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.
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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.
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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.


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