The Beta Israel: The return of a lost tribe

There is very little known about the Ethiopian Jewry and it is very intriguing to read and learn from this and it is not less than a miracle that this tribe through the thousands of years is still standing strong and kept their strong Jewish community and religion despite persecution, famine and war.
The operations Moses, Salomon and Joshua, brought them back to the homeland, Eretz Israel, but the controverse about their Jewish identity is huge

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Published: DECEMBER 16, 2021 17:53 Ethiopian Jews stream out of a Hercules airplane after rescue in Operation Solomon (photo credit: TSVIKA ISRAELI/ GPO

The Beta Israel/ Falasha Jewry:

Beta Israel, formerly called Falasha also spelled Felasha, now known as Jews of Ethiopian origin. Their beginnings are obscure and possibly polygenetic. Which immediately explains the controverse of being truly Jewish according to the Halachi Laws. The Beta Israel (meaning House of Israel) themselves claim descent from Menilek I, traditionally the son of the Queen of Sheba  and King Salomon. At least some of their ancestors, however, were probably local Agau peoples in Ethiopia who converted to Judaism in the centuries before and after the start of the Christian Era.

Although the early Beta Israel remained largely decentralized and their religious practices varied by locality, they remained faithful to Judaism after the conversion of the powerful Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum to Christianity in the 4th century CE, and thereafter they were persecuted and forced to retreat to the area around Lake Tana, in northern Ethiopia. Coming under increased threat from their Christian neighbours, the disparate Jewish communities became increasingly consolidated in the 14th and 15th centuries, and it was at this time that these communities began to be considered a single distinct “Beta Israel.” Despite Ethiopian Christian attempts to exterminate them in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Beta Israel partly retained their independence until the 17th century, when the emperor Susenvos utterly crushed them and confiscated their lands.

Their conditions improved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at which time tens of thousands of Beta Israel lived in the region north of Lake Tana. Beta Israel men were traditionally ironsmith, weavers and farmers. Beta Israel women were known for their pottery.

The Beta Israel have a Bible and a prayer book written in  Ge’ ez an ancient Ethiopian language. They have no Talmudic Laws, but their preservation of and adherence to Jewish traditions is undeniable. They observe the Shabbat practice circumcision , have Synagogue services led by priests (kohanim) of the village, follow certain dietary laws of Judaism, observe many laws of Ritual Uncleanness, offer sacrifices on Nisan 14 in the Jewish religious year, and observe some of the major Jewish festivals.

The history of Ethiopian Jewry goes back millennia. For almost 2,000 years, the Beta Israel had their own community – even their own kingdom and army – in the Simien Mountains region of Ethiopia. Their main city was Gondar, and their king was said to be a descendant of the kohen gadol, the High Priest Zadok. Their Golden Age was from 850 to 1270 CE, when the community flourished and they lived autonomously. 
While the Beta Israel was cut off from the rest of the Jewish world – indeed, they believed they were among the only Jews left on earth after the Temple’s destruction! – slowly, word of their existence began to filter out. Marco Polo and Benjamin of Tudela wrote of the existence of an independent Jewish nation, a “Mosaic kingdom lying on the other side of the rivers of Ethiopia.” Eldad Ha-Dani, a ninth-century merchant and traveler, told at length the story of the Lost Tribes of Israel, including that of the ancient tribe of Dan, who lived in Kush, the “land of gold,” mentioned in the first book of the Torah. They had the five books of Moses (Chumash), he reported, but not the Talmud we have today.

Throughout the centuries, The Beta Israel fought numerous wars against other tribes throughout Ethiopia – some Christian, others Muslim – and were subjected to numerous attempts to forcibly convert them. Many were killed or sold into slavery. One adversary who sought to subjugate them, the Emperor Zara Yacob (who reigned from 1434–1468), even proudly added the title “Exterminator of the Jews” to his name. Yet despite all the efforts to eliminate the community, and horrendous hardships, the Beta Israel survived and clung to their traditions.
In the 16th century, the chief rabbi of Egypt, David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra (also called the Radbaz, c. 1479-1573), proclaimed that in terms of halacha, the Ethiopian community was certainly Jewish. He wrote: “The matter is well-known that there are perpetual wars between the kings of Kush, which has three kingdoms; the Ishmaelites, the Christians and the Israelites from the tribe of Dan. They know only a few of the biblical commandments, but are unfamiliar with the Oral Law, nor do they light the Sabbath candle. War ceases not from among them.” He concludes that “if the Ethiopian-Jewish community wishes to return to rabbinic Judaism, they would be received and welcomed into the fold, just as were the Karaites who returned to the teachings of the Rabbanites in the time of Rabbi Abraham ben Maimonides.”

