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The Plight of Ethiopian Jewry

January 12, 2022

by: Nathan Williams, Director of Marketing and Communications

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The continent of Africa unfortunately has a sordid history of violent coups and revolutions. During these periods of political crisis that all too often lead to civil war, the persecution of minority groups is a common occurrence. One of many African nations that is no stranger to this ill-fated fortune is Ethiopia. In the past, revolution has thrown the nation from monarchial rule into the bonds of Marxism after which a coup finally freed Ethiopians into a fragile democracy. Today, the same rebels who once brought the nation freedom now seek to unsettle the democratic stability. There is a particular group whose fate always hangs in the balance as the winds of instability blow through this east African nation: the Jews of Ethiopia.

History in Brief

There is evidence of a Jewish community being established in Ethiopia around the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BC. Several theories exist about their exact origin. One theory claims them to be descendants of an affair between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, believed to be Makeda, Queen of Ethiopia, in the chronicles The Glory of the Kings. Other theories suggest that Ethiopian Jews are the lost Israelite tribe of Dan. In the 9th century AD, a merchant and traveler, Eldad Hadani, writes in his journal about an autonomous Jewish state in east Africa, where the descendants of the tribes of Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher reside. The largest group of Ethiopian Jewish devotees is known as Beta Israel, who has maintained a deep connection to the Torah (Gen.–Deut.) and their faith. A lesser known group of Ethiopian Jews is the Falash Mura, who is also of Jewish descent but has over time, by necessity or force, assimilated and lost their Jewish identity.

Throughout the modern history of the state of Israel, there have been significant efforts to recognize the legitimacy of Ethiopian Jewry. As instability has plagued Ethiopia, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency have had to intervene with what have at times been extraordinary rescue operations.  For example, in the decade between 1977–1987, when dictator Mengistu Haile Miriam came to power in a coup, his Marxist regime forbade the practice of Judaism and teaching of Hebrew. The resulting persecution led to the death of some 2,500 Ethiopian Jews. Jewish people fled the persecution, war and resulting famine. There are stories of some who walked to Israel, while others chose the three-week journey to refugee camps in neighboring Sudan. Many died en route or in the refugee camps.

Israel successfully orchestrated secret rescue efforts to save some 15,000 of Ethiopia’s Jews in clandestine rescue operations during this time. In 1991, as the extended civil war was coming to an end and the Marxist regime was collapsing, rebels took hold of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Fear for the safety of Ethiopia’s Jews in the transitional period hastened the Israeli government to launch an extraordinary rescue operation. Over 36 hours—with the help of some 34 jumbo jets of El Al airlines and the Israel Air Force—14,324 Ethiopian Jews were brought to the Promised Land.

While Ethiopia actually flourished under the new democratic government, the ethnic lines of division would eventually prove to be its undoing.

The Current Crisis

Constituting about 6.1% of the total population of Ethiopia, Tirgayans have long felt overlooked by the federal government of Ethiopia, despite dominating politics for the nearly three decades since the end of Marxist rule. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) formed part of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was the alliance of military organizations which overthrew the Soviet Union-backed military dictatorship regime in 1991. In 2018, the coalition government started to fall apart as the country was rocked by anti-government protests from different ethnic groups. In 2019, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed disbanded the ruling EPRDF coalition and was accused of introducing reforms which sidelined the Tigrayan political party. Dissatisfied with the new status quo, the TPLF retreated to their stronghold in northern Ethiopia as Tigrayan rebels began to attack and loot federal military bases in the region.

The Ethiopian federal government has consequently launched a military campaign against Tigrayan rebel forces and stands accused of besieging the northern territory, cutting off vital supplies and resulting in unprecedented famine. At this writing, the rebel Tigrayan forces are said to be advancing within 200 miles (321 km.) of the capital of Addis Ababa. All the while Prime Minister Ahmed is enforcing conscription of any military aged citizen, calling for the Ethiopian people to “bury this enemy with our blood and bones,” as reported in the Washington Post.

Fight or Flight?

In the midst of this constantly deteriorating civil conflict lie the remaining Jews of Ethiopia. Most have left their tribal homelands and now survive on meager rations near the Jewish community centers in Gondar and Addis Ababa. The Israeli government agreed in 2015 that 9,000 of them would be brought to Israel; however, plans never materialized. Current Minister of Immigration and Absorption Pnina Tamano-Shata, who is herself an immigrant from Ethiopia, has been in recent discussions with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked to speed up the bureaucratic process. An agreement was reached for 5,000 individuals to be brought to Israel without delay.

According to recent reports in the Times of Israel, there are between 7,000–12,000 Ethiopian community members who are waiting to make aliyah (immigration to Israel). Many first-degree relatives of those who have been able to make aliyah over the past 50 years still remain in Ethiopia. Their future in that nation is becoming more uncertain with each passing day. The question on everybody’s mind is whether the time has come to once again launch daring rescue operations for the last of Ethiopia’s remaining Jews.

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews are frantically trying to make aliyah. Bridges for Peace and other Christian organizations have been asked to help. Join us in answering the call. Donate to our New Immigrant Fund and help these at-risk families return to safety in their ancient homeland.

Photo Credit: Christiaan Triebert/shutterstock.com

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