Operation Moses (Israel/Ethiopia 1980s)

Operation Moses (Israel/Ethiopia 1980s)

Operation Moses

This was a covert operation to rescue thousands of Black Ethiopian Jews or Falahas from starvation and fly them to Israel. The Israeli base for the operation was thinly disguised as a holiday resort on the Red Sea, by the time it was closed down in January 1986 it had rescued 18,000 Jews, 13,000 directly via the Red Sea operation and 5,000 via an official chartered jet. The operation was highly successful and caused an outrage in the Arab World, it would have rescued more but a press leak forced it to be closed down. For more information on Israeli covert operations see Israeli Covert Operations.

After years of waiting, Ethiopian Jews arrive to Israel

On Dec. 3, 316 Jews from Ethiopia arrived at Ben Gurion Airport as part of Operation Rock of Israel (Tzur Israel). One hundred more immigrants are set to arrive Dec. 4. In all, the government is committed to bringing 2,000 community members to Israel, after many years of waiting in transition camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar in Ethiopia.

First to step out of the aircraft was a religious leader of the community, blowing a ram’s horn, as in the Jewish tradition in times of redemption. Many of the immigrants waved Israeli flags. Some of the passengers kissed the ground upon arrival, also a tradition when first reaching the Holy Land.

The new arrivals were greeted at the airport by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Chairman of the Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog and other senior government officials. For many, these festive sights were reminiscent of the big waves of Ethiopian immigrants brought to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s.

"I can't remember being so moved by such a distilled sight of Zionism that demonstrates all our qualities. The sight of olim [immigrants] getting off the plane carrying baskets as I remember from my childhood — touching the ground of the Land of Israel, a mother kissing the ground — this is the essence of the Jewish and Zionist story and that is why, our brothers and sisters, we are excited to welcome you here. Welcome to the State of Israel. … The Ethiopian community is returning to the motherland, step by step," said Netanyahu. He later tweeted, "Brothers and sisters of ours, immigrants from Ethiopia, we are so moved to welcome you here. Welcome to Israel!"

When speaking on the tarmac, Netanyahu also pledged to continue his efforts to bring back home Israeli-Ethiopian Avera Avraham Mengistu, held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip since 2015. Mengistu suffers from mental health problems.

Absorption and Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata arrived to Ethiopia last week to prepare the operation, and accompanied the immigrants on the flight. She arrived to Israel from Ethiopia as a child with Operation Moses in 1984, which brought more than 6,000 Ethiopian Jews to the country trhough Sudan.

Gantz called Tamano-Shata a few hours before departing from the airport in Addis Ababa to express his support of the operation, tweeting, "Politics should be put aside. Tomorrow Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata will return to Israel with hundreds of immigrants from Ethiopia. After years of delay they will be able to unite with their children, brothers and sisters, whom they did not see for years. They could at last unite — this time in Israel. I am very moved by this. It’s a great pride. Pnina — I am so proud of you. Well done!"

On the tarmac, Gantz recalled that as an Israel Defense Forces officer he had participated in the military’s covert Solomon Operation in 1991 to bring 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Another operation in 2013 brought 7,000 immigrants from Ethiopia.

Israeli-Ethiopian activists have demonstrated in the past few years relentlessly, demanding that the government stop dragging its feet in implementing a 2015 decision to bring all remaining Ethiopians of Jewish lineage to Israel within five years. According to assessments by the activists, between 7,000 and 12,000 Ethiopian Jews remain behind in Ethiopia, some of whom have been waiting for years to reunite with their families. Activists have been increasingly worried about the fate of the people in transition camps, as Ethiopia is confronted with an insurgence of insecurity and poverty. Over the years, some ultra-Orthodox leaders cast doubts on the Jewishness of the immigrants. Netanyahu pledged before the last elections to bring them home as part of a family unification operation.


History of Jewish Immigration to Israel (Aliyah)

While Herzl and others were laying the groundwork outside of Palestine for a state, many Jews were moving there from Europe in waves called aliyot. The first wave, known as the “First Aliyah,” took place prior to political Zionism, in the late 1800s. Most of these new immigrants came from Russia and Yemen, and set up towns including Petah Tikvah, Rishon LeZion and Zikhron Ya’akov. The Second Aliyah , prior to World War I, was almost exclusively made up of Russian Jews, following pogroms and anti-Semitism in their country. Inspired by Socialism and Jewish nationalism, this group started the first kibbutz and revived the Hebrew language.

After World War I and until 1923, the Third Aliyah came to Israel. This group was also from Russia, but they arrived after the establishment of the British Mandate over Palestine and the Balfour Declaration and set about creating a sustainable Jewish agricultural economy by strengthening and building the kibbutz movement and its ancillary institutions. The Fourth Aliyah, which took place over a short period of time from 1924 to 1929, was mostly made up of Jews seeking to escape anti-Semitism in Poland and Hungary. Many of these immigrants were made up of middle-class families who established small businesses and created a more rounded economy.

The Fifth Aliyah coincided with the rise of Nazism in Germany and extreme nationalism across Eastern Europe and included the largest number of immigrants to date- nearly one quarter of a million Jews entered Mandate Palestine between 1929 and the beginning of World War II. This group of immigrants included professionals, doctors, lawyers and artists. They created a thriving art and architecture scene, and with the establishment of the Port of Haifa, a thriving economy. Most arrived prior to 1936, when the British began imposing harsh restrictions on Jewish immigration as a result of increasing anger and violence in the Palestinian Arab community. In 1939, the British issued the White Paper of 1939, which severely restricted Jewish immigration, leaving many European Jews during the Holocaust with nowhere to go. Illegal immigration, though dangerous, became a necessity. By the time the United Nations agreed to split Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, a very well ordered and lively Jewish society had been created there.

Arab-Jewish Refugees

When war broke out between Israel and the Arab states in 1948, many of the Jews living in Arab countries fled to Israel under threat of persecution and a desire to fulfill the Zionist dream. As anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism increased in the Arab world, Jewish emigration continued until the early 1970s. Many were forced to abandon their properties and belongings before leaving. Today, there are only a few very small Jewish communities remaining in the Middle East outside of Israel.

Operation Moses and Operation Solomon

Ethiopian Jews (members of the Beta Israel tribe) began moving to Israel as early as 1934, however it was not until the late 1970s-early 1980s that they immigrated en masse. In 1979, aliyah activists began convincing Ethiopians to flee Ethiopia and head to Sudan, where they could be moved from refugee camps to Israel. This led to two major covert operations- Moses in 1984 and Solomon in 1991- that brought nearly the entire tribe over to Israel.

By 1984, thousands of Ethiopian Jews had fled to Sudan, braving extremely dangerous conditions- it is estimated that 4,000 died along the way. Sudan secretly allowed Israel to begin transporting refugees, until word got out and external pressures forced them to suspend the operation. Many refugees were left behind, with some evacuated shortly after in a US-led operation.

In 1991, as the situation worsened in Ethiopia, the Israeli government knew that it had to act quickly, before the rebels took over, to evacuate the rest of Beta Israel. In Operation Solomon, they managed to evacuate over 14,000 Ethiopians (nearly twice as many as were taken in Operation Moses) in 34 El Al planes with the seats removed to maximize capacity. The entire operation took place over 36 hours.