In the mid-19th century, the Beta Israel population was estimated to number about 250,000 people (a number that would be greatly reduced by the famine of 1882-1892). But Western missionary organizations began an intensive drive to convert them to Christianity. The London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews began operating in Ethiopia in 1859. These Protestant missionaries, who worked under the direction of a converted Jew named Henry Aaron Stern, converted many of the Beta Israel community to Christianity, but also provoked a strong response from European Jewry.
As a result, several European rabbis proclaimed that they recognized the Jewishness of the Beta Israel community, and eventually, in 1868, the Alliance Israélite Universelle organization decided to send the Jewish-French Orientalist Joseph Halévy to Ethiopia to study the conditions of the Jews there. Upon his return to Europe, Halévy made a very favorable report of the Beta Israel community in which he called for the world Jewish community to save the Ethiopian Jews, to establish Jewish schools in Ethiopia, and even suggested to bring thousands of Beta Israel members to settle in Ottoman Syria (a dozen years before the actual establishment of the first Zionist organization).
The myth of the lost tribes in Ethiopia intrigued Jacques Faitlovitch, a student of Halévy. In 1904, Faitlovitch decided to lead a new mission in northern Ethiopia. He obtained funding from Jewish philanthropist Edmond de Rothschild and traveled and lived among the Ethiopian Jews. In addition, Faitlovitch managed to disrupt the efforts of the Protestant missionaries to convert the Ethiopian Jews, who at the time attempted to persuade the Ethiopian Jews that all the Jews in the world believed in Jesus. Following his visit in Ethiopia, Faitlovitch created an international committee for the Beta Israel, popularized the awareness of their existence and raised funds to enable the establishment of schools in their villages.

As a result of his efforts, in 1908, the chief rabbis of 45 countries made a joint statement officially declaring that Ethiopian Jews were indeed Jewish. This decision would later be affirmed by the leading rabbis of Israel, including Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Shlomo Goren. The Jewishness of the Beta Israel community became openly supported among the majority of the European-Jewish communities during the early 20th century.

From 1980 to 1992 some 45,000 Beta Israel fled drought- and war-stricken Ethiopia and emigrated to Israel. The number of the Beta Israel remaining in Ethiopia is uncertain, but estimates suggested a few thousand at most. The ongoing absorption of the Beta Israel community into Israeli society was, as said before, a source of controversy and ethnic tension in subsequent years.

The Mission
Jewish tradition holds that there is no greater mitzvah than pidyon sh’vuyim, the rescue of Jews at risk, or held captive. For the last half-century, Ethiopia’s Jews have struggled to join their brothers and sisters – literally – in Israel. Heroic efforts have been made by the Israeli government, through a series of daring exploits – including Operations Moses, Solomon and Joshua – to bring the Beta Israel home. They see themselves as no different whatsoever – other than the color of their skin – from the Yemenite, Iraqi, Moroccan or Russian communities who were welcomed into the land of and integrated into the Jewish society. They survived devastating famines and endless wars; they battled poverty, forced conversions and discrimination, yet they held on to their dream of life in the Holy Land. 
Now, thank God, all but 10,000 of them have returned. The others wait to be reunited with their families and join in our historic journey, in the sacred adventure we call Zionism. They are deeply spiritual, gentle yet strong, patient yet determined. They are remarkable in their resilience and they have been delayed all too long. It’s time to bring them home.

Operation Moses
The operation, named after the Biblical figure Moses, was a cooperative effort between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the United States embassy in Khartoum, Mercenaries, and Sudanese state security forces. Years after the operation completed, it was revealed that Sudanese Muslims and secret police of Sudan also played a role in facilitating the mass migration of Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan. Operation Moses was the Idea and ambition of then Associate U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, Richard Krieger. After receiving accounts of the persecution of Ethiopian Jews in the refugee camps, Krieger came up with the idea of an airlift and met with Mossad and Sudanese representatives to facilitate the Operation.

