Ingathering of Exiles: From Ethiopia to Israel

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You might have heard of the Beta Israel, the community of Israel’s Ethiopian community. In this episode, Noam Weissman tells their story – not only their rich Jewish heritage and history, but also the story of how they got to Israel, in Operation Solomon, and their integration into Israeli society over the last thirty years. It’s thrilling, inspiring, but also complicated, and difficult at times. In other words, it’s a microcosm of the entire state of Israel, and the Jewish community the world over.

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Episode Transcript

If I asked you to pause, close your eyes, and visualize a Jew in your head, what would you picture? Some of you might be picturing a Chassidish man, with long payes, payot, with tzitzit hanging out. Some of you are picturing a soldier of the IDF, wearing her green uniform and beret, proudly saluting the Israeli flag. And some of you might even picture me. I know it’s a podcast, so you can only hear me, but I’ve been told that I look pretty Jewish…I’ll take that as a compliment! But I’ll bet you one thing. Telling someone they “look” Jewish falls somewhere between naive and ignorant… and moronic and nonsensical. I also am pretty confident about something else. When I asked you to visualize a Jewish person in your head, none of you started picturing someone black. 

Well, we’re here to complicate this narrative for you, to encourage everyone to do the very necessary work of changing how we see things. The truth is that the Jewish community is way more ethnically diverse than we might imagine. The 2020 Pew Research Center released their latest findings about the American Jewish community, and found that about 1 in 8 Jews, and 1 in 6 Jews under 30 years old, identifies as Hispanic, Black, Asian, or just generally not white. And in Israel, it’s even more diverse. As of 2019, two years ago, only 44% of Israel’s Jewish population identified as Ashkenazi. Take. That. In. A full 56% identify as Mizrahi, Sephardi, and more.

There are amazing stories about all of these different communities, and hopefully, over the course of Unpacking Israeli History, we’ll be able to dive into each of them. But in this episode, I want to explore the incredible story of Israel’s Ethiopian community, called Beta Israel, or Beit Israel. This group of Jews trace their own community’s story all the way back to the times of the prophets, to the reign of King Solomon.

Now, the story of Beta Israel is actually incredible. Not only their rich Jewish heritage and history, but also the story of how they got to Israel, in Operation Solomon, and their integration into Israeli society over the last thirty years. In some ways, it’s a perfect story for Unpacking Israeli History; it’s thrilling, inspiring, but also complicated, and difficult at times. In other words, it’s a microcosm of the entire state of Israel, and the Jewish community the world over.

So let’s explore the story of Operation Solomon, the history of the Ethiopian Jewish community, and as we do, I think we’ll even be able to answer the question: what does it actually mean to be Jewish?

Let’s start from the beginning. Before we can even talk about the Ethiopian aliyah, let’s actually understand the Ethiopian Jewish community. For more than 2,000 years, Beta Israel has been spread out over hundreds of villages in Northern Ethiopia, in isolation from the rest of the Jewish world. We’re actually not sure how these Jews arrived in Ethiopia, although there are various theories. 

According to Israeli historian Anita Shapira, some scholars think that Ethiopian Jews are descendants of Jews who left the Kingdom of Judah, following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC.

9th-century Jewish traveler Eldad ha-Dani claimed that the Beta Israel are descended from the 10 lost tribes, particularly the tribe of Dan. 

The Beta Israel themselves claim to be descended from the entourage that accompanied Menelik I, emperor of Ethiopia, who was the son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba – and maybe even descendants of Menelik himself.