Russian Immigration

During the Cold War, Jews in the Soviet Union were not allowed to practice their religion and many were denied the right to emigrate. Because of anti-religious sentiment in the Soviet Union, many were raised in secular homes and nearly 1/3 were not considered halachically Jewish, though they were able to immigrate under the Right of Return. Under the more liberal government of Mikhail Gorbachev in the early 1990s, Jews were allowed to emigrate and they did so en masse- nearly 1 million Russian Jews moved to Israel in the 1990s.


Operation Moses (Israel/Ethiopia 1980s) - History


Covert operations by Israeli operatives smuggling Ethiopian Jews into Israel had begun as early as 1980. By the end of 1982, some 2,500 Ethiopian Jews had been resettled in Israel and over the course of 1983 another 1,800 left Sudan on foot. In order to operate more quickly, Israeli agents began using Hercules transport planes each with a holding capacity of 200 immigrants per flight.

The large numbers of Jews crossing on foot into Sudan was taking a horrible human toll and creating dangerous conditions in the refugee camps. Israeli agents realized that a large-scale operation was necessary. Operation Moses thus began on November 21, 1984. Refugees were bused directly from the Sudanese camps to a military airport near Khartoum. Under a shroud of secrecy established by a news blackout, they were then airlifted directly to Israel. Between November 21, 1984 and January 5, 1985, approximately 8,000 Ethiopian Jews came home to Israel.

News leaks ended Operation Moses prematurely, as Arab nations pressured the Sudanese government to disallow Ethiopian Jews to cross Sudanese territory. About 1,000 Jews were left behind in Sudan, and tens of thousands more remained in Ethiopia. Babu Yakov, a community leader summed up the situation in saying that many of those left behind were the ones unable to make the dangerous trek across Sudan - women, children and the elderly. He continued, "Those least capable of defending themselves are now facing their enemies." Approximately 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died on the overland, on-foot journey through Sudan.

In 1985, then Vice President George Bush initiated a CIA follow-up called Operation Joshua to bring 800 of the 1,000 remaining in Sudan to Israel. During the next five years however, negotiations to continue operations fell on deaf ears among the Mariam administration.

In Israel, Ethiopian Jews began learning Hebrew and beginning the long processes of absorption and integration into Israeli society, spending between six months and two years in absorption centers. Ethiopian immigrants began training to prepare themselves for living in an industrialized society.

The barriers erected by social and cultural differences were difficult for many to overcome. Ethiopian Jewish refugees came from a developing nation with a rural economy, into a western nation with a high-tech market economy. Integration and social equality often escaped newcomers and problems involving their religious status, employment, education and housing remain to this day. Immigration brought changes in family life, community life and social status patterns. Assimilation and acculturation with regards to religious and oral traditions, social and cultural practices and language took their toll as well. The joy of returning to "Zion" was therefore tinged for many with the anxiety and depression of departure and separation. Approximately 1,600 Ethiopian children became "orphans of circumstance," separated from their parents, brothers, sisters and extended families who were left behind.


19 Cannes Movies We're Dying to See, From 'BlacKkKlansman' to 'Solo' (Photos)

The 2018 Cannes Film Festival will showcase 21 films in competition, another 16 out of competition, 18 in Un Certain Regard, more than two dozen in Cannes Classics and others in the independent Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week sections. Among the riches, here are some that stand out.

“BlacKkKlansman”
Spike Lee
(Main Competition)
The director who some think was robbed of the Palme d’Or for “Do the Right Thing” in 1989 is back in the running with the true story of a black man who infiltrated the KKK in the '70s – but advance footage shows a comic tone, and producer Jason Blum says the goal was “to show what bozos” the Klan is.

“Three Faces”
Jafar Panahi
(Main Competition)
Panahi, who is not allowed to leave Iran and is officially forbidden from making movies, has nonetheless spent the last few years creating a string of wry, smart films about life under totalitarian rule, peaking with “Taxi” in 2015. Any new Panahi film is an event, and his first to land in the main competition in Cannes has already made him the betting favorite for the Palme d’Or.

“The House That Jack Built”
Lars von Trier
(Out of competition)
Matt Dillon as a serial killer over a span of 12 years is intriguing enough. But Lars von Trier returning to the festival that declared him “persona non grata” for his press-conference comments about Hitler in 2011 — that’s a riveting story all its own.

“The Image Book”
Jean-Luc Godard
(Main Competition)
We know the director probably won’t show up, and we know his film will be challenging and elusive. “The Image Book” is reportedly an essay about film that comes exactly 50 years after a politicized Godard helped shut down the 1968 Cannes festival in solidarity with protests throughout France.

“Whitney”
Kevin Macdonald
(Midnight Screenings)
The director of fact-based narrative films (“The Last King of Scotland”) and documentaries (“One Day in September”) turns his sights to the glorious art and tragic life of Whitney Houston for one of a small number of documentaries in the Cannes lineup.

“Yomeddine”
A.B. Shawky
(Main Competition)
The last time a director’s debut feature was chosen for Cannes’ main competition was 2015, when Laszlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul” made the cut and ended up winning Cannes’ Grand Prize and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Hoping to follow that daunting path: Shawky’s crowd-funded coming-of-age drama about a young man leaving the leper colony where he was left as a child.

“Cold War”
Pawel Pawlikowski
(Main Competition)
Pawlikowski’s last film, “Ida,” won the foreign-language Oscar, and stills from this film have the same gorgeous black-and-white look and disconcerting, nearly square aspect ratio. It’s a romance set in post-World War II Europe.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story”
Ron Howard
(Out of Competition)
No, it has almost nothing to do with the kind of films that are the heart of this festival. But c’mon, who doesn’t want to see this?

“Girls of the Sun”
Eva Husson
(Main Competition)
Golshifteh Farahani, last seen in Cannes with Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson,” plays the head of a Kurdish female battalion, and past Cannes best-actress winner Emmanuelle Bercot is an embedded journalist in the Cannes debut from “Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)” director Husson.

“2001: A Space Odyssey”
Stanley Kubrick
(Cannes Classics)
It may be a 50-year-old movie we’ve all seen many times before, but Christopher Nolan’s presentation of this “unrestored” 70mm print will be looking to prove that a classic film can find a new way to resonate half a century later.

“Burning”
Lee Chang-dong
(Main Competition)
Lee Chang-dong’s films “Poetry” and “Secret Sunshine” both won awards at Cannes, which puts the pressure on for this mystery based on a story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. It’s the first film in eight years for the Korean auteur.

“Under the Silver Lake”
David Robert Mitchell
(Main Competition)
Mitchell landed in the Critics’ Week section with his last film, the widely praised horror flick “It Follows,” and this time he’s crafted a film noir drama that finds Andrew Garfield searching for a missing neighbor (Riley Keough) through the underbelly of Los Angeles.

