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!
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • 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.