It’s incredibly hard to trace ancestry with any certainty, which is why we don’t really know. But I’ll bring you into the nerd corner here, and tell you all about the extensive research that’s been done on the question of the Jewish ancestry of the Beta Israel. See, well before the state of Israel, the rabbis would ask “who is a Jew,” for purposes of Jewish law. And they do this for all different types of Jews, all over the world. Usually, rabbis determine someone’s Jewish status by looking at their parents, but for the Beta Israel, it was really, really hard to determine, because their customs were so different, and because they were so isolated from Jews outside of Ethiopia. In the early 16th century, a Rabbi named David ibn Zimra of Egypt, also known as the Radbaz, was a leading legal scholar. He looked into this question, whether the Beta Israel were halachic Jews for purposes of Jewish law. The Radbaz used evidence from the writings of Eldad ha-Dani (600 years earlier!) to determine that yes, the Beta Israel were halachic Jews.

When the question of Ethiopian Jewry and the trek to Israel became a question, the religious authorities debated again. Some modern rabbinic authorities doubted whether to consider the Beta Israel halachic Jews, including Rabbis Elazar Shach, Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and Moshe Feinstein. And these are giants! However, in 1973, Chacham Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, used the writings of the Radbaz (from 500 years earlier!) to confirm that the Beta Israel were Jews. So just to spell that out – in 1973, Rabbi Yosef used the Radbaz’s writings from the 1500s, who used Eldad ha-Dani’s writings from the 800s, to make this ruling. How cool is that?? Halakahic. Process. In Action. Anyway, this decision was later confirmed by a number of other Rabbinic authorities, such as Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel. By 1980, it was confirmed by the two leading rabbis of the country: members of the Beta Israel community are just as much Jewish as I am, or you are (well, if you’re Jewish).

…well, that’s pretty inspiring to me. Just to see that though these Jews have been isolated from the larger Jewish community so long ago, over the past 2,000 years, they’ve never left their Judaism. Beta Israel has clung to the sacred Torah, the same Torah as the rest of us, since the split. Of course, as the communities have been apart for so long, traditions look very different. But they did follow their own laws based off the written Torah, and pretty strictly, observing laws of Shabbat and holidays, kashrut, i.e. keeping kosher, and more.

By the way, follow me back to the nerd corner one more time, because I want to share with you one of my favorite and fascinating differences. Growing up, my family had our regular dishes and pots and pans, one set for dairy, and one set for meat. But before Passover, we would box up all of our regular kitchen things and put them in the basement – and bring up our special Passover dishes, which could never touch bread. (Well, I actually remember standing around a lot, maybe not helping so much, watching nba on nbc on my parents 14 inch tv in the kitchen as Michael Jordan tore up the Knicks or anyone else in his way) Maybe your family does the same thing. However, many Ethiopian Jews have a different custom. Instead of separate dishes, before Passover every year, many Ethiopian Jews break all of their dishes, and all of their cookware, and make new ones before the holiday, to be used for the rest of the year. This celebrates renewal, and the beginning of a new year – pretty incredible.

So let’s come back to the story. There was one more essential part of the Judaism of Beta Israel, which connected them to other Jewish communities around the world, even while they were geographically separated. Which is that for the past 2,000 years, since the Jewish exile from the holy land, Ethiopian Jews have been praying to return to the Land of Israel. In fact, there’s an incredible story I want to share with you. 100 years before the modern state of Israel was established, before Herzl, before the Zionist Congress, in the mid-1800s, a group of thousands of Ethiopian Jews attempted a mass aliyah. This group was led by their religious leader, a man named Abba Mahari, who had a dream in which God told him, in no uncertain terms, that it was time for him to return to his homeland. He convinced thousands of followers to join him on for this aliyah, but tragically, their attempt failed, and the group were forced to turn around and return to Ethiopia. But I think this story is important, because it proves that the spark, the yearning for Israel, was absolutely a critical piece of Judaism for the Beta Israel. And it kinda demonstrates that the yearning for returning to the Jewish homeland was not just some European concoction.

But here’s what’s crazy. So many Ethiopian Jews thought they were the only ones. They didn’t know that there were other Jewish communities scattered around the world, longing for the same thing. Only in the second half of the 20th century, after the modern state of Israel was established, did they even make contact with these other communities, and realize that we were all yearning for the same thing.