“Fugue”
Agnieszka Smoczynska
(Critics’ Week)
Smoczynska’s first film, “The Lure,” transplanted “The Little Mermaid” to a Polish metal nightclub her next one, “Deranged,” will be a sci-fi opera set to David Bowie music. In between she made “Fugue,” about a woman who has lost her memory, and how could it not be intriguing?

“Climax”
Gaspar Noe
(Directors’ Fortnight)
In a rich year for provocateurs (Godard, von Trier … ), Argentinian director Noe might be the most provocative of all, typically stirring up adulation and outrage in equal measure. And given his penchant for forthright sexuality and hallucinatory imagery, a Noe film titled “Climax” is bound to cause a stir.

“Pope Francis – A Man of His Word”
Wim Wenders
(Special Screenings)
The title sounds too reverential, maybe even boring. But Wenders, who won the Palme d’Or for “Paris, Texas” more than 30 years ago, is a probing and sensitive director who aimed to make a film with the pontiff, not about him.

“Arctic”
Joe Penna
(Midnight Screenings)
You might know the Brazilian director as YouTube’s MysteryGuitarMan, but he’s making his feature debut with an icebound adventure story that star Mads Mikkelsen called the toughest shoot he’s ever been on.

“Rafiki”
Wanuri Kahiu
(Un Certain Regard)
A couple of weeks after Kahiu’s film became the first Kenyan movie to land a Cannes premiere, it was banned in its home country because of the lesbian relationship it depicts. The ban ought to make it even more of a must-see.

“Dead Souls”
Wang Bing
(Special Screenings)
To borrow a phrase from Eugene O’Neill and from a Bi Gan film playing in Un Certain Regard this year, this one is a real long day’s journey into night. Chinese director Wang Bing is known for his epic-length documentaries, and Dead Souls is an 8-hour-and-15-minute exploration of China’s Cultural Revolution, more than double the length of anything else in the official selection.

“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”
Terry Gilliam
(Closing night)
A strife-ridden 19 years in the making, this may well be the most troubled film production in history -- and more of a must-see than any recent closing-night film, assuming its screening isn’t killed by a lawsuit.

This year’s festival will bring controversial films, auteurs at the top of their game and at least one mega-blockbuster to the Croisette

The 2018 Cannes Film Festival will showcase 21 films in competition, another 16 out of competition, 18 in Un Certain Regard, more than two dozen in Cannes Classics and others in the independent Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week sections. Among the riches, here are some that stand out.


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One of the new immigrants who caught his eye was Zehava Mahari, a beautiful 3-year-old girl whom it was impossible to ignore. Bacher met her at the Mikhmoret absorption center in central Israel. She had arrived there with her mother in 1985, at the end of a dangerous, harrowing journey from Ethiopia to Israel.

Mahari’s tale is part of the mosaic of personal stories presented in the exhibition “Operation Moses: 30 Years After,” which opens at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot (The Museum of the Jewish People) on May 25.

“Immigration from Ethiopia was a very, very new thing, and people didn’t know how to process these ‘black Jews.’ But I knew I was photographing history,” recalls Bacher, 61, at the time a young photographer working at Beit Hatfutsot. When he photographed Mahari, someone from a window in the adjacent building threw an orange at her. She managed to catch it with her dress, which she lifted up slightly with two hands. Bacher says that even now, three decades on, he can’t forget her captivating expression and the innocent face that hid those big eyes and an embarrassed smile.

Mahari’s picture remained in Beit Hatfutsot’s photo archive in Tel Aviv and over the years became iconic. It featured prominently in articles, books and exhibitions, without Zehava having a clue about the fame she had garnered. Over the years, Bacher tried to locate her, but in vain. “I looked for her for 30 years,” he says.

Poster girl: Zehava Mahari at age 3. She moved to the United States in 1991, six years after immigrating to Israel. Doron Bacher

Three years ago, ahead of the 30th anniversary of Operation Moses, Neta Harel – a graphic artist from Beit Hatfutsot’s Visual Documentation Center – had an idea for a new exhibition. She was familiar with the rare photo collection of 10,000 images – the fruit of Bacher’s labor – that was kept in the museum archive. She randomly pulled out some photos and proposed that Bacher try his hand at locating the subjects.

Orly Malessa, an independent filmmaker and member of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, also lent a hand to the project. Together, they launched a Facebook page under the name “Searching for ourselves 30 years after,” and invited the photo subjects to identify themselves in the pictures uploaded to the page.

Within a short space of time, they had succeeded in closing many circles. And so, in late 2014, Bacher had the privilege of being reunited with Zehava Mahari, who had grown from being that little girl to a mother with children of her own. Only then did Bacher realize why he had failed to find her in Israel. It transpired that in 1991, six years after immigrating to Israel, she moved to the United States. She now lives in Sacramento, California.

When Mahari saw her photograph as a child, she burst out crying. Addressing Malessa’s camera for an accompanying film, she said in Hebrew, with an American accent, “My eyes haven’t changed. And my nose is as it was. The truth is that the person doesn’t change. He develops, but always remains the same person.”

Thirty years before, though, she barely survived her journey to Israel. “I was very small. I barely ate and suffered from malnutrition,” she recounts in the film. “There was a moment in Sudan that my mother almost lost me because we didn’t have food or water. It was a matter of survival, but we survived.”

In an email exchange with Haaretz, Mahari adds: “I miss my childhood experience in Israel – the place where I experienced for the first time my first home, birthdays, holidays, school, first bikes and first friends.

“I have no memories from Ethiopia because I left at such a young age, as a toddler,” she says. “Israel is always home for me, even if I live elsewhere.”

She moved to the United States to join her father, who never came to Israel because he believed America was the better choice, she says. There, on the other side of the ocean, she fulfilled her parents’ dreams and attended university, obtaining an MA in English with a specialization in multiculturalism. She found work and is raising a family.

Mahari tries to get her children to speak Hebrew, but admits that it’s not easy. “Here in the United States there’s a community of Ethiopian expats and, separately, a Jewish community,” she says. “You’ll only find an Ethiopian-Jewish community in Israel.”

Shattered dreams

Some of the photographs in the Beit Hatfutsot archive highlight difficult stories, like that of Rehovot resident Nane Negate, who Bacher photographed in the Ashkelon absorption center.

Her father was a respected figure in his village in Ethiopia, and for years dreamed of immigrating to Israel. However, after fulfilling his dream, he was forced to see it shattered in bits. A diligent worker, he was unable to find work in Israel and didn’t receive the respect he was accustomed to. He eventually committed suicide.

Nane Negate at her home in Rehovot. Roni Katznelson

“It took us eight months to try and meet with Nane,” says Michal Houminer, the exhibition’s cocurator along with Assaf Galai. “It was hard for her to tell this difficult story, which had not been told before.”

Another sad story lies behind the photograph of Amnon Sahlu, 52, a divorcée and father of six who lives with his elderly parents in Jerusalem, where he shares a bedroom with his 6-year-old daughter, Bereishit. Losing Ethiopian traditions and values has taken its toll on him, as well as the fact his marriage failed. When he looks at his parents’ married life together, which survived despite the difficulties of immigration and absorption, he feels he somehow missed the boat and his dreams are shattered.

