The Ethiopian Jewish heritage is a rich and ancient one that deserves to be remembered. According to the Ethiopian historian Yohanes Zeleke, Ethiopian oral Jewish tradition maintains that Jews came to Ethiopia in stages, the earliest one being during the time of the famine in Canaan, when Abraham was forced to flee southwards. Ethiopian Jews believe that other waves include during the times of slavery in Egypt; during the reign of Manasseh of Judah, who sought to forcefully convert Jews into pagans; and another group came accompanying Melinik I, the son of King Solomon. Additional Jews are reported to arrive in Ethiopia following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
From the 7th century BCE up until 330 AD, Judaism was the official state religion of Ethiopia. However, Ethiopia became a Christian country when the Ethiopian Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity. The Christians behaved very brutally to the Jews in Ethiopia, resulting in them revolting and overthrowing their Christian overlords. In the 9th century, Ethiopia became a Jewish country again under the leadership of Queen Yeodit. However, following three additional centuries of Jewish rule, Egypt grew wary of the growing power of Jewish Ethiopia and united with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to overthrow the Jewish government in Ethiopia. Following the regime change in Ethiopia, countless Ethiopian Jews were murdered, sold into slavery, or forcefully converted to Christianity.
From the 14th century onward, with the brief exception of the rule of one Jewish emperor named Tewodros II in the 1800’s, the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews were forced to live as powerless and exploited landless peasants. However, in 1624, Jews did seek to regain their autonomy around the same time that Muslims in Ethiopia were also revolting against a policy of forced conversion, yet ended up instead committing a mass suicide that had an uncanny resemblance to Masada rather than be taken prisoner. At that time, all Ethiopian Jewish religious and history books were burnt as an attempt to eradicate Ethiopia’s Jewish heritage.
In the 20th century, the plight of Ethiopian Jews was very dire. When Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam rose to power in a coup d’état, 2,500 Jews were slaughtered and 7,000 additional Jews became homeless. Mariam’s Marxist ideology encouraged anti-semitism within Ethiopia. In the 1980’s, Ethiopia forbade the practice of Judaism and the teaching of Hebrew. Countless Ethiopian Jews were imprisoned on fabricated charges of being Zionist spies and Ethiopian Jewish rabbis, known as Kesim, were constantly harassed by the Ethiopian government. Furthermore, forced military conscription took Jewish boys as young as 12 years old away from their families, who often never heard from their children again. Yet, to make matters even worse, a famine erupted around this time period as well.
While over 8,000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel between 1977 and 1984, most Ethiopian Jews were still in Ethiopia in 1984. Although Operation Moses which occurred between November 18, 1984 and January 5, 1985 brought 7,000 Jews to Israel, it came at a great humanitarian cost. In order to reach Israel, Ethiopian Jews were forced to march to Sudan at night, while hiding during the day from robbers and soldiers. 4,000 Ethiopian Jews would perish trying to make Aliyah, either from the poor sanitary conditions in the refugee camps in Sudan, from starvation along the way, disease, or from murder, and countless Ethiopian Jewish women were raped while trying to reach Israel.
However, after that point, the remainder of Ethiopian Jews, principally the elderly, the sick and small children who were unable to flee to Sudan, were stranded in Ethiopia. Over 1,600 Ethiopian Jewish children did not know the fate of their parents. It was only when rebels overthrew the Mariam dictatorship that Israel was able to rescue an additional 14,324 Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia, during Operation Solomon, in 1991. Today, over 36,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel.
By Rachel Avraham