Aliyah from Ethiopia

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Aliyah from Ethiopia is the immigration of the Beta Israel people to Israel. Early forms of Zionism have existed in Ethiopia since the mid 19th-century,[1] as shown in the 1848 letters from the Beta Israel to Jews in Europe praying for the unification of Jews. A year after the first letter was sent, Daniel Ben Hananiah and his son were sent by the Kahen to Jerusalem and made contact with the Jewish leaders there.[1]

19th century[edit]

In a letter written by Abba Zaga of Beta Israel to Jerusalem, the Kahen speaks on their wish to return to Zion:

Peace be upon you Hebrew brothers. We have already sent you a first letter from Daniel ben Hananiah, Avi Moshe. Is it time for us to return to our holy city of Jerusalem? We are a miserable nation, we have no judge and no prophet. If it is time they sent us a letter, because you know more than him; Tell us the real situation. As for us, there was great excitement in our hearts, because people arose in our country who said it was time. They command us to separate ourselves from the Christians, to immigrate to your land, to Jerusalem, to join our brethren, and to offer sacrifices to God, the God of Israel, in the Holy Land.[1][2]

In 1862, Abba Mehari led an attempted mass aliyah to Jerusalem. It was a failure due to disease and many died.[3] German-born missionary Johann Martin Flad reported in 1874: "Once I met a monk, Abba Mehari, who was convinced that the time was coming when the Lord would gather them the Jews of all peoples, and bring them into the land of their ancestors."[3]

Pre-Israel Immigration[edit]

The first Ethiopian-Jewish immigrants to successfully make Aliyah arrived in 1934, together with Yemenite Jews from Italian Eritrea.[4] During this period there were a number of Jewish families of mixed EthiopianYemenite descent mostly living in the district of Begemder and Eritrea.[4]

Eligibility of Beta Israel for Aliyah[edit]

In 1973, the Israeli Ministry of Absorption prepared a comprehensive report on the Beta Israel ethnic group (the historical name of the Israelite Ethiopian community), which stated that the Falasha were foreign in all aspects to the Jewish nation. The report concluded that there was no need to take action in order to help the ethnic group make Aliyah to Israel.[5]

Shortly after the publication of the Ministry of Absorption report in 1973, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, decreed that the community of "Beta Israel" are descendants of Israelites. He also said that giving them a proper Jewish education and the right to immigrate to Israel, was in his definition, a Mitzvah. Shlomo Goren, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, agreed with Yosef based on the previous Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.[6] Goren however did not issue an official statement, claiming that Kook's 1921 letter calling for Jews across the world to "save their Falasha brothers" was still a relevant decree.[6] Ovadia Yosef's Halakha ruling ended with the Law of Return being applied to Ethiopian Jews,[5] notwithstanding the Ministry of Absorption report. In order to bring the Beta Israel community to Israel, an inter-office staff was founded, which included representatives from the Israeli Justice Department, Israeli Ministry of Interior, Israeli Ministry of Absorption and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

This action was mainly promoted after the election of Menachem Begin as Prime Minister in 1977.[7][8]

Beta Israel Exodus (1979–1985)[edit]

Aliyah from Ethiopia compared to the total Aliyah to Israel[9]
Years Ethiopian-born immigrants Total immigration to Israel
1948–1951 10 687,624
1952–1960 59 297,138
1961–1971 98 427,828
1972–1979 306 267,580
1980–1989 16,965 153,833
1990–1999 39,651 956,319
2000–2004 14,859 181,505
2005-2009 12,586 86,855
2010-2013 7,200 67,050

In the absence of full diplomatic relations with Ethiopia, The Israeli Mossad contacted officials in Sudan, which is adjacent to Ethiopia. Thousands of Beta Israel community from Ethiopia traveled by foot to the border with Sudan, and waited there in temporary camps until they were flown to Israel. Between the years 1977 and 1984, these immigrants were led from those camps to Israel by means of vessels of the Israeli Sea Corps and airplanes. Until Operation Moses, about 8,000 made a dangerous journey to Israel during which about 4,000 Beta Israel perished from disease or hunger or were killed by bandits.

