The Last Jews of Ethiopia

A Community Vanishes as a Final Group Leaves for Israel

Geography Class: Ethiopian Jewish students locate cities on a map of Israel at the Jewish Agency school.
Getty Images
Geography Class: Ethiopian Jewish students locate cities on a map of Israel at the Jewish Agency school.

By Miriam Berger

Published August 09, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 3 of 4)

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.