So now, it’s all coming together. The Beta Israel want to move to Israel, and Israel, after confirming their Jewish status, is eager to welcome them. Well, okay, I don’t want to whitewash the story. The truth is not all Israelis supported the aliyah of the Ethiopian Jewish community. As the debate raged on about whether the Beta Israel were Jewish, there was another debate, about whether the Beta Israel would be, let’s say, a good “cultural fit.” In 1980, Yehuda Dominitz, then-director general of the Jewish Agency’s Department of Immigration and Absorption, said something that’s honestly a little hard for me to say out loud. He declared that “[taking] a Falasha out of his village [is] like taking a fish out of water… I’m not in favor of bringing them [to Israel].”

Nevertheless, Ethiopian Jews persisted. They had wanted this for so long, and truthfully, Ethiopia wasn’t exactly at its best at this time, either, with civil war, widespread famine, and, most important, an increase in persecution of the small Jewish community. So, many decided it was finally time to escape the hardship and move to Israel. The stage is finally set for Ethiopian aliyah to begin.

It started off small, with only about 500 moving to Israel from the founding of the state until 1979. But starting in around 1980, Aliyah activists, and agents of the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, recruited the Beta Israel to come to Sudan, assuring them that, from there, they would be able to bring them to Israel. Buoyed by that promise, 12,000 Ethiopian Jews trekked through the desert to Sudan, and 4,000 tragically lost their lives from malnutrition, disease and violence along the way. When the remaining 8,000 arrived in Sudan, they expected to be brought over to Israel, but unfortunately, it took a few years, while the Beta Israel languished, continuing to face antisemitism in refugee camps in Sudan. Finally, in 1984 and 1985, Israel, the CIA, and the Sudanese government partnered in Operations Moses and Joshua, and brought these Jewish refugees to Israel.

So by 1985, unfortunately, we haven’t made much progress. Yes, a few thousand Ethiopians have managed to get to Israel. But meanwhile, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews remained stuck in war-torn Ethiopia. Israel was still trying to help them escape, but for a variety of reasons, including pressure from Communist regimes who held a lot of power over the Ethiopian government, they were stuck.

Finally, in 1991, following the collapse of communism, and a simultaneous regime change in Ethiopia, there was an opportunity for action. In May 1991, a lot of moving pieces, including the Israeli military, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the Jewish Federations of North America, and I’m sure others that I’m missing, all came together in a massive covert operation called Operation Solomon.

It took 34 El Al passenger planes, over the course of 36 hours, to bring over 14,000 Beta Israel members to Israel. One of the planes broke a world record it still holds to this day – hey, that’s a nerd corner! – carrying at least 1,088 people, including, in what sounds like it was made for TV, two babies who were born in mid-air. And they’re not the only ones; all told, eight children were born during the airlift process of Operation Solomon. Even as I read those words, I shake my head at the symbolism of that; it’s absolutely insane.

At this point, after the successful Operation Solomon, it feels like we’re finally there. Almost all of Ethiopian Jewry had made it to Israel. They’ve finally fulfilled that millenia-old dream of aliyah. And after Operation Solomon wrapped up in 1991, Israel thought they were basically done, that almost all of the Ethiopian Jews had been brought to Israel. But here’s the thing. There’s actually more to the story. Suddenly, thousands of other Ethiopians began to petition Israel to make aliyah as well – and this group – well, it was a bit more complicated.

Remember how we talked about how there was a bit of a controversy about whether the Beta Israel community were authentically Jewish? Well, this second group, known as the Falash Mura, had even more questions surrounding them. See, the Falash Mura had been part of the Beta Israel community. And if they had stayed in the community, there wouldn’t have been any issues with their aliyah. But then, in the 19th and 20th centuries, some due to proselytizing, and some under duress, they converted to Christianity.

