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Wednesday, June 23, 1999 Published at 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK

World: Africa

Ethiopia's Jews: The last exodus

By News Online's Justin Pearce

Ethiopia's last remaining Jews have begun their exodus.

The first aircraft full of new Ethiopian immigrants landed in Tel Aviv on 22 June.

[ image: Jews from remote Quara missed the earlier airlifts]
Jews from remote Quara missed the earlier airlifts
More flights will follow weekly, and by the end of the year over 3,800 Ethiopians are expected to have claimed their right as Jews to settle in Israel.

Ethiopia's Jews first captured the attention of the world in the 1980s, when a series of airlifts transported almost an entire population from their famine-stricken birthplace to the Biblical promised land.

But two main groups were left behind:

  • The Jews from Quara, whose remote home district caused them to miss the earlier opportunities to emigrate. They are recognised as Jews by the Israeli authorities and have been promised their right of immigration - but this has up to now been prevented by bureaucratic delays.

  • The Falas Mora, a group of people who became partly assimilated into Christian society in Ethiopia, and who are not recognised by Israel as Jews. But they continue to argue that they are Jewish, and that some of their number were accepted by Israel in the earlier immigrations.
The Ethiopian Jews as a whole are widely referred to as the Falasha, though this word is now seen as derogatory. Beta Israel is considered the more acceptable term.

Long history

[ image: Most of the Ethiopian Jews left in airlifts in 1984 and 1991]
Most of the Ethiopian Jews left in airlifts in 1984 and 1991
Ethiopian Jews recognise a history going back thousands of years, but it was only in the mid-19th century that they made ongoing contact with the world-wide Jewish community.

Attempts by Christian missionaries to convert the Beta Israel prompted Jewish leaders to take an interest in their long-lost Ethiopian kin.

Jacques Faitlovitch is the man credited with creating an educated elite among the Beta Israel, which formed a link between the Ethiopians and the rest of the international Jewish community.

He also encouraged the Beta Israel to adapt their religious practices so as to bring them closer to mainstream Judaism.

After the establishment of the state of Israel, there were no immediate large-scale attempts to promote the immigration of Ethiopian Jews - apparently because of lingering doubts in Israel as to whether the Ethiopians were genuinely Jewish.

Massive airlifts

It was the devastating famine of the 1980s which prompted the exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel - the majority of them in two vast operations:

  • In 1984, Operation Moses saw the airlift of 15,000 Jews who had already fled to refugee camps in Sudan to escape starvation.

  • In 1991, Operation Solomon flew 20,000 Jews to Israel from Ethiopia itself.

After that, the Israelis believed that no Jews remained in Ethiopia - until the Quarans and the Falas Mora began to assert their rights to immigrate.

While the Quarans are now on their way, the case of the Falas Mora remains unresolved.


Many of the Falas Mora left their homes at the time of Operation Solomon and travelled to Addis Ababa, expecting to be included in the airlift.

Campaigners point out that the Falas Mora are now living in destitution in the capital. They say they have been separated from close family members who have already been admitted to Israel.

All of the Ethiopian Jews have a history of persecution. Those who remain say they have suffered ill-treatment at the hands of neighbouring communities and local authorities - though there are no reports of systematic discrimination by the present government in Addis Ababa.

Cultural chasm

[ image: 'Welcome home' - but assimilation could prove difficult]
'Welcome home' - but assimilation could prove difficult
But for the more than 60,000 Ethiopians who have made it to Israel, it not been easy to fit in.

"The shift in lifestyle that they're making, in coming from the less central parts of Ethiopia to a relatively first-world Israel, has been immense and they have had a hard time," says Jerusalem Report journalist David Horovitz.

Unlike the Russian immigrants, many of whom came to Israel with job skills, the Ethiopians came from a subsistence economy and were ill-prepared to work in an industrialised country. Some immigrants who had spent years as refugees found it hard to adapt to life as independent citizens once again.

Children receiving a modern Israeli education found themselves alienated from their own parents. Elderly people who in Ethiopia had been respected community members now found their wisdom of little relevance to the new society.

Housing delays

Bureaucratic delays in moving people into permanent housing from the "absorption centres" where they were initially housed, further hindered the assimilation of the Ethiopians into Israeli society

Quarrels between different Ethiopian communities within Israel have also been blamed for preventing the Beta Israel from advocating their own needs.

Ethiopians have suffered racial discrimination - though a report by Refugees International says they are "no longer viewed as a curiosity, but as a familiar part of Israel's ethnic mosaic".

The military is one area of Israeli life where Ethiopian Jews are credited with making a positive impact, with growing numbers of Ethiopian men enlisting in the forces.

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