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Harriet Berkal


by Harriet Berkal, March 15, 2021

As Passover fast approaches, we as Jews, celebrate our deliverance from slavery in Egypt to freedom. The journey led by Moses, through the Sinai desert, took 40 years to reach Israel, the promised land, despite the fact that Moses himself was never allowed to complete the voyage.


Those of us Jews living outside of Israel, known as the diaspora, practise and respect many of the traditions and holidays, inherent in our rich heritage. We know that our homeland is there, if God forbid, we should ever need it. And they will welcome us with open arms. But is that always the case for all born Jews?


There is a group of Jewish people who have made their own migration to Israel, fleeing for their lives to escape persecution, and it has come at a very high price. They are from Ethiopia or otherwise known as Beta Israel (House of Israel) or “Falashas”.


Where did they come from, this cluster who have been isolated from the rest of the World’s Jewry, but who adhere to biblical Judaism?


One school of thought claims that Ethiopian Jews are descendants of the lost Hebrew Dan tribe.


An alternative explanation asserts that the Beta Israel community may be the descendants of the entourage that accompanied Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba.


Finally, leaders from within the community argue that Ethiopian Jews are descendants of Jews who left the conquered Kingdom of Judah for Egypt following the destruction of the First Temple in 586BC. (


The one thing which distinguishes them from us, is that their skin is black. They are as devout as many of our population, perhaps even more so, compared to some. They just don’t look like the “typical” Jew many of us have come to know. But trust, that Hitler would have made no distinction between Caucasian and Black Jews! They would all have qualified for the gas chambers and his Final Solution.


Is there a hierarchy amongst our cultural and religious group, as we find in other sects within our society? If we look at the history of the Ethiopian Jew – the answer becomes clear very quickly and it serves as a blemish on our historical profile.

So, how did they get out of Ethiopia and come to our attention? They were being oppressed in that country.  This begged the question: how can we leave our own behind to suffer at the hands of others? Genocide gnawed upon the collective conscience of the Israeli powers that be.


“It was the brainchild of then Associate U.S. Coordinator of Refugee Affairs, Richard Kregar.” He had become aware of persecution of the Ethiopian Jews and came up with the idea of an airlift organized by Mossad and the Sudanese Representatives. Over 30 flights flew the refugees on Trans European Airways which would not bring attention as they had flown Muslims making pilgrimage to Meca. This served as a good cover.” (Wikipedia)


Many of the refugees had fled Ethiopia on foot for the refugee camos in Sudan. It is estimated that nearly 4,000 died during the trek which took from two weeks to a month.


Prime Minister Menachem Begin, opened up the country to Ethiopian Jews in 1984-85 with the initial covert mission called “Operation Moses” which was organized by the Israeli secret Service Mossad.  They were taken from the Sudan during the civil war that caused a famine. (Wikipedia)


They took these browbeaten people out of refugee camps. I recently watched the Netflix movie “The Red Sea Diving Resort” which features the great lengths and risks in moving these desperate individuals to the land of milk and honey. Upon their arrival, many dropped to their knees to kiss the tarmac in disbelief that they had finally arrived and were safe.


With the end of Mengistu's regime it became easier for Jews to emigrate from Ethiopia and, by the end of the 1990s, about 90,000 of the Beta Israel community had arrived in Israel. Today Israel is home to the largest Beta Israel community in the world with about 125,000 citizens of Ethiopian descent. (Wikipedia)



Yes, they were provided with the basics of housing, healthcare and education. Ethiopian Israeli schoolchildren comprise only 2% of Israeli pupils, most of them study at schools that are predominantly Ethiopian.


They weren’t granted automatic citizenship, as other immigrants had been. Some from the religious communities were suspicious that they might not really be Jewish at all. One of the early incidents that exposed this approach was the revelation in the 1990s that the Israeli national blood bank had routinely destroyed blood donated by Ethiopian Israelis for fear of HIV. What kind of message did this send to the rest of Israel? It was one of exclusion. (Wikipedia)


There was a lack of empathy for the hardship these people had gone through on their journey to make it to the promised land, where many had left their homes and families behind. It was without a doubt a hazardous journey.


Ethiopian Jews who typically live on the periphery communities, face the highest levels of unemployment. And as well, they face the highest levels of stop and search and incarceration by the Israeli police. “It was the cycle of discrimination, racism, poverty, hopelessness and higher levels of law breaking that led to the recent clashes in the streets of Israeli cities, between Ethiopian Israelis and the police.”


They do serve in the military and there have been disagreements here as well.


In 2016 an ongoing dispute between police and the Ethiopian immigrant community over alleged police racism took a new turn when combat reserve soldiers from the community declared that they would not turn up for duty.


“We’re sick of the state’s demand that we continue to honor a contract according to which we are citizens with obligations but not rights,” the reservists wrote to the army’s chief of staff. (The Times of Israel)


They are willing to die for their country and yet are subjected to racism? This sounds exploitative in nature, does it not?  Good enough to fight but not equal. All blood is red.


Remember, that in 1945, post Holocaust other Jews, only white in colour, made Aliyah to Israel to be greeted by the British. They had to fight for the homeland. So, why did they not have more empathy for the plight of Ethiopian Jews?


Today we have the first Ethiopian -born Israeli Minister elected to Cabinet. Her name is Pninia Tamano- Shata and she came to Israel as part of Operation Moses in 1984.


In order to reach Israel, she, together with her father and five brothers, walked to Sudan, where they and thousands of others were airlifted to the Jewish state. Her mother was left behind and the family was only reunited several years later.


After receiving a law degree, Tamano-Shata became an activist, joined the Yesh Atid party in 2012, and served in the Knesset.


“I am excited and proud to take on the role of minister of aliyah and integration,” Tamano-Shata told Israeli daily Maariv.


She added, “For me, this is a landmark and the closing of a circle, from that three-year-old girl who immigrated to Israel without a mother on a cross-desert foot journey; through growing up in Israel and the struggles I led and am still leading for the community, integration, the acceptance of the other, and against discrimination and racism; up to my public mission inside and outside the walls of the Knesset and today to the status of minster of aliyah and integration.”


Tamano-Shata noted, “Aliyah is the soul and beating heart of the State of Israel. I will work diligently to encourage immigration from all countries of the world and to lead the reform of the immigrant absorption process in Israel.”


She called serving Israeli immigrants “a great national mission” and said she would work “with dedication and loyalty to make every immigrant child or adult feel at home from the first minute.”


As recently, as January and November 2020, Ethiopians Jewry are still making Aliyah to Israel. One of the most recent trips was financed by Mr. Wang a wealthy Chinese businessman, who believed that these people deserve to be reacquainted with family who came before them. (The Times of Israel)


While Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish, immigrants from Ethiopia belonging to the smaller Falash Mura community are required to undergo Orthodox conversion after immigrating. The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. Some 30,000 of them have immigrated to Israel since 1997, according to the Prime Minister’s Office. ( the Times of Israel)


So, some progress has been made, but it is distressing that Ethiopian Jews have been made to feel like second class citizens, after risking their lives to join their brethren, who haven’t always embraced them as peers. Can we afford to have factions amongst us? I think not. It’s not reflective of the scriptures we have been raised upon and it makes us vulnerable as a people ununified and subject to enemy forces.


In the end, a Jew is a Jew- no matter what colour our skin is or where we come from.


This Passover remember the great exodus from Egypt but let us not forget those brave Ethiopians who valued and treasured their heritage and sought refuge amongst their own.


If anyone wishes to donate monies to assist with the Ethiopian Jewry here is a link to do so:

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