Ethiopia's Last Jews Prepare for the 'Promised Land'


It was one of the most daring operations in Ethiopian history: Israel's 1991 airlift of Ethiopian Jews, when nearly 15,000 people were crammed into a series of non-stop flights lasting 36 hours.

Clutching only a few belongings, in planes with seats removed to make more space, they left a nation their ancestors had called home for two millennia for a land they knew only from scripture.

More than two decades later, some 2,000 descendants and relatives of those Israel had identified as original Jews are set to join them in the Holy Land.

All that's left of Ethiopia's Jewish population, called the Falash Mura, or "wanderers" in Ethiopia's Amharic language -- is expected to move to Israel over the next 18 months, the end of an ancient chapter of Ethiopian history.

"It is God's promise to us to go to the Promised Land and fulfill his prophecy... but that doesn't change the fact that I am Ethiopian," said Gasho Abenet, 25.

Ethiopia's remaining Falash Mura live in Gondar in the north of the country, supported by the Jerusalem-based organisation The Jewish Agency for Israel, where many have waited for years to complete bureaucratic hurdles and win approval to move.

Many say they feel frozen in limbo, not quite at home in Ethiopia, eager to become Israeli, and suffering from a long separation from family members who have already left.

"Once... you're in this halfway status of being internal refugees, you're certainly better off in Israel than being internal refugees in Ethiopia," said Steven Kaplan, professor of religion and African studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

Many Jews in Ethiopia -- a small minority in a country where officially 62 percent are Christian and 34 percent are Muslim -- say they have been misunderstood and even discriminated against.

Housing rents are arbitrarily hiked, some say, and many report name-calling from those who do not understand or accept Judaism.

"It is difficult to live here in Ethiopia as an Israelite because we get insulted," 22-year-old Amhare Fantahun said.

For Gasho, it means never feeling fully at home in the land of his birth.

"The life that we are living here is a nightmare, we can never settle," he said, donning a black and white skullcap and a Star of David pin.

-- Dictator tried to trade Jews for weapons --

Despite their feeling of apparent transience, the history of Judaism in Ethiopia dates back about 2,000 years.

The precise roots are disputed: some say Ethiopia's ancient Jews -- called Beta Israel, or "House of Israel" -- are descendants of Jewish nomads who traveled first to Egypt, then on to Ethiopia.

Others say they are direct descendants of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.

The Falash Mura, descendants of the Beta Israeli -- many of whom were forced to convert to Christianity in the 18th and 19th centuries -- have observed a unique interpretation of Judaism for generations.

Practices include separating menstruating women from men and burying their dead in Christian cemeteries. They must learn Rabbinic law and Hebrew before moving to Israel.

In skullcaps and draped in prayer scarves, they gather every week in Gondar's makeshift synagogue, a corrugated iron shed painted the blue and white of Israel's flag, chanting verses from the Torah in Ethiopia's Amharic language.

The push to transport Ethiopia's Jews to Israel began in the 1980s, under Ethiopia's brutal Communist dictator Mengistu Hailemariam, who used Ethiopia's Jews as pawns and tried to trade them for weapons from Israel.

Many left Ethiopia illegally, travelling by foot to Sudan, where 20,000 people were eventually flown to Israel in Operation Moses in 1985, the precursor to the 1991 airlift from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

The airlift, known as Operation Solomon, came as Mengistu lost his grip on power.

There are about 130,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent in Israel today. By March 2014, the immigration of Ethiopia's Jews to Israel is expected to finish, closing an ancient chapter of Ethiopia's history.

Under Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie, departure for Israel was blocked as he said the country would lose a key cornerstone of its heritage.

"Haile Selassie said, 'If we did that we would lose one of the key elements in the Ethiopian tapestry. They represent a tradition that we all think we're descended from,'" said Stephen Spector, author of a book about the airlift.

But for Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia Belyanesh Zevadia -- who was born in Ethiopia and lived in Israel for 28 years -- the end of the returns to Israel merely marks a new chapter in relations between the two countries.

"Maybe (we are) losing the culture, the Jewish culture," she said. "But there are so many of them coming back and investing here... so we are building the bridge between the two countries."

Gasho said the heritage lives on in other ways too, even though most of the Falash Mura have left the country.

"We Jewish who are living here in Ethiopia, we taught our wisdom and knowledge," he said. "Our culture is well understood throughout the community... learning, metallurgy, handcraftsmanship, it is all passed on," Gasho added.

At Addis Ababa's transit center, where the Falash Mura gather before boarding a flight to Israel, new shoes and clothes are passed around as children play table tennis and table football under the beating afternoon sun.

Despite not knowing what to expect when they reach Israel, there is a sense of happiness from those about to leave Ethiopia for good.

"I am going to miss Ethiopia, of course, but this is life, so I have to go to Israel, and that is the path decided for me," said Malefeya Zelelu, 84, who waited in Gondar for 14 years before being approved to leave.

"I am now going to be an Israelite," he added, smiling widely.

Comments 10
Thumb ghada12 28 November 2012, 08:17

ya delli, someone should tell them what it is like to live in Israel as a non russian jew!!!!! you will be cleaning their houses for a very small fee!!!! don't go!!!!! 7aram

Missing phillipo 28 November 2012, 11:33

Or perhaps a few years later to become a member of Israel's parliament, a judge, a professor, army or police officer, or even, as the article shows, become the Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia.

Thumb ghada12 28 November 2012, 18:52

Nshallah Phillipo, I have my doubts but nshallah

Missing mil7em 30 November 2012, 22:37

Lol phillipo, he is an ambassador in the country he originates from, of course they would pick an ethiopian to be the ambassador in ETHIOPIA, hardly a proof of them being welcomed by the white jews. You know very well how ethiopians and blacks are treated in "israel" so dont try to play around with your propaganda.

How much do the zionist propaganda department pay you to post pro-israel posts in every article dealing with israel?

Default-user-icon bennie (Guest) 28 November 2012, 10:23

Whereas it is true that each Jewish immigrant (including the Russians) pays an initial economic and social price for making "Aliyah" (returning to the Homeland), future generations acclimate and prosper. So too it will be for the Ethiopians brethern. They are welcomed and treasured in Israel

Thumb ghada12 28 November 2012, 18:48

I hope so Bennie because every human being deserves to be treated with dignity

Missing mil7em 30 November 2012, 22:30

No, not every human being deserves dignity, opressors, thiefs and murderers deserve to live like animals, and most of these ethiopians who have nothing to do with the "promised land" as they are ETHIOPIANS belonging in ethiopia, will be on haaretz in a few months complaining about how they were kicked off a bus being called niggers and denied access to school with ashkenazi european jews. And they deserve it for betraying their real people and real land to help the white jews occupy and opress the natives.

Missing mil7em 30 November 2012, 22:33

No they are not welcomed and you know it bennie. But it doesnt matter, as your illegal presence on occupied land that you call israel is temporary.

Default-user-icon Rochelle (Guest) 28 November 2012, 17:02

Unless you arrive in ANY country loaded with money, you need to make compromises... and you do not go for yourself... you go for your children with the hopes they will have a more promising tomorrow.

Missing mil7em 30 November 2012, 22:31

They are betraying their ethnic people to go join the zionist movement and live on stolen land. They deserve whats awaiting them. Imagine if every ethiopian christian, philipino christian, french christian, german christian and every other christian would want to steal palestine because jesus lived there. This is nonsence.