Operations Moses and Joshua[edit]

After it became clear that the immigrants who remained in the Sudanese camps were in danger, it was decided to pursue an operation of intense immigration, nicknamed "Operation Moses", during which about 8,000 immigrants were brought to Israel from Ethiopia using Israeli aircraft. Most of the immigrants in Operation Moses originated from the Gondar area.[10]

Entire families including little children undertook long and dangerous treks, which often spanned whole months. As a result of the difficulties of the journey and bad conditions, hundreds and possibly even thousands of Beta Israel Ethiopians died on the way to the Sudanese camps. One of the main Ethiopian activists was Frada Aklom, whom many perceive as an important figure in the Beta Israel community.

The operation ended prematurely, after a press leak in Israel regarding Ethiopian Aliyah via Sudan to Israel. After the media exposure to the operation, the political situation the region changed. The Sudanese government, which had allowed Beta Israel entry into the country on their way to Israel, was dismissed, and relations between Israel and Sudan were soured.

Despite this, more Beta Israel were brought to Israel, including 1,200 in the Operation Sheba and 800 more on Operation Joshua that took place in 1985, with the help of George H. W. Bush, who was then Vice President of the United States.

Operation Solomon[edit]

Women in Kiryat Malakhi, 2012.

At the beginning of 1991, the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia was about to collapse due to the rebel forces approaching the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. In the end of May 1991, several days before Addis Ababa was seized by the rebels, Mengistu escaped from Ethiopia and found shelter in Zimbabwe. An agreement was obtained between officials from Mengistu's government and Israel allowing the Ethiopian Beta Israel to emigrate to Israel in exchange for about 35 million US dollars and shelter in the United States for several of the officials of the government.

Due to this agreement, Operation Solomon took place, during which about 14,400 Beta Israel were brought to Israel within 34 hours on 24 May 1991, in about 30 airplanes of the Israeli Air Force and the airline El Al.

The Falash Mura[edit]

There are many descendants of Ethiopian Beta Israel, whose ancestors converted to Christianity and who are now returning to the Mosaic Israelite faith. This group of people is known as the Falash Mura. They are admitted entrance to Israel, although not as Israelites, thus enabling the Israeli government to set quotas to their immigration and make citizenship dependent on Orthodox conversion to modern Judaism. Although nobody knows for certain the exact population of the Falash Mura in Ethiopia, it is approximated to be 20,000-26,000. However, recently some reporters and other travelers in remote regions of Ethiopia have noted that they have found entire villages where people claim they are Beta Israel or are Falash Mura (Beta Israel who have been practicing Christianity). Chief Kes Raphael Hadane has argued for the acceptance of the Falasha Mura as Jews.[11]

In April 2016, the Israeli Government approved a plan to bring 9,000 Falashmuras to Israel over the course of five years. 1,300 are scheduled to arrive in June 2016.[12]

Challenges of integration in Israel[edit]

The biggest concentrations of the Ethiopians Beta Israel are in the cities: Beersheba, Dimona, Mitzpe Ramon, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Lod, Ramla, Or Yehuda, Jerusalem, Netanya, Kiryat Malakhi.

A report carried out by the Bank of Israel in 2006 gave cause for concern regarding the absorption of the Ethiopian community to Israeli society :