Other stories were considered too sad to pursue. For example, an archive photo that caught Malessa’s eye featured a boy holding a flag “and looking very happy,” she recounts. “When we discovered that he had died, we stopped investigating.”

Itzik Tamano, now 39, at his home in north Tel Aviv. Roni Katznelson

Connecting to roots

During a preview of the exhibition earlier this month, Beit Hatfutsot chief curator Dr. Orit Shaham-Gover said, “We would rather give up on the Jewish habit of looking back with sorrow and seeing riots, decrees and persecution.

“When we look back, we also see a lot of creativity and growth,” she added. “My motto is that instead of saying ‘Gevalt!’ we say ‘Hallelujah!’”

One of the exhibition’s success stories is that of Itzik Tamano, 39, of Tel Aviv. Tamano emigrated from Ethiopia at age 4, and Bacher first documented him at his elementary school. “I remember that a photographer came to the class in first grade,” recalls Tamano now. At first he lived with his parents at the Atlit absorption center, and they later moved to Sderot. He met his future wife, Mor, in high school.

“We are a mixed couple. She is half-Yemenite and half-Sephardi,” he says. His parents had no problem with the fact that he wanted to marry someone who didn’t belong to the Ethiopian community, but it was harder for his wife’s parents.

“At first, they refused to accept me into their family – especially because of the image tied to Ethiopians that they knew from negative television reports,” he says.

A professional DJ, Tamano owns a music company that works mainly at Ethiopian community events. He lives in the north Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Hahayal with his wife and three children.

“At first [the neighbors] were sure I was a sanitation worker,” he recalls. “When they saw me in the window of my home, they yelled from the street, in English, ‘Clean? Clean? Looking for work?’” He says they had a hard time believing it when he said he actually lived there.

“I feel Israeli in every respect,” he says. “I never felt different. Racism here comes mainly from people who don’t know us. Israeli society was once more tolerant and loving, but it changed over the years.”

Tamano refuses to talk about “success” when he reflects on his life. “I prefer to call it self-fulfillment,” he says. “It’s a term that seems more appropriate to me.”

Another mixed couple discovered via the Facebook hunt are Shay and Efrat Yossef, who live in the West Bank settlement of Har Bracha with their four children. Bacher photographed Yossef and his family on their first day in Israel in 1984: Shay was 5 at the time and had come to the Ashkelon absorption center straight from the airport.

Yossef studied engineering in Israel, but initially could only find work as a security guard in a settlement. Later, though, he was promoted to being in charge of quality control for a food company. Soon, he tells Haaretz, he will start a new job at the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry.

Shay Yossef today, with wife Efrat and his family in the West Bank settlement of Har Bracha. Roni Katznelson

In Malessa’s film, Yossef demonstrates the cultural gaps between Ethiopia and Israel in the kitchen, where he cooks and cleans. “This would not happen in Ethiopia,” he smiles to his wife.

Another inspiring success story is that of Redai Tessma, 46, of Be’er Sheva. Tessma, married with four children, is a social worker. He immigrated to Israel in 1984 “after a long, exhausting, complicated journey” that took four years, but was “one full of hope.” He appears in an archive photo as a 14-year-old boy belatedly celebrating his joint bar mitzvah with other youths from Ethiopia. He received a new name in Israel, Ezra, but after his military service decided to return to his given name, Redai (which means “to help”).

Redai Tessma (right) belatedly celebrating his bar mitzvah upon his 14th birthday in the mid-1980s. Doron Bacher

“I realized that someone who’s not connected to their own and their community’s roots, origins, background and history cannot integrate into a new culture and place,” he says. “This revelation was the background to my decision to return to my original name. Indeed, it is my story and there’s a reason my parents gave me this name. It has a meaning I must recognize and learn. You can’t erase yourself to fit into a new place,” he adds.

Tessma draws on his own absorption experiences now as a mental health officer in the army reserves, especially when helping soldiers from families in distress. “I use my experience as a new immigrant with soldiers who are experiencing difficult conditions in life,” he says. “I explain to them that real, lasting change only takes place when you take responsibility and aspire to move forward. I tell them that even if there are limits and barriers, each person can still realize his abilities.”

Death, unemployment, racism, homesickness and other difficulties are expressed in the stories behind the images. However, none recall the violent demonstrations that erupted a year ago when Ethiopian Israelis protested against discrimination and racism in Israel.

“Each of our heroes is pulling in a different direction, so the ultimate statement reflects a wide range of experiences,” says Malessa, adding, “After all, this community, like every other community, is a collection of individuals, each of whom has a different experience.”

She herself prefers to see the glass as half-full. At age 1, she embarked on a long journey to Israel and after three years in a Sudanese refugee camp, arrived here in 1983.

“I started as a daughter of immigrants, a resident of the periphery and woman of African origin. The choice I make every day is to fight for my place, to work harder, create and defeat preconceived notions,” she says.

Orly Malessa. Spent three years in a Sudanese refugee camp before arriving in Israel in 1983. Roni Katznelson


Operation Moses (Israel/Ethiopia 1980s) - History

The US completed the airlift when it launched Operation Joshua in the same year.

In 1991, Israel launched Operation Solomon and airlifted 15,000 Ethiopian Jewish people.

There are now around 80,000 Jewish people from Ethiopia living in Israel, but they have faced difficulties assimilating into society.

According to a government report in 1999, many cannot write Hebrew and the unemployment rate among the Ethiopian community in Israel is at least three times the national average.

Coming from a subsistence economy some found it hard to find work in an industrialised country.

But nearly all young Ethiopian males have been assimilated into the army during national service.

An independent report has said that Jewish people from Ethiopia were "no longer viewed as a curiosity, but as a familiar part of Israel's ethnic mosaic".

In January 2004, the Israeli government announced that it would speed up the removal of 18,000 Jewish people still living in Ethiopia.

The Falasha Mura community, as they are known, say they are the last remaining Jewish community in Ethiopia and have long been persecuted for their beliefs.


Immigration to Israel: Introduction & Overview

Following their expulsion and after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE, the majority of the Jews were dispersed throughout the world. The Jewish national idea, however, was never abandoned, nor was the longing to return to their homeland.

Throughout the centuries, Jews have maintained a presence in the Land, in greater or lesser numbers uninterrupted contact with Jews abroad has enriched the cultural, spiritual and intellectual life of both communities.

Zionism, the political movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland, founded in the late 19th century, derives its name from word "Zion," the traditional synonym for Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. In response to continued oppression and persecution of Jews in eastern Europe and disillusionment with emancipation in Western Europe, and inspired by Zionist ideology, Jews immigrated to Palestine toward the end of the nineteenth century. This was the first of the modern waves of aliyah (literally "going up") that were to transform the face of the country.

On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed.

The Proclamation of the Establishment of the State of Israel stated: "The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of the exiles it will foster the development of the country for all its inhabitants it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex . . . ."

This was followed in 1950 by the Law of Return, which granted every Jew the automatic right to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen of the state. With the gates wide open after statehood was declared, a wave of mass immigration brought 687,000 Jews to Israel's shores. By 1951, the number of immigrants more than doubled the Jewish population of the country in 1948. The immigrants included survivors of the Holocaust from displaced persons' camps in Germany, Austria and Italy a majority of the Jewish communities of Bulgaria and Poland, one third of the Jews of Romania, and nearly all of the Jewish communities of Libya, Yemen and Iraq.