After a secret Israeli cabinet meeting in November 1984, the decision was made to go forward with Operation Moses. Beginning November 21, 1984, it involved the air transport byTrans European Airways of some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan via brussels to Israel, which operation ended on January 5, 1985.
Over those seven weeks, over 30 flights brought about 200 Ethiopian Jews at a time to Israel. Trans European Airways had flown out of Sudan previously with Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca, so using TEA was a logical solution for this semi-covert operation because it would not provoke questions from the airport authorities. 

Before this operation, there were approximately as few as 250 Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. Thousands of Beta Israel had fled Ethiopia on foot for refugee camps in Sudan, a journey which usually took anywhere from two weeks to a month. It is estimated as many as 4,000 died during the trek, due to violence and illness along the way. Sudan secretly allowed Israel to evacuate the refugees. Two days after the airlifts began, Jewish journalists wrote about “the mass rescue of thousands of Ethiopian Jews.”

Operation Moses ended on Friday, January 5, 1985, after Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres held a press conference confirming the airlift while asking people not to talk about it. Sudan killed the airlift moments after Peres stopped speaking, ending it prematurely as the news began to reach their Arab allies. Once the story broke in the media, Arab countries pressured Sudan to stop the airlift. Although thousands made it successfully to Israel, many children died in the camps or during the flight to Israel, and it was reported that their parents brought their bodies down from the aircraft with them. Some 1,000 Ethiopian Jews were left behind, approximately 500 of whom were evacuated later in the U.S.-led Operation Joshua. More than 1,000 so-called “orphans of circumstance” existed in Israel, children separated from their families still in Africa, until five years later Operation Solomon took 14,324 more Jews to Israel in 1991. Operation Solomon in 1991 cost Israel $26 million to pay off the dictator-led government, while Operation Moses had been the least expensive of all rescue operations undertaken by Israel to aid Jews in other countries.

Operation Solomon
“Operation Solomon was a rescue aliyah operation. It was a historic chapter that attests to the ability and desire of the people of Israel to rescue Jews anywhere in the world,” says former shaliach (emissary) Avi Mizrahi, who at the time of Operation Solomon was in charge of Ethiopian airport operations for The Jewish Agency, along with then-IDF deputy chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
“Thousands of people participated, including Jewish Agency staff in Ethiopia and Israel, in cooperation with all of the parties involved – the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Mossad, the IDF and especially the air force, American Jewry and the Jewish Federations of North America JFNA [then UJA], as well as the American Association for Ethiopian Jews. More than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were spared from decades of waiting, arriving in Israel via air shuttles within 24 hours.” In his first interview on the 30th anniversary of the operation, he adds, “For me, this operation was the ultimate. What we had wished throughout all our years of activity, happened. Thirty years have passed and I am still excited about it as if it happened yesterday.”
In 1989, after 16 years of separation, diplomatic ties between Israel and Ethiopia were renewed and the Ethiopian government, led by dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, allowed several hundred Jews to immigrate to Israel each month as part of a family reunification program. At the beginning of 1991, the security situation in Ethiopia was shaky, as conflicts between the central government and Mengistu’s opponents intensified. With rising tensions in the country, there was growing concern about the fate of the Ethiopian Jews, and it was decided to bring them to Israel in a rapid-response operation. Some $35 million was paid to the local government with the help of donations from American Jewry, in exchange for its consent to bring the Jews to Israel. The dramatic operation was named “Operation Solomon,” after King Solomon, who according to the biblical narrative, met the Queen of Sheba.

