Author Archives: Atira Winchester

Atira Winchester

About Atira Winchester

Atira Winchester is a journalist who worked for many years as an editor for The Jerusalem Post. She currently lives in London, England where she works as a freelance writer, specializing in arts, culture and contemporary Israeli life.

Ethiopian Jews in Israel

The Jews of Ethiopiaknown as the Beta Israelhave 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.

Ethiopian Jews in Israel 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 airliftgiven 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 History of Ethiopian Jewry

A Jewish community in Ethiopiathe Beta Israel (House of Israel)has existed for at least 15 centuries.

Because of low literacy levels, a tendency to rely on oral traditions, and nomadic lifestyles among most Ethiopians prior to the 20th century, historic material about this community is scant and unreliable. However, a tentative story can be pieced together from written records of Ethiopian rulers as well as testimony from the Beta Israel themselves.

Origins of the Community

Most likely, the Beta Israel arrived in Ethiopia between the first and sixth centuries, coming as merchants or artisans from various countries in the region.

Ethiopian Boy

Scholars once believed that during the Middle Ages the Beta Israel were a homogeneous group living under unified, autonomous Jewish rule. Yet new discoveries have shown that the truth is far more complex. It seems the Ethiopian Jewish community was for the most part fragmented both physically and religiously, with each Beta Israel village appointing its own spiritual and secular leaders. There was little contact between Beta Israel communities, and usually no overarching leadership uniting them.

Sometimes the Beta Israel were treated well by the Ethiopian monarchy, but at other times they suffered persecution. Many fellow Ethiopians refer to the Beta Israel as falasha (a derogatory term meaning outsider), In 1624, the ruling king’s army captured many Ethiopian Jews, forced them to be baptized, and denied them the right to own land. According to local legend, some members of the Beta Israel chose suicide over conversion.

Religious Life

Since the Beta Israel community existed in isolation from other Jewish communities around the world, they developed a unique set of religious practices–in some ways quite different from what is typically considered “Jewish.”

For example, an order of Ethiopian Jewish monks was founded in the 15th century to strengthen the community’s religious identity and resist Christian influence. This monastic movement introduced an organized approach to religious practice, creating new religious literature and prayers, and adopting laws of ritual purity.