Christianity. The Beta Israel fought back, with legends of Jewish power like the story of the mighty Queen Judith, who sacked Christian kingdoms. However, they ultimately lost a major battle, and many chose death over slavery or forced baptism.

The struggle for recognition

Despite Beta Israel’s efforts to return to Zion, they faced resistance from some in the Israeli government who doubted their Jewishness. It was only when Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef declared the Ethiopian Jews to be fully Jewish and the descendants of the lost tribe of Dan that the tides began to turn. But even then, the situation in Ethiopia was growing increasingly hostile, with the Beta Israel facing harassment, monitoring, and torture if they tried to leave.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) listens to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual mentor of the religious Shas political party, during a meeting held at the rabbi’s home on October 9, 1998 (Photo: Reuters) © Reuters Photographer / Reuters.

The Mossad’s daring rescue mission

Ethiopian Jewish activist Ferede Aklum spoke out against the systematic persecution his community faced. He was forced to flee to Sudan, where he made contact with Israeli Mossad agents. He hatched a plan with them to bring his community to Sudan, where they would stay in refugee camps posing as Christian Ethiopian refugees from the Ethiopian Civil War until the Mossad could secretly bring them to the Holy Land.

Using an abandoned diving resort on the Sudanese coast as a cover for their operation, Mossad agents successfully evacuated 8,000 refugees to an Israeli ship waiting off the coast. The grueling trek through the desert to the resort left many dead from dehydration, starvation, and attacks from hostile forces along the way. Parents buried children and children buried parents.

When the diving resort cover was blown, Ethiopian Jews who were waiting in the Sudanese refugee camps were stranded for months and about 5,000 died of starvation and disease. Mossad managed to smuggle some Beta Israel in boxes labeled “US diplomatic mail” and were airlifted out of Sudan.

Demonstrations and pressure

Once in Israel, they became known as “orphans of circumstance” as many had families still in Ethiopia that could not make the arduous journey through the desert. Beta Israel members in Israel and Jews in North America demonstrated for years, demanding that the Israeli government save all Jews stuck in Ethiopia.

In 1984, following the pressure of the US, the Sudanese government allowed the emigration of 7,200 Beta Israel refugees. These two immigration waves were named Operation Moses and Operation Joshua.

In 1991, for 36 hours, 34 El Al passenger planes, with their seats removed to maximize passenger capacity, brought 14,000 more refugees to Israel to reunite with their families. The heroic evacuation was dubbed Operation Solomon.

New immigrants from Ethiopia just after arrival at Ben Gurion Airport during “Operation Solomon” (Archive: Alpert Nathan) ALPERT NATHAN.

The struggle continues

The story of the Ethiopian Aliyah is often presented as a triumph, a testament to the Mossad’s cleverness and the Israeli government’s determination to bring every Jew home. But this version of the story leaves out the crucial contribution of the Beta Israel themselves, who organized, protested, and sacrificed everything to make it to the Holy Land. Even today, the struggle continues, as thousands of Ethiopian Jews wait in Ethiopia for their chance to come home.

The story of the Beta Israel is complex and multifaceted, full of broken promises, secret agreements, and the unwavering determination of an ancient community. It is a story of courage, endurance, and deep faith, as well as the struggle for Jewish unity and the ongoing efforts to build a society that embraces all Jews without discrimination. As the Jewish state continues to grapple with these challenges, the story of the Ethiopian Aliyah remains a powerful reminder of the resilience and perseverance of the Jewish people.

This story was published on israelhayom.com