The immigrants encountered many adjustment difficulties. The fledgling state had just emerged from the bruising war of independence, was in grievous economic condition, and found it difficult to provide hundreds of thousands of immigrants with housing and jobs. Much effort was devoted toward absorbing the immigrants: ma'abarot &mdash camps of tin shacks and tents &mdash and later permanent dwellings were erected employment opportunities were created the Hebrew language was taught and the educational system was expanded and adjusted to meet the needs of children from many different backgrounds.

Additional mass immigration took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when immigrants arrived from the newly independent countries of North Africa, Morocco and Tunisia. A large number of immigrants also arrived during these years from Poland, Hungary and Egypt.

Israel saw a large spike in immigration during 2014, with a 32% increase in general immigration over 2013's numbers. As opposed to 2013's number of 16,968 immigrants making Aliyah to Israel, in 2014 approximately 26,500 individuals made Aliyah. Immigration from the Ukraine increased more than 190% due to the ongoing civil war and social unrest, and for the first time in history immigration from France surpassed immigration from every other country. Looking forward, Israeli officials predicted over 10,000 French individuals to make Aliyah in 2015. During 2014 more people immigrated to Israel from free countries rather than from countries in distress, demonstrating Israel's attractiveness as a place to live and do business. Aliyah from Western Europe in general was up 88% over the previous year's data, and Aliyah from the former Soviet Union was up 50%.

The rising tide of anti-Semitism and fear of terror attacks prompted the largest immigration of Jews to Israel from Western Europe in history during 2015. The Jewish Agency reported that 9,880 Western European Jews made aliyah to Israel in 2015, the largest annual number ever recorded. The vast majority of these immigrants (7,900) came from France, where there were two large national terror attacks as well as many individual violent attacks against Jews during the year. An estimated 800 of these individuals made aliyah from England. In total, 2015 saw 31,013 Jewish individuals from around the globe make Aliyah to Israel, a 12-year high.

The year 2015 saw 16,700 Israelis leave the country to live overseas long-term, and 8,500 move back after living elsewhere for one year or more the first year since 2009 that more Israelis exited than returned. The number of Israelis returning to Israel in 2015 was the lowest in 12 years. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, from 1948 through 2015 about 720,000 Israelis moved to live outside Israel and never returned. They estimate that approximately 557,000 to 593,000 Israelis reside outside of Israel currently.

During 2016, 27,000 immigrants made aliyah to Israel, a significant decrease from 2015's total.

Israel welcomed approximately 37,000 new immigrants during 2017, with the most immigrants arriving in Israel from Russia (27%), the Ukraine (25%), France (13%), and the United States (10%).

Immigration from Western Countries

While mass immigrations to Israel have mostly been from countries of distress, immigration of individuals from the free world has also continued throughout the years. Most of these persons are motivated by idealism. This aliyah gained strength after the Six ­Day War, with the awakening feelings of Jewish identity among Diaspora Jewry.

Immigration from the Soviet Union & former Soviet Union

From 1948 to 1967, the relations between Jews in the Soviet Union and the State of Israel were limited. Following the Six­Day War, Jewish consciousness among Soviet Jews was awakened, and increasing numbers sought aliyah. As an atmosphere of detente began to pervade international relations in the early 1970s, the Soviet Union permitted significant number of Jews to immigrate to Israel. At the end of the decade, a quarter of a million Jews had left the Soviet Union 140,000 immigrated to Israel.

Soviet Jews were permitted to leave the Soviet Union in unprecedented numbers in the late 1980s, with President Gorbachev's bid to liberalize the country. The collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991 facilitated this process. After 190,000 olim reached Israel in 1990 and 150,000 in 1991, the stabilization of conditions in the former Soviet Union and adjustment difficulties in Israel caused immigration to level off at approximately 70,000 per year. From 1989 to the end of 2003, more than 950,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union had made their home in Israel.

Immigration from Ethiopia

The 1980's and 1990's witnessed the aliyah of the ancient Jewish community of Ethiopia. In 1984, some 7,000 Ethiopian Jews walked hundreds of miles to Sudan, where a secret effort known as Operation Moses brought them to Israel. Another 15,000 arrived in a dramatic airlift, Operation Solomon, in May 1991. Within thirty hours, forty­one flights from Addis Ababa carried almost all the remaining community to Israel.

The Israeli government approved the entry of the &ldquolast group&rdquo of Ethiopian Jews in November 2015, aiming to finish what was started by Operation Moses 30 years prior. This announcement comes two years after Israeli government officials claimed that no Jews remained in Ethiopia. There have been several supposedly &ldquolast&rdquo groups of Ethiopian Jews that have made aliyah to Israel, including a group of 450 who arrived in Israel in 2013. It is estimated that this proposal approved the entry into Israel of approximately 9,100 Ethiopian Jews, most of whom were at the time living in refugee camps in Adis Ababa and Gondar. The first group of this new wave of Ethiopian immigration to Israel arrived eleven months after the initial announcement, on October 9, 2016.

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The long journey home of Ethiopian Jewry

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A total of 930 new Ethiopian olim landed in Israel in 2020, most immigrating as a part of the family reunification initiative “Operation Tzur Israel” (“Operation Rock of Israel”). The immigrants fled malnutrition, poverty, extreme conditions and a tense security situation in Ethiopia—aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic—to fulfill a 2,000-year-old old dream of arriving to the land of Israel and to Jerusalem.

The flights, coordinated by the Jewish Agency for Israel, Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, and Israel’s Ministry of Interior, followed the Government of Israel’s decision in October to approve the immigration of 2,000 members of the Ethiopian community, many of whom were left behind after “Operation Solomon” and have been waiting for decades to move to Israel and reunite with their families.

Bringing the immigrants home, said Minister of Aliyah and Integration Pnina Tamano-Shata, is correcting a “horrendous and immoral mistake” by the State of Israel, which “instead of bringing a family—an entire family unit—families were separated, parents from children, grandfathers and grandmothers.”

The complex history of Ethiopian Jews dates back at least 15 centuries. According to Ethiopian Jews, inhabitants of the Jewish kingdom of Beta Israel (later called the kingdom of Gondar) arrived in Ethiopia between the first and sixth centuries, coming to work as merchants and artisans. The community refused to convert to Christianity when Ezana was crowned Emperor in 325 C.E., causing a civil war between the Jewish and Christian populations of the region, and resulting in the Jews creating an independent state so they could continue their Jewish practice. Their practice—based on oral traditions and a nomadic lifestyle that existed until the 20th century—continued through various rulers, wars and forced conversions.

Since the establishment of modern-day Israel in 1948, the government has brought 95,000 immigrants from Ethiopia. In the mid-1980s, 8,000 immigrants arrived with “Operation Moses” through Sudan. As part of “Operation Solomon” conducted in 1991, an airlift brought 14,000 immigrants to Israel. In the summer of 2013, the Jewish Agency concluded “Operation Doves Wings,” which brought 7,000 immigrants from Ethiopia to Israel.