In September 1990, 38-year-old Avi Mizrahi, together with his wife, Orna, and their four young daughters – Kinneret, three; Reut, five; Ma’ayan, nine; and Liron, 13 – traveled to Ethiopia as the shaliach of The Jewish Agency. The Mizrahi family was the first Israeli family sent to Ethiopia, and was followed by others, via the JDC. The two organizations together assisted the members of the community in finding employment, and provided a living allowance, schooling and more. The mission to bring the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel was entrusted to The Jewish Agency’s emissaries. In December 1990, there was an attempted revolution in Ethiopia. 
“There had been several attempts in the past, but this time we realized that the situation was different,” says Mizrahi. “Because of the situation, they began returning the families of the Israeli emissaries to Israel, including my wife and four daughters. At the same time, the JDC, with the assistance of The Jewish Agency, prepared a communications network – a group of 120 activists from the community who would assist in dealing with the Jews of Ethiopia should the situation worsen. 
“In 1991, we realized that the situation was escalating. Two issues concerned us. One was the question of how the community would survive if the situation deteriorated. The other was the possibility of rescuing Ethiopian Jews before the revolution. 
Micha Feldman was in charge of The Jewish Agency delegation in Ethiopia, which consisted of several emissaries. Uri Lubrani was appointed by the Foreign Ministry to negotiate with the authorities to carry out the operation. Together with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Mossad and the JDC and the IDF, we began to think about how to get them out within 48 hours,” recalls Mizrahi.
The rebels had already reached the outskirts of Addis Ababa.


“On the evening of Thursday, May 23, we received approval for the operation. We did not know how to inform everyone. We gathered the group of activists and informed them that the aliyah operation would begin the next day. We were concerned that once the operation became known that there would be many factors that would try to sabotage it. We decided to tell them the truth: ‘There is a secret operation and everyone is making aliyah.’ 
“WE TOLD THEM to bring everyone to the embassy the next day, without exception. We asked them to bring their families early in the morning and then bring the rest of the community. We prepared the huge courtyard of the embassy as an exit station for the olim [immigrants], and the olim themselves prepared the compound, not knowing that they were preparing it for the upcoming operation.”
One of the challenges was to obtain a fleet of buses that would take the immigrants from the embassy compound to the planes without arousing suspicion. A creative solution was found. 
“In order to prepare without giving away the existence of the operation, we organized a trip to the zoo for the students on Thursday, the day before the operation began. This way we could order the buses and plan the transportation of olim from the embassy complex.”
On Friday morning, members of the network began visiting the homes of members of the Jewish community to inform them that they were about to make aliyah to Israel. 
“There was tremendous excitement. Many were crying. It is difficult to describe it in words. Some families tried to sell their possessions before leaving for the embassy compound. Some succeeded,” says Mizrahi. “We set up organized stations in the Israeli Embassy complex for the entire process required before aliyah. At one station, we checked the family ID that had been prepared in advance for each family against a picture of the entire family. At another station, numbers were prepared for all immigrants to identify them by organized groups to get to the buses and from there to the planes. The difficulty was that huge numbers of people came to the Israeli Embassy – not just Jews. We only admitted those with the certificates. At that time there was a nightly curfew in Ethiopia. Anyone walking on the street was shot. Together with the authorities, we agreed that the curfew would not apply to our buses.”
Throughout those nerve-wracking hours, additional problems arose that required improvisation and quick fixes: The Ethiopian government requested that an Ethiopian airline plane take part in the operation. 

“We arrived at the airport with 200 immigrants and the captain informed us that there were only 150 seats on the plane. I quickly recovered and informed the captain that 50 of the passengers were babies sitting on their parents’ knees.”
More than 100 round-trips of dozens of buses set off, from 6 a.m. Friday until 7 a.m. Saturday. 
“It has been said that Operation Solomon lasted 36 hours,” says Mizrahi. “I claim that it was only 24 hours – from the first plane that left Ethiopia on Friday to the last plane that left Ethiopia on Saturday. After transferring everyone from the embassy compound to the runway, I drove to our apartment in Addis Ababa, took a suitcase and joined the last plane in the operation that took off for Israel. We landed in Israel on Saturday around three or four in the afternoon. There was a complete blackout about the operation and nothing was published in the media. 
“I got off the plane at the civilian airport section and drove home to Jerusalem. The immigrants continued to the reception held in their honor at the airport. I turned on the TV and saw the immigrants, who just a short time earlier I had accompanied on the big aliyah operation. I could finally relax. All of the immigrants were brought to absorption centers and hotels operated by Jewish Agency personnel in coordination with government ministries.” 
What about families who did not arrive on time? Mizrahi joined The Jewish Agency in 1978 as a social worker and began to work with Ethiopian immigrants in 1980, assisting them in their aliyah and absorption in Israel. He led the absorption of immigrants in Operation Moses, and knew he would return to complete the mission. Several months later, after the airport opened in Addis Ababa, he flew to Ethiopia and brought the families who had remained behind.
RACHELI TADESA MALKAI, 38, founder and director of an organization for the empowerment of Ethiopian women, was eight years old when she immigrated to Israel in Operation Solomon with her parents and three younger brothers.
“About a year before our aliyah, a rumor spread that we would soon be able to immigrate to Israel,” she says. During the interview, we found out that her father was one of those from the communications network.

