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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I met Seyum at the Florida International Hotel in Gondar, a popular gathering point for Jews and Israelis visiting the city. At age 12, Seyum was part of Operation Moses after he fled, with his family, a small village outside Gondar and headed to the Jewish camp at the Sudanese border. Now, he is back in Ethiopia as a representative for Israel.

Seyum explained that by the summer’s end, the Jewish Agency plans to conclude its operations, including the synagogue and school.

This is not to say that Ethiopia will be emptied of Jews entirely: thousands of Falash Mura, or descendants of Christian converts from Judaism, are to remain behind in Gondar and its surrounding area. Seyum explained that most Falash Mura, also called Zera Israel, converted in the 19th and 20th century, when Jewish relations with Christian rulers soured. Regardless, many kept ties with their Jewish brethren and were never fully accepted into the Christian communities. When word spread about the aliyah, many thousands of Falash Mura left their villages for Gondar and Addis Ababa, assuming they counted.

Then came the complications.

Today, both Israeli and Ethiopian groups dispute the Falash Mura’s religious and political status. It was not until after Operation Moses that the Israelis became aware of this subgroup that, up until then, had emigrated with the others. Israeli officials became wary of opportunists. Today, Falash Mura who move to Israel must undergo conversion on arrival. Under the Israeli Law of Entry, Falash Mura with family in Israel may apply to make aliyah to reunite with their family members.

Seyum explained that as a Falasha, he empathizes with the people whose lives and futures hang in the balance of Israeli policy regarding emigration.

“It’s not an easy decision,” he admitted of the Jewish Agency’s choice to wind down its operation and evaluate further emigration on a case-by-case basis. “When I talk about the final aliyah, I say it is like an operation: You do the operation and it’s very, very difficult. But if you don’t do the operation, it’s so dangerous.”

For decades, several American and Israeli organizations have been in Gondar to support the community that remains. With the Jewish Agency leaving, these organizations worry that the Jewish community will forget people here. I visited one organization, Meketa, that sponsors children and helps adults left in limbo in Gondar find jobs. In a modest shack beside the Jewish Agency compound, five men, aged 30 to 80, worked intently at looms, weaving blue-and-white talitot to sell.

Antehunegh, 38, told me that he left his village and came to Gondar eight years ago in order to make aliyah. Other weavers have been waiting in Gondar to go to Israel for twice as long. He has five children and is not happy in Gondar, where the rent is too high (400–500 birr, or $21–$27 a month), and both land and jobs are scarce. Many of his family members have already gone to Israel. With hard economic times and limited resources, people are loath to give jobs or sell land to outsiders, he claimed. “Even when there is work in the nearby villages, they won’t let you buy land or build your own house,” he said.

“We see hope in a future in Israel,” explained Antehunegh, who has five children, “If I go to Israel I’ll have the opportunities like every Israeli citizen. I’m thinking of my family and children.”

He was happy, he added, that foreigners had come to see Ethiopia.

Days later, and 100 miles away in Bahir Dar by Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River, I met two Israeli Falasha who had returned to Ethiopia for the first time since they left with their families in Operation Solomon. We toured the muddied Blue Nile Falls together.

“I told myself that I need to do this trip for myself and my identity,” said Beny Fareda, 24, who wore an IDF T-shirt and greeted passing Ethiopians in Amharic. He waved his hand at the cow-plowed fields and wooden huts. “My parents grew up in a place that looked just like this.”

Tomorrow he would head to Gondar to visit what remained.

Miriam Berger is a freelance journalist usually based in the Middle East.


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