Today, approximately 13,000 Jews currently reside in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, and in Gondar in the northern part of the African country. According to the Jewish Agency, most live in poverty and are waiting to be taken to Israel, which they consider their homeland.

“My goal is to hasten this aliyah, eventually leading to the closing of the camps in Gondar and in Addis Ababa,” Tamano-Shata told JNS.

The minister, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia as a 3-year-old with “Operation Moses,” declared the 2020 operation “one of the greatest deeds and one of the best decisions made by the unity government … a moment that transcends the controversies and debates, a moment of saving lives, and most importantly, a moment of national duty that reminds us who we are as a people, and that we are privileged to return home after thousands of years of exile.”

A drawn-out process

Compared to other immigrant populations of Israel, the Ethiopian community’s immigration has been one of the most drawn out, partially because diverse groups exist within Ethiopia’s Jewish community. Many also believe that there have been economic and religious-based pressures that have kept the government of Israel from bringing the remaining Ethiopians to Israel.

Some 8,000 Falash Mura (a Jewish Ethiopian community whose ancestors converted to Christianity under pressure in the early 1900s) are waiting to make aliyah from Ethiopia with their immigration previously approved in 2015 by a government decision.

But just as soon as their immigration was again approved in 2018, reports surfaced in the Jewish press claiming that because the Falash Mura “remain faithful to Christianity and do not adhere to Jewish law,” they should not be eligible to immigrate under Israel’s Law of Return, which dictates that any individual with one grandparent Jewish may make aliyah with a spouse and children as long as that individual “is not part of another religion.”

“My goal is to hasten this aliyah, eventually leading to the closing of the camps in Gondar and in Addis Ababa,” said Minister of Aliyah and Integration Pnina Tamano-Shata.

Most Israelis consider these allegations to be ignorant and outright false.

“There is no question that they are Jewish by law and practice,” said Aaron (A.Y.) Katsof, director of the Heart of Israel, an organization that is working with the Binyamin Fund to raise money to resettle these Ethiopian Jews in the biblical heartland. “There was very little intermarriage among the Falash Mura,” Katsof, who travels to Addis Ababa and Gondar on a monthly basis to report on their extreme poverty and living conditions, previously told JNS.

“Almost all of them go to shul, go to the mikvah, keep Shabbat—eating cold food and sometimes losing their jobs because they do not work on Shabbat. Most have not touched meat or chicken in nine years, as there is no kosher meat available there,” he said, while “observant Jews in Israel and the U.S. have trouble not eating meat for just nine days during the month of Av.”

According to Katsof, when the Falash Mura immigrate, most continue as Torah-observant Jews and send their children to religious schools at a rate higher than the rest of the Israeli Jewish population. The Falash Mura, he argued, are not accepted because of a mix of racist, financial and political excuses.

“How can people say they are not Jews?” he pondered. “The Falash Mura are more Jewish than many of us are.”

Tamano-Shata explained that in regard to the new immigrants who came with “Operation Tzur Israel,” many of these families were perceived as if “they decided to leave Beta Israel, the Jewish community, that decision applied extreme pressure on the community. Meanwhile, it needs to be known that in fact, most of them did not strike roots with others and are Jewish from their fathers. This is why there was a delay.”

Tamano-Shata added that in addition to the misconceptions about their status as Jews, Israel was guided by economic considerations that has stalled their immigration. “I believe that it is time to look at these people in the eye and not through an economic prism which is what was done for many years,” she said. “On my part, as a member of this community, I will help stop their suffering and do everything to lead to an end to this humane and painful saga.”

“It is very difficult for people to understand that the Ethiopian community are descendants of Avraham, Isaac and Yaakov,” said Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom, an Orthodox rabbi and captain in the Israel Defense Forces’ Reserves. “My friend at Princeton, Professor Ephraim Isaac, who is Yemenite and Ethiopian, once gave a speech about Ethiopian Jews, and many were in shock. An Ashkenazi Jew from Poland questioned the connection between Jews and Ethiopia, so Ephraim said to take the Bible and look for the word Ethiopia. At least 50 times, Ethiopia appears in the Bible. Now, he said, look for the world Poland. None. But the question isn’t about if there is any connection between Poland and Jews.”

According to Shalom, Ethiopian Jews descend from the 10 tribes of Israel. “Halachically and historically, there is no doubt in our Jewishness,” he said.

Shalom expressed his challenges with hypocrisy to his being an Ethiopian Orthodox rabbi. When he suggested in his book, From Sinai to Ethiopia, that Ethiopian Jews should be allowed to continue their Jewish traditions and heritage, “immediately, I became a heretic [among haredi circles]. From their perspective, I was not authentic, but here I was talking to an Ashkenazi Jew wearing a shtreimel—the shtreimel came from Poland! It rose from the culture of Polish people, not Jews. Polish Jews adopted this tradition,” he said.

“They put me on the blacklist,” he quipped. “How can you put an Ethiopian rabbi on the blacklist?”

Preparing for aliyah

According to Shay Felber, director general of the Jewish Agency Integration and Aliyah Unit, the absorption of Ethiopian Jews begins even before they arrive, as “the Jewish Agency staff meets with the olim regularly and prepares them for the entire process—from the paperwork, to medical checkups, to the quarantine and then absorption. They learn about life in Israel, the absorption centers, the education system, employment prospects and what happens during their first year. A special team of volunteers is also set to travel to Ethiopia to work with the youth through a variety of informal educational programs aimed at preparing them for life in Israel.”

Once in Israel, Felber told JNS, they are transported to an absorption center, where staff there speak Amharic and are familiar with the culture. “All staff involved with absorption undergo special training to ensure they are sensitive to the needs of the olim. While the staff at the absorption centers teach the new olim about life in Israel, they also take measures to ensure their existing traditions are preserved,” he said.

“In addition to providing them with items like winter clothing and radiators for the cold weather, there is also a sensitivity to the food supplies provided—making sure to first begin with familiar foods like fruits, vegetables and legumes. Residents of the absorption centers welcome new arrivals with homemade injera and other Ethiopian foods.”

A challenging absorption in Israel

All immigrants find some level of difficulty integrating into the Israeli culture and systems however, Ethiopians often experience even greater challenges because of the disparities between culture, language and, some believe, because of their skin color.

“I believe that the specific challenge of Ethiopian Jews is firstly the disparities between the two countries. I remember when we made aliyah to Israel in the 1980s, the challenges were much larger. Today, I think that olim that arrive are much more prepared, and yet, there are still gaps between the two countries that we have to bridge. We must remember that many of them arrive from villages,” related Tamano-Shata.

“I can say that the challenge of the difference in skin color also poses a struggle with racism and discrimination this is an issue that I’ve been dealing with for many years,” she added.

The topic of racism within Israeli society has been prevalent for decades, though came to a head last year following the shooting of a young Israeli-Ethiopian man by an off-duty police officer. The violence of the riots, along with accusations that Israel’s police and government are racist, surprised many across Israel, raising concerns that organizations with political agendas were inflaming the protests for political gain.