Because of their Beta Israel ancestry, the Falash Mura believe they have just as much of a right to return to Israel as the Beta Israel themselves. But because they had converted, the mainstream Beta Israel community didn’t consider them authentic Jews–they actually petitioned for Israel not to accept them. So for decades, Israel wouldn’t recognize the Falash Mura as Jews, and they weren’t eligible for immigration and citizenship under the Law of Return.

After years of debate in Israel, in 2002, in a fascinating legal decision, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel who we talked about before, officially declared that the Falash Mura had converted out of fear and persecution, and therefore, they should be considered Jews. The Israeli government subsequently decided to admit the Falash Mura to Israel. However, unlike the Beta Israel community, this came with a…small asterisk. See, the Beta Israel olim were considered Jews, full stop. But the Falash Mura, to be allowed to move to Israel, had to commit to undergoing Orthodox religious conversions, because there was a little more doubt. They weren’t the first community to be given this asterisk – for similar reasons, many Russian olim are also not recognized as halachic Jews according to the Israelite government. In any case, though many didn’t like it, the vast majority of the Falash Mura readily agreed to this provision, and thousands of Falash Mura have made aliyah in the last twenty years.

So now, let’s step back and take stock.

At this point, when I think about it, the mass aliyah from Ethiopia is nothing short of remarkable – and dare I say, miraculous? In 1983, there were only a few hundred Ethiopian olim, and today, over 130,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel. In the last 30 years, almost all of the Ethiopian Jewish community have finally fulfilled their centuries-long dream to return to the Land of Israel.

So, how’s it going? How has life been for the Ethiopian community in Israel?

Well, let’s start with the positive. Generally, Israel was psyched to accept these new immigrants. According to a poll taken a week after Operation Solomon, a full 82% of Israelis said they were willing to accept a lower standard of living, if it would help absorb the new immigrants. That self-sacrifice is pretty pretty pretty astounding. And in the 30 years since then, we’ve seen an incredible amount of successful integration. There have been Ethiopian immigrants, and children of immigrants, in leading political positions, like Pnina Tamano-Shata, who became the first Ethiopian government minister, serving as the Minister of Immigrant Absorption. In 2012, Israel appointed the country’s first Ethiopian-born ambassador, Beylanesh Zevadia.

And, Ethiopian-Israelis have also risen through the ranks of the military, which is a huge marker of integration in Israel. In December 2018, an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier became the Israeli Air Force’s first pilot of Ethiopian heritage. And in 2016, Dr. Avraham Yitzhak became the first Israeli of Ethiopian heritage to hold the rank of colonel in the IDF.

The Ethiopian music scene has also been attracting greater attention in Israel. In February 2020, Eden Alene became the first Israeli of Ethiopian descent chosen to represent Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest, and in May of this year, she performed her song “Set Me Free.” The popular Idan Raichel Project — often featuring Ethiopian musicians — has also helped bring Ethiopian music into the Israeli mainstream.

I wish I could stop here, say it’s been a perfect transition, and the end, but that would be called “mythical Israel,” not, “Real Israel.” And, if you’re in the world of Israel education and not Israel advocacy, you know, that’s a big no-no.

In the real world, life is never that simple. The community’s transition into Israeli society hasn’t been as seamless as we all might have hoped, and even today, the integration of Ethiopian Jews continues to have its challenges.

Yes, the Ethiopian community was generally welcomed, and received government and societal assistance with basic necessities, like healthcare, housing, employment, and education. But for years, Ethiopian Israelis have been trying to call attention to difficulties within their community, and what many of them believe to be systemic racism within Israeli society. It’s undeniable that Beta Israel are statistically more likely to live in poverty, have fewer opportunities, and often go to schools with less funding. On top of that, there is subtle, or maybe even not so subtle, discrimation: for instance, the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv revealed in 1996 that the Israeli national blood bank had regularly been destroying blood donated by Ethiopian Israelis, because of concerns of HIV.

