The Jews of Ethiopia—known as the Beta Israel—have experienced a long history of famine, religious oppression, and civil war. But in the 20th century the community went through some major changes as it was transplanted into Israel.
In 1974, following a coup d’etat, Ethiopia came under the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Under Mariam’s regime, anti-Semitism rose, and physical conditions worsened for the Beta Israel, with starvation across the country.
In May 1977, Israeli President Menachem Begin started selling arms to Mariam’s government, hoping to secure freedom for Ethiopia’s Jews. Later that year, Israel took 200 Jews out of Ethiopia on a plane that had emptied its arms cargo for Mariam’s use. Mariam agreed to the airlift—given his reliance on Israel’s arms, he could hardly refuse.
Operations Moses and Solomon
Between 1977 and 1984, a total of 8,000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel in a number of small airlifts, all authorized, albeit grudgingly, by the Ethiopian government. Large-scale aliya started in 1984 with Operation Moses, a mission that brought 8,000 Jews to Israel in just a few months. The operation, which began in November, 1984, ended prematurely in January 1985 when news of the airlift reached Ethiopia’s Arab allies.
In March 1985, another 650 Jews were rescued in Operation Joshua, but approximately 15,000 Beta Israel still remained in Ethiopia, many of them elderly, sick, or weak.
The final and most dramatic large-scale operation was Operation Solomon. 14,325 Beta Israel were airlifted to Israel in 36 hours on May 24 -25, 1991 amid political turmoil that forced Mariam to flee the country.
By the end of 1991, only a handful of Beta Israel remained in Ethiopia, although many thousands of Falasha Mura, whose Jewish identity has been disputed, still remain today.
While the operations that brought about Beta Israel’s exodus were dramatic and swift, integration into Israeli society has been painstakingly slow. Even today, the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel is still grappling with problems: they are marginalized socially, religiously, geographically, and professionally.
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