(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
ONE FRIDAY A LITTLE OVER 20 YEARS AGO, Israel, in great secrecy, began sending
every available large aircraft it had – from stripped-down blue-and-white El Al
jumbo jets to camouflaged air force Hercules cargo planes – over 1,600 miles
southward to Addis Ababa, capital of civil war-wracked Ethiopia. Rebels of the
Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) were at the city’s
gates and the largely reviled Marxist junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam was
about to be toppled.
But Israel had its eyes on the more than 14,300
civilians crammed into Addis Ababa in buildings and yards overseen by the Jewish
Agency and other groups. These were the remnants of a people called Beta Israel,
believed by many to be descendants of the lost Tribe of Dan and recognized by
Israel in 1975 as eligible for citizenship under the Law of
Individual members of the community had been trickling back to
Zion since well before the establishment of the Jewish state. There was a surge
in immigration due to civil war and famine in the early 1980s, at the height of
which, in late 1984, Israel organized a top-secret rescue operation known as
Operation Moses, which required an all-too-often deadly trek north into Sudan
before a flight to Tel Aviv, sometimes via Europe. But barely six weeks into
that rescue, Sudan slammed the door after word of the airlift leaked.
the Jewish Agency and other groups working with Ethiopian Jews quietly began
bringing most of the remainder of the Beta Israel to Addis Ababa in preparation
for the day when the doors would reopen. And by the end of the 1980s they
Mengistu’s Soviet backers were no longer around to help him dig in
against the advancing EPRDF, and, like so many others looking for help from the
US, he believed that the road to Washington ran through Jerusalem.
late May of 1991, as rebel forces reached Ethiopia’s capital, Prime Minister
Yitzhak Shamir felt that Israel had to make an all-out move.
In just 36
hours, over the 24th and 25th of May, those Israeli 747s, C-130s and any other
plane that could be thrown into the mix brought every last one of those waiting
Beta Israel home.
The 1,122 individuals loaded into a single jumbo