Additionally, Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Times of Israel, and other Israeli news organizations have reported on instances of police brutality and other forms of discrimination. According to community activists, Ethiopian Israelis are disproportionately overrepresented in arrests and indictments, and in recent years, several Ethiopian men have been killed by police officers.

Teddy Nugese, a young Ethiopian-Israel rapper, released a song called “Handcuffed,” about police brutality against young Ethiopian-Israeli men. Even if you don’t know Hebrew, I highly encourage you to click the link in the show notes to watch the full music video. Nugese includes lyrics like, “They want me trapped with handcuffs on my hands/they watch me with ten thousand eyes/they only see my skin color, so they push me to the fringe.”

And on top of everything else, the new Ethiopian immigrants also faced religious challenges in Israel. Remember how I said before that there were some doubts about the Jewish status of the Ethiopian community? Well, unfortunately, some Israelis continue to question whether Ethiopian Jews are really Jewish. In 2018, only three years ago, it came out that Barkan Winery, one of the country’s premier winemakers, had banned all Ethiopian-Israeli employees from coming close to the wine, because of doubts about their Jewish status.

It was a pretty upsetting story, and understandably, many of us found it disturbing and frankly, racist. However, I personally am heartened that, very quickly, the Israeli leadership, from rabbis to politicians, quickly and harshly condemned the winery. Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the son of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, came out strongly, saying, “There is no excuse for issuing such instructions other than pure gizanut, pure racism.” Israel’s president at the time, Ruvi Rivlin, called it a serious injustice, and the Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, tweeted: “I have a hard time imagining a Jew who would refuse to drink wine produced by Jews of Ethiopian descent. Racism is shameful.” Barkan Winery quickly backtracked, but the small doubts have continued to percolate in Israeli society. In late 2019, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate Council even had to re-issue a ruling reinforcing that the Ethiopian Jews are in fact Jewish. Because, again, they are.

Now, here in America, we’ve also been having a recent racial reckoning. And I think many of us are tempted to compare the difficulties the Beta Israel community has had with the recent Black Lives Matter movement. But though there are similarities, I don’t feel comfortable equating the two at all. Too often, we use the reality we understand to interpret events with different backgrounds and contexts, thousands of miles away. But that’s not only naive, it’s intellectually lazy, damaging, and if I’m being honest, unacceptable.

I’m not a historian, though I play one on this podcast. (Thank you, Yeshiva University, for that undergrad history degree.) But it’s clear that we cannot understand the reality of the black community in America without understanding the context, which is that most black Americans today are descended from people who were literally brought to American to be enslaved. Generations later, that legacy informs the conversation and the reality. But in Israel, it’s different. Ethiopian Jews proactively made the decision, the choice, to come to Israel, to be members of Israeli society and the Israelis living there proactively were excited about their brothers and sisters joining the Israeli party. That’s a huge, critical difference, and has to impact the way we understand the integration, today.

Ultimately, the story of Operation Solomon is not a story of white Europeans swooping in to save the day for black people. It’s not that Israel is the subject, and Ethiopians were the object. The real, and much more compelling story, is that the aliyah of Ethopian Jewry is the story of the Beta Israel yearning to, and finally being able to, return to their homeland. And the state of Israel, a Jewish state with autonomy and sovereignty, was the conduit, to help finally make it happen.

So, that’s the story of Operation Solomon, and the Ethiopian-Israeli community. Here are your five fast facts:

  1. The Beta Israel community has existed in Ethiopia for at least 2,000 years – and that entire time, like the rest of the Jewish world, they always yearned for a return to the homeland of Israel.
  2. Ethiopian Jews were so desperate to make aliyah that 12,000 of them trekked by foot through the desert to Sudan, where they were placed in refugee camps, and continued to face antisemitic persecution. Through Operations Moses and Joshua, they were finally airlifted to Israel in 1985.
  3. In 1991, a covert Israeli military operation known as Operation Solomon brought over 14,000 Beta Israel Jews to Israel over 36 hours.
  4. In 1983, there were only a few hundred Ethiopians in Israel. After Operations Moses and Solomon, Israel’s Ethiopian population boomed to 20,000, and today, there are over 130,000 Ethiopian Jews who call Israel home.
  5. Although it’s been slow, and has had many challenges, integration is slowly improving.

