Origin and History:
Due to a lack of written accounts, different theories exist regarding the origins of Ethiopian Jewry and how they first arrived to Ethiopia. Some claim that Ethiopian Jews are descendants of the lost ancient Israelite Dan tribe. Several Ethiopian sources claim that the Ethiopian Jewish community may be the descendants of the entourage that accompanied Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba.
According to some Ethiopian Jewish community leaders, they are descendants of Jews who left Israel for Egypt following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C. and traveled along the Nile until they finally settled in the Quara region of Ethiopia with some later settling in the Semien region.
Whatever their origins may be, the Ethiopian Jews practiced a strict biblical Judaism for about 2500 years of their exile. They kept Jewish dietary laws, the laws of ritual purification, circumcision and observed the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. The community's religious leaders (known as Kessim (plural of Kes)) not only provided them with religious services in the Ge'ez language, but also with day-to-day guidance for family life using modern Amharic. These religious leaders passed down Jewish tradition orally as well as maintaining the religious books in Ge'ez for many generations.
Some modern scholars suggest that Ethiopian Jews maintained prosperous kingdoms for hundreds of years in the Amhara and Tegray regions of Ethiopia. The elderly of the community also tell about a powerful ruler by the name of Judith who led her army to great victories against Christian and Muslim invaders. It was after the Jews were defeated by neighboring Christian and Muslim kingdoms that their political power in the country subsided. In addition, their kingdom and national assets were destroyed and their literature was burned. This forced Ethiopian Jews to give up their lands and to flee to the mountainous and defendable areas of the country. Over the years, their numbers were reduced to hundreds of thousands which lived as a persecuted minority.
Until the days of modern day Israel and modern Jewish history in the 19th century, the Jews of Ethiopia led an agricultural life in closed and isolated communities. Under the Kessim leadership, they separated themselves from their Christian countrymen in order to better preserve their own religious and communal identity, thus surviving as a distinct religious minority until their transfer to Israel began in the 1950's.
The Aliyah (immigration to Israel):
Even though some attempts had been made to bring some Ethiopian Jews into Israel as early as in 1950, only in 1973 did the Israeli government officially recognize the the Beta Israel as Jews for the purpose of the "Law of Return". After the Israeli elections of 1977, the then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin supposedly ordered his security services "Bring me the Jews of Ethiopia." In parallel, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that the Beta Israel were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes and thus should be allowed to make Aliyah to Israel. However, their full acceptance by leading religious leaders in Israeli society was conditional upon undergoing Jewish conversions to remove any doubt as to their Jewish status.
Following Begin's request, Israeli security services began covert operations named "Operation Moses" which included the extraction of Ethiopian Jews from Sudan in 1984. While an estimated 4,000 people died during a grueling trek to Sudan, some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were finally brought directly to Israel from Sudan either by air or by sea between November 21, 1984 and January 5, 1985. It is widely claimed that the operation was possible thanks to the close cooperation between the Israel Defense Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency. But when the story broke out in the media, Arab countries pressured Sudan to stop the airlift. This resulted in an immediate halt of the operations and some 1,000 Ethiopian Jews were left behind in a hostile Sudan where many of them were imprisoned and harshly tortured.
Most of the remaining Jews in Sudan were later evacuated in the U.S.-led "Operation Joshua". George H. W. Bush, Vice-President of the United States at the time, arranged this CIA-sponsored follow-up mission to Operation Moses in which an additional 800 Jews were brought to Israel from Sudan.
In 1990, following dangerous political instability in Ethiopia, Jewish organizations and the State of Israel became concerned about the well-being of Ethiopian Jews. For years, the communist government of the country had refused to allow the mass emigration of Beta Israel, but the regime's impending downfall presented a good opportunity for some members of Beta Israel wanting to immigrate to Israel. In 1991, in one of their most dramatic covert operations called "Operation Solomon", the Israeli Defense Forces organized an airlift of the Beta Israel community into Israel. In 36 hours, non-stop flights of 34 Israeli aircraft, both military and civilian, transported 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. This was the largest emigration of Beta Israel to date.
The Falash Mura:
In 2005, the Israeli government decided to resolve the pending status of the so called "Falash Mura" community (communities whose ancestors had been Jewish but, over the years, converted to Christianity for various reasons). A monthly quota of Falash Mura members was allowed to immigrate into Israel and according to the Jewish Agency; up to the end of 2008 about 6,300 such Ethiopians will have immigrated into Israel.
Ethiopian Jewry in Modern Day Israel:
About 120,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today. Most of them came from rural areas in which men earned a living as independent farmers, weavers, carpenters, metalworkers or other commercial activity. A minority of the immigrants came from urban areas in Ethiopia with a normally higher level of education. Some of these city immigrants worked in diverse professions such as drivers, teachers, soldiers and politicians.
Therefore, the majority of the immigrants had no formal education and could not read or write. Upon their arrival to Israel, they naturally experienced severe cultural shock as a result of the knowledge gap that had to be bridged by trying to adjust to the modern, technological, and advanced way of life of Israeli society. The Ethiopian immigrants also had to cope with the new climate, language, and the different status for women.
When the immigrants arrive to Israel, they normally live in absorptions centers for a year or so during which time they learn basic Hebrew and undergo some workshops regarding employment, the education of children and other practical subjects. After this period, some of them apply for mortgages and buy an apartment in the city where they are left alone to lead their lives amongst the general Israeli population.
Today, most of the immigrants live in Israeli peripheral towns and suffer from high unemployment rates which, in turn, may lead to other problems in the family such as violence, higher divorce rates and a lack of resources in terms of the children's education. Currently, the rate of school dropouts among the children of Ethiopian descent is relatively high.
As a result of many cultural and educational differences between them and Israeli society at large, these immigrants' integration into the general Israeli society is slow and more difficult. There is also a break down of the core family because now the status of the women and elders is different from the one they were accustomed to in Ethiopia. Furthermore, in many cases because the children feel that they are more educated than their parents, they alienate themselves from the family.
Given its cultural background and its current situation, it is safe to say that the Ethiopian community is among the weakest in Israeli society. They currently face social, cultural, political, religious and educational disadvantages which need to be addressed and dealt with by modern Israeli society.