  • The incidence of poverty amongst Ethiopian families is estimated at about 51.7% compared with 15.8% in the general Israeli population.
    A Beta Israel protest in Israel
  • The rate of participation in the labor market is about 65.7% amongst adults compared with about 82.5% in the general Israeli population.
  • The rate of unemployment amongst Ethiopians is estimated at about 13.2% compared with 7.4% in the general Israeli population.
  • The monthly income per capita is estimated at about 1,994 New Israeli Shekels amongst Ethiopians compared with about 3,947 New Israeli Shekels in the general Israeli population.
  • Students awarded the Bagrut Certification is estimated at about 44% of Ethiopians compared with about 57% in the remaining Israeli population. Only about 34% meet the requirements needed for higher education, compared with about 83% of the Israeli population.
  • About 21.7% of Ethiopian immigrants are holders of high school and higher education, compared with about 49.2% in the general Israeli population. About 20.4% of Ethiopian immigrants are not holders of a basic education, compared with about 0.9% from the general Israeli population.
  • In the 2002-2003 school year, the rate of criminal charges brought against 12- to 20-year-old Ethiopian immigrants was 4.6%, twice as high as the number of criminal charges brought against the equivalent age group from the remainder of Israeli society.

The Bank of Israel report also highlights mistakes made by the government in its attempt to integrate Ethiopian immigrants into mainstream Israeli society, despite the estimated 400,000 NIS spent per immigrant. In addition to government financial investments, money was also invested from private donations, and by local authority welfare systems, and towards Affirmative action schemes to help immigrants undertake mandatory army or national service and for their greater inclusion in higher education. The report recommended that measures be taken to encourage immigrants to disperse around the country, rather than remain concentrated in the small communities in which they were initially placed. In addition, it recommended that greater resources be allocated to schools to improve education for Ethiopian children. Lastly, the report recommended that greater emphasis be placed on providing professional training to Ethiopian immigrants and that affirmative action be considered to aid their inclusion in public service jobs.

In 2009, Tzion Shenkor, the highest-ranking Ethiopian officer in the Israel Defense Forces with a rank of Lieutenant Colonel, became the first battalion commander of Ethiopian descent.[13][14]


  1. ^ a b c Shapiro, Dan. Letter Beta Israel to Israel-Israel from the mid-nineteenth century: From the Hebrew version Firkobitz (PDF). Cathedra. pp. 123–128.
  2. ^ Sapir, Yaakov (1866). Hebrew translation of letter. Even Sapirin.
  3. ^ a b Ben-Dror, Shoshanna (1987). The Road to the Land of Israel: The story of Abba Mehari (PDF). Peamim. pp. 32–35.
  4. ^ a b Greenfeld, Yitzhak (2011). The Chief Rabbinate of the Land of Israel and the Jews of Ethiopia during the British Mandate. Haberman Institute for Literary Studies. pp. 191–198.
  5. ^ a b Mekonnen, Yohannes (2013). Ethiopia: The Land, Its People, History and Culture. New Africa Press. p. 215.
  6. ^ a b Lenhoff, Howard (2007). Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes: How Grassroots Activism Led to the Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews. Gefen Publishing House. p. 47.
  7. ^ Mekelberg, Yossi. "The plight of Ethiopian Jews in Israel". BBC.
  8. ^ Shilon, Avi (2012). Menachem Begin: A Life. Yale University Press. p. 272.
  9. ^ Israeli Central Beaurau of Statistics, Immigrants, by Period of Immigration, Country of Birth and Last Country of Residence Archived 24 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine (PDF) from the Statistical Abstract of Israel 2007-No.58
  10. ^ Bard, Mitchell Geoffrey (2002). From Tragedy to Triumph: The Politics Behind the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 126–127. ISBN 9780275970000.
  11. ^ Debbie Burman (16 August 2002). "Shas to help speed up Ethiopian Jewry immigration to Israel". Israel Insider. Archived from the original on 6 September 2009.
  12. ^ "Ethiopian aliyah to restart in June". Times of Israel. Retrieved 8 April 2016.
  13. ^ Spira, Yechiel (27 March 2009). "Israel's first Ethiopian battalion commander". Ethiopian Review. Archived from the original on 7 April 2009. Retrieved 23 May 2013.
  14. ^ Fendel, Hillel (5 April 2009). "IDF Promotes its First Ethiopian Regiment Commander". Israel National News. Retrieved 5 April 2009.

External links[edit]