So it’s now been 30 years since Operation Solomon – but where does this story leave us, today? What can we learn from Operation Solomon?

You might have different lessons from this, but here is an enduring lesson as I see it. The story of the Ethiopian aliyah to Israel and their integration into Israeli society is the story of the Jewish people. Is Judaism a race? NO. Is Judaism a culture? Absolutely not. What is Judaism? The way I see it, Judaism is a religious family. Families feel responsible for one another. Families ensure they look out of their windows and have concern for others, but they also make sure to take care of each other first.

I’m not sure if this is true about your family, but if we’re sticking with the family analogy here, there’s something else which is true about families. Family members can bicker. Family members might not see things the same way as each other. Family members are not always perfect to each other. (Well, my family is perfect, but you know what I mean.) 

This is precisely the story of Israel. Israel is the homeland of this religious family called the Jewish people. Israel’s Declaration of Independence underscores the idea of kibbutz galuyot (the ingathering of exiles) as a central mission of the Jewish state. That’s why the Law of Return, which guarantees automatic citizenship for any Jew around the world, is so central to Israel’s identity.

We can all debate politics and policies for days. That’s not my interest here. My interest here is recognizing that the realization of “kibbutz galuyot” is one of the crowning achievements of the story of Zionism. For the Ethiopian Jewish community, Operations Moses and Solomon put these aspirational ideals into practice, and made possible the fulfillment of a centuries-long dream to return to their ancient homeland. It’s a story of Israel doing exactly what the state set out to do, become a homeland to all Jews, regardless of our different traditions, races, religious observances, and histories.

And that’s the lesson I walk away with from Operation Solomon. Zionism has always been about improving, and viewing challenges as not yet solved. To be a Zionist is to want to constantly cultivate, build, and be proactive. That’s the story of Operation Solomon. That’s the story of the integration of Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society. And that’s the story of the Jewish people.

Thank you all for listening. If you haven’t yet, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And help us grow this podcast community, by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts.

Now it’s time for our final segment, Israel Nerd Talk, where we highlight one of you, our amazing listeners. We get the best emails from you guys, and we want to share them with the world. This week, I want to highlight a great letter we got from a Palestinian listener named Suki. He wrote to us after listening to the episode about Deir Yassin:

I just wanted to thank you so much for your podcast.

First of all thank you so much for the detailed and comprehensive account. You were able to condense a very messy subject in 20 minutes which is impressive.

Secondly, I was really happy you included both narratives and then laid out the facts. Also for including references regarding everything you talked about.

I am of Palestinian descent, and I have never heard the Israeli account of what happened. Come to think of it, I have never heard the Israeli account on anything regarding our shared history. I always considered myself to be an educated person with a global perspective. Today for the first time in my life I realized that it is not true. When it comes to Palestinians and Israelis I am living in a bubble. Your show helped show me that I don’t know the whole story! And that sometimes the story I’ve been told may have had a hidden agenda behind it. An agenda that I may not be aware of. 

What I am trying to say is, in a world that is becoming increasingly polarised it is good to listen to someone who actually cares enough to present both sides and facts. I think revisiting history is one small step on the long long road to achieve peace. 

I. Love. This. Letter. Because aren’t we all just like Suki? We all come from these bubbles, and silos, yes, I’ll say it, echo chambers, and it just feels so challenging to push ourselves out of them. To hear, and really empathize, with different perspectives. So thank you, Suki, for telling us your story. If you, listening, haven’t heard the Deir Yassin episode, check it out, it’s one of my favorites. And if you have thoughts, comments, suggestions, ruminations, whatever to share, don’t hesitate, be in touch! Email us at podcasts@jewishunpacked.com.

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