While most are quick to call any parallels between racism in Israel versus the United States “absurd,” when Ethiopian immigrants do arrive in Israel, continued the minister, they struggle with poverty, as they are “paved to specific cities and neighborhoods in these cities,” which Tamano-Shata said is detrimental to their absorption into Israeli society and equal opportunity to succeed.

Moreover, she said, “the data shows that Ethiopian Jews are objectively living in higher rates of poverty and are subject to additional challenges. To my regret, this includes suicide rates the rate of those committing suicide is higher.

Halachically and historically, there is no doubt in our Jewishness,” said Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom, an Orthodox rabbi and captain in the Israel Defense Forces’ Reserves.

Though Shalom acknowledges that he doesn’t know why there is such misunderstanding and discrimination when it comes to Ethiopian Jews, he emphasized, “the roots are not around racism.”

He further stressed that the challenges that Ethiopians face in Israel are significantly different than the challenges they would face in the United States, and their main struggle is not because of the color of their skin but because of misperceptions of who is Jewish.

“Here in Israel, the question isn’t around racism,” he declared, calling the equating the experience of black people in Israel to black people in America “very superficial.”

“You cannot compare the tension and challenges of Ethiopian Jews as what exists in America. In the States, the issue is racism,” he said, adding that within Israeli society, there is at present a 12 percent intermarriage rate between Ashkenazi and Ethiopian Jews (of course, it wasn’t that way in prior decades), whereas in the United States there is just a 6 percent intermarriage rate.

There is widespread awareness that Ethiopian Jews who immigrate to Israel are in need of larger comprehensive government support compared to other olim. “The different local authorities and the state bodies do everything in order to ease their landing into Israeli society. Even after they leave the absorption centers, of course, it doesn’t end,” said Tamano-Shata. “The local authorities receive support for absorption. They are accompanied, there are professionals who work in the local authorities on all matters to assist them, even with education, welfare and the comprehensive support that they need.”

“In Israel, there’s a different education system, family structures change in Israel, and the economic situation is different. We take all this into consideration when preparing the olim so they can more easily adjust to life in Israel,” added Felber.

One major breakthrough has been in the military. Ethiopian Jews, like the rest of the population, serve in the IDF, with many having risen to leadership positions, including Shalom.

According to Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Jewish Agency, it accompanied the new olim on their journey—from pre-aliyah preparations in Ethiopia to the absorption centers spread throughout Israel—and will continue for two years to assist in their integration into Israeli society, including Hebrew learning and preparing for the Israeli education system and workforce.

In Ethiopia, alongside preparing the olim for life in Israel and flying them to Israel, the Jewish Agency continues to operate in the humanitarian field among the community waiting in Ethiopia, including medical care and daily nutrition programs for children and pregnant or nursing women.

The future of Ethiopian Jewry

Tamano-Shata and Shalom are but two examples of many Ethiopian Israelis succeeding within society.

Hundreds of programs exist in Israel to improve the lot of Ethiopian Jews. The minister, for one, has led a program of urban renewal in impoverished neighborhoods where members of the community live in order to enable young couples to receive subsidized mortgages, subsidized after-school activities and supervised the education for Ethiopian immigrants.

“We still have a long way to go, but I am sure that you are able to see the achievements,” she said.

“There are many breakthroughs in many fields in all spheres of life: medicine, law, entertainment, television and politics. It is a huge privilege for me to be the first Ethiopian minister sitting at the government table, and I always say that is a seat of honor for the members of my community, but not only. I want that each and every child will see and know that they can achieve and reach any arena they dream of,” she said.

According to Tamano-Shata, what began with approximately 500 new Ethiopian immigrants in the fall will continue to “2,000 olim until the end of January.”

Currently, she reported, there are approximately 10,000 potential olim in Ethiopia—“maybe a little more—and we need to answer to them.”

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The Last Jews of Ethiopia

The last community synagogue in Gondar, in the north of Ethiopia, is in a rented building cordoned off from the street by large metal sheets. Several men passively stand guard in front. From the outside, a Jewish Agency for Israel sign is the main indication of what lies within.

“You,” two men in frayed jeans and rubber sandals shouted as I paused at the wide street where they loitered. “Beta Israel?”

“There,” they said, gesturing in the synagogue’s direction.

Beta Israel, or House of Israel, is the term for Ethiopia’s indigenous Jewish community. The Jews are also called Falasha, or “outsiders” in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of Ethiopian Christians and Jews. It is here, in the rolling green hills of Gondar, that a distinctive Ethiopian Jewish community of craftsmen and shepherds once thrived. They claimed to derive from the tribe of Dan, one of the lost 10 biblical tribes, although this claim remains historically disputed.

The typical Jewish or American travelers rarely reach Ethiopia, a landlocked country in the Horn of Africa where infrastructure is poor and poverty rampant. But Ethiopia is a desirable destination for travelers seeking new heights, as well as beautiful nature preserves and ancient religious sites. Several Jewish groups, such as Jewish Journeys Ltd., have organized sightseeing or fundraising trips to Gondar and to other areas in the north, like the Simien Mountains and Bahir Dar, where Jews were once populous. Others, like myself, make it their own way.

Travelers, however, will not be coming to this synagogue much longer.

On a Saturday in May, I entered the synagogue with a parade of Falasha children. They enthusiastically grasped my hand and, chattering, led me into the main hall. It is a large space filled with benches and divided by a thin cloth mechitzah, to separate the men from the women. The service is in Ge’ez, which shares the same Semitic roots as Hebrew, Arabic and local Amharic. Only the Kaddish is in recognizable Aramaic.

About 25 women sit in front, most of them dressed in white and wrapped in white shawls, common prayer attire for Christian, Muslim and Jewish women in Ethiopia. The men at this service wear the more distinctively Jewish talitot.

On the synagogue’s walls are posters chronicling the waves of aliyah. Over the years, Israelis have helped thousands of Falasha escape the hardships of Ethiopia to move to Israel.

The children around me have known only Gondar, and they told me that they want to go to Israel, too. They asked for my name in Hebrew, and they told me their respective names. They study the language at Gondar’s only Jewish day school. My American-accented Hebrew confused them.

One little girl, 10 years old and with an overbite and wide eyes, squeezed in beside me on the bench. She began to count in Hebrew, concentrating hard. She counted higher and higher, her recitation mixing with the murmurs of men on the other side of the mechitzah.

Near the service’s end, she grew impatient.

“I want a present,” she said to me in Hebrew. Then she repeated over and over, “Ani yafa [I am beautiful].” She persisted, her voice more deflated: “I am beautiful. Why no present?”

At the service’s conclusion, the children squealed. Then quiet wishes of “Shabbat Shalom” were shared. The Kiddush was recited, and baskets of torn Ethiopian sourdough bread were passed around. A few moments later, the community dispersed into the streets, blending into the crowds of brightly dressed Ethiopians.

The modern history of the Beta Israel is not one to romanticize. It is a complicated and oft-disputed story of competing political, religious and humanitarian interests — a portion of Jewish and world history often overlooked.