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“Dad was very purposeful. I was very stressed. We left overnight for a place I did not know, completely different from what I had known. Were we really being taken to a safe place? We moved to Addis Ababa from a town near Gondar, to be near the embassy. One day we were told that the planes were on their way. Everything was done in secret. We arrived at the embassy courtyard. There were thousands of people with small suitcases and bags of mementos. A number had been written on our foreheads so we could know to which group and plane we belonged. At the airport, planes waited for us with their engines running so that they could depart quickly. The valuables and souvenirs that my parents had brought with them had to be left behind. 
They were told that the space on the plane was for people – not belongings.
“When I got on the plane, I felt like I was getting into a big bird. A shiny black plastic sheet was spread out on the floor. There were no seats. They had been taken out, so that there would be as much room as possible for people. After everyone got in, we were told, ‘You can sit down.’ Today I know that these were IDF soldiers in civilian clothes. I sat close to the window because I wanted to see what was happening. I remember the concerns. I said to my mother, ‘Are we really going in the sky with this bird?’ I had never seen planes before. 
“The flight took off, and in the middle of the flight there were shouts of a woman kneeling to give birth. We were told to make room for her so that they could assist her in giving birth. There was little room, and I heard whispers. These were very tense moments. One of the guys told a joke to relieve the tension. I could not believe my eyes. It took a few seconds from the moment the baby emerged until he cried. Everyone laughed and applauded. They took the woman aside, wrapped the baby in a blanket and we arrived in Israel. My parents said, ‘Something new has been born. We are on our way to the Holy Land.’
“When the plane landed, no one believed it was real. We had all dreamed from the day we were born of a land flowing with milk and honey. This is what we had heard about the Holy Land. I was curious; is the water that is flowing really milk, and is everyone licking honey? We went down the steps of the plane, and I saw a sight I will never forget: Everyone – big and small, was lying on the tarmac and kissing the Land of Israel. To this day, I tell myself that there are many aliyot, but the aliyah of the Ethiopians was particularly moving. 
“It was an aliyah of a people that preserved its Judaism for 2,000 years without any connection to the outside world. It took time and today I can say, it is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey, with a bit of thorns, but we should not let anyone question us. This is my country like everyone else’s, and my social activity is focused on accepting ourselves as we are – to be proud of who we are and not to hide behind another identity.’
“This milestone anniversary of Operation Solomon serves as a crucial reminder for Israel and world Jewry that all of the Jewish people are responsible for one another. It also shows, once again, that when the global Jewish people collectively rally together around a cause, nothing is impossible,” said Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog. “A wonderful example of the power of our unity are the 2,000 new olim The Jewish Agency was able to bring from Ethiopia this past year, despite the pandemic, together with the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, with support from global Jewry including the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod and other donors from around the world.”

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About The other side Is Real

My name is Sabine Sterk and since I was very young I was a fanatic Israeli supporter. My father worked for the UNTSO and was sent to the Middle East when I was 12 years old. I lived in Syria and Israel and saw from a young age the difference between the cultures… When I returned to the Netherlands I noticed that the Anti Israel sentiment was increasing and I started to fight this. I admire Israel for all the good things that are achieved in the country. I am not religious and my motto is: Israel has the right to exist and Israel has the right to defend herself. As long as I live I will stand up for Israel and speak out on behalf of her. My ultimate dream is to find work in Israel or for Israel… I still hope to Fulfill that dream anytime soon… There is nothing I want more. I am passionate, a true Zionist supporter, enthusiastic, impulsive, impatient, honest but always try to live the best I can.
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