A subject that has fascinated historians for centuries up to today is the community of Ethiopians calling themselves the ‘Beta Israel’, who claim to be descendants of ancient Israelites and have customs described in the Hebrew Bible. Despite the controversy of their origins, this community known as the ‘Ethiopian Jews’ are now a part of Jewish and Israeli life here in Israel, and also have an amazing ‘exodus’ like story from Ethiopia to Israel.
In the early 1970’s, the anti-religious government of Ethiopia had made life for the Ethiopian Jewish community miserable. According to Rabbi Menechem Waldman, “The ruling regime prohibited practicing Judaism and learning Hebrew, and imprisoned leaders of the Jewish community for being Zionist spies. With forced army conscription, famine, violence, and horrendous health conditions, the plight of the Jews of Ethiopia gained worldwide attention and the Israeli government began to plan covert operations to rescue them.”
Thousands of Ethiopian Jews aided by the Israeli government fled Ethiopia by foot to Sudan, just as the Israelite slaves fled Egypt. Approximately 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died along the way, while countless women were raped and many others were physically assaulted. In the 1980’s huge airlifts began to fly tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel culminating in Operation Solomon. During Operation Solomon on May 21st 1991, over a period of 36 hours, non-stop flights of 34 Israeli aircraft, including IAF C-130s and El Al cargo planes, transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. One El Al 747 carried 1,122 passengers setting the world record for most people flown on a single aircraft. Today, 130,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, with half of them being born within the Jewish state itself. Like the Passover story, it truly was a journey from oppression to freedom.
As Bizu Riki Mullu, an Ethiopian Israeli, relayed, “There’s really no one who understands the Passover story better than we do. Every day in Ethiopia was focused on trying to get to Israel.” Very much like the Jewish slaves in Egypt, the Ethiopian Jews had to flee at a moments notice and never felt at home where they lived. Mullu furthermore asserted, “When I think about how the Jews lived in the desert on the way to Israel, it reminds me of how we lived in Ethiopia.” On Passover, Jews are supposed to view the Exodus story as if we had experienced it ourselves. For Ethiopian-Israelis today, who either fled Ethiopia themselves or had parents who did, the meaning of viewing themselves as part of the Exodus story carries special meaning.
Evidently, the Ethiopian Passover tradition is quite unique, since the Ethiopian Jews did not possess the Talmud within Ethiopia. Traditionally, right before Passover, Ethiopian Jews break all of their dishes and make new ones to mark a break with the past. Ethiopian Jews, for example, continued to sacrifice lambs, and their Seder was more festive and less structured than it is in other Jewish communities. Ethiopian Jews only started to drink four cups of wine during their Passover Seder after a group of Ethiopian Jews visited Europe in the 19th century. Nevertheless, Ethiopian Jewish women always worked hard to ensure that Hametz would be removed from Ethiopian homes and in many ways, celebrated the Seder how the Jews in biblical times did. Thus, as Jews around the world prepare to celebrate the Seder, it is important to honor the special Ethiopian Jewish tradition and remember their modern-day Exodus story.
By Rachel Avraham