In 1975, the Israeli Rabbinate officially extended the Law of Return to the Beta Israel. This meant that the Falasha, like all Jews according to Israeli law, now had the right to Israeli citizenship. While some Israelis supported Ethiopian aliyah for humanitarian reasons, others simply wanted more Jews to populate the country.

Jewish Ethiopians were eager to leave their home country. For years Ethiopians suffered under the infamous despot Haile Selassie. Famine devastated the north, while fighting raged along the country’s borders with Eritrea, Somalia and the Sudan. During these troubling times, communities grew insular and hostile toward outsiders. The Falasha, for years largely unable to possess their own land, often became a target of Christian ill will.

In the 1980s, a series of devastating famines raged in Ethiopia’s rebellious north. Hundreds of thousands, including Falasha, left their villages for a treacherous trek to refugee camps at the Sudanese border, their only route for escape. In the covert Operation Moses (1984–85), the Israelis rescued nearly 7,000 Jews from the camps and brought them to refuge in Israel. Thousands more never made it.

Over the next decade, a civil war simmered. The Soviet-bloc kept Ethiopia’s quasi-socialist leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, propped up against encroaching Eritrean and Tigrean rebels. Facing pressure from several Jewish Diaspora organizations, the Americans and Israelis pushed to accelerate the Falasha emigration. In response, the Mengistu government reportedly offered to leverage Falasha aliyah for Israeli arms. Mengistu’s eventual defeat loomed. In their most daring campaign, in May 1991, the Israelis airlifted more than 14,000 Falasha — most of whom had never seen a plane before — to Israel from Addis Ababa in just 36 hours. The event was dubbed Operation Solomon.

The Israeli Bureau of Statistics estimates that 78,000 Falasha have immigrated to Israel since 1980. There they have greater political freedoms and personal opportunities, but they also face racism and economic marginalization, a stain on the Ethiopian exodus story.

Today, a Jewish cemetery still exists in the forest on the outskirts of Gondar. Adjacent to the forest is an old Falasha village of brown huts. There, an aging woman, who claims she is the last Jew in the village, speaks of the suffering of her family members, now all dead or gone to Israel, and of the joy she finds in creating pottery. In the street outside, neighbors sell crafts they say come from the Falasha village, though it’s been years since a viable Falasha community lived here.

In another part of a city is a compound belonging to the Jewish Agency. The organization facilitates the aliyah process and provides some health and employment services to the Falasha. Inside the compound, Ethiopians patiently sit in rows, waiting for their cases to be heard by Jewish Agency officials, hoping that they will be granted permission to go to Israel.

Gondar’s only Jewish day school, run by the Jewish Agency, is a bumpy drive away. Here the children learn Hebrew in preparation for their relocation. On a tour in May, the headmaster told me that the school — decorated with Jewish stars and flanked by high fences — is the best in the area. Inside, the school provides free lunches of chicken and fruit. There is a sanctuary, a laboratory, a library, a computer room, and even health and family planning services. Boys in uniform play soccer in a large field next to the school’s one-story buildings. In Ethiopia, statistically more children work than read, making the school an impressive feat.

But in Gondar, the Jewish people and places to visit are dwindling fast.

In June the Jewish Agency announced that by September it plans to fly out the remaining 400 Falasha already approved by the Israeli government for aliyah. In the years since the major operations, small numbers of people of have been emigrating each month. The rest of the applicants the Jewish Agency will assess on a case-by-case basis.

The Jewish Agency has announced the end of the Falasha aliyah several times before. But this time, the Jewish Agency’s Ethiopia emissary, Asher Seyum, says it will really happen. In 2011 the Jewish Agency took over aliyah-related operations from the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry in order to streamline the process.

I met Seyum at the Florida International Hotel in Gondar, a popular gathering point for Jews and Israelis visiting the city. At age 12, Seyum was part of Operation Moses after he fled, with his family, a small village outside Gondar and headed to the Jewish camp at the Sudanese border. Now, he is back in Ethiopia as a representative for Israel.

Seyum explained that by the summer’s end, the Jewish Agency plans to conclude its operations, including the synagogue and school.

This is not to say that Ethiopia will be emptied of Jews entirely: thousands of Falash Mura, or descendants of Christian converts from Judaism, are to remain behind in Gondar and its surrounding area. Seyum explained that most Falash Mura, also called Zera Israel, converted in the 19th and 20th century, when Jewish relations with Christian rulers soured. Regardless, many kept ties with their Jewish brethren and were never fully accepted into the Christian communities. When word spread about the aliyah, many thousands of Falash Mura left their villages for Gondar and Addis Ababa, assuming they counted.

Then came the complications.

Today, both Israeli and Ethiopian groups dispute the Falash Mura’s religious and political status. It was not until after Operation Moses that the Israelis became aware of this subgroup that, up until then, had emigrated with the others. Israeli officials became wary of opportunists. Today, Falash Mura who move to Israel must undergo conversion on arrival. Under the Israeli Law of Entry, Falash Mura with family in Israel may apply to make aliyah to reunite with their family members.

Seyum explained that as a Falasha, he empathizes with the people whose lives and futures hang in the balance of Israeli policy regarding emigration.

“It’s not an easy decision,” he admitted of the Jewish Agency’s choice to wind down its operation and evaluate further emigration on a case-by-case basis. “When I talk about the final aliyah, I say it is like an operation: You do the operation and it’s very, very difficult. But if you don’t do the operation, it’s so dangerous.”

For decades, several American and Israeli organizations have been in Gondar to support the community that remains. With the Jewish Agency leaving, these organizations worry that the Jewish community will forget people here. I visited one organization, Meketa, that sponsors children and helps adults left in limbo in Gondar find jobs. In a modest shack beside the Jewish Agency compound, five men, aged 30 to 80, worked intently at looms, weaving blue-and-white talitot to sell.

Antehunegh, 38, told me that he left his village and came to Gondar eight years ago in order to make aliyah. Other weavers have been waiting in Gondar to go to Israel for twice as long. He has five children and is not happy in Gondar, where the rent is too high (400–500 birr, or $21–$27 a month), and both land and jobs are scarce. Many of his family members have already gone to Israel. With hard economic times and limited resources, people are loath to give jobs or sell land to outsiders, he claimed. “Even when there is work in the nearby villages, they won’t let you buy land or build your own house,” he said.

“We see hope in a future in Israel,” explained Antehunegh, who has five children, “If I go to Israel I’ll have the opportunities like every Israeli citizen. I’m thinking of my family and children.”

He was happy, he added, that foreigners had come to see Ethiopia.

Days later, and 100 miles away in Bahir Dar by Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River, I met two Israeli Falasha who had returned to Ethiopia for the first time since they left with their families in Operation Solomon. We toured the muddied Blue Nile Falls together.

“I told myself that I need to do this trip for myself and my identity,” said Beny Fareda, 24, who wore an IDF T-shirt and greeted passing Ethiopians in Amharic. He waved his hand at the cow-plowed fields and wooden huts. “My parents grew up in a place that looked just like this.”

Tomorrow he would head to Gondar to visit what remained.

Miriam Berger is a freelance journalist usually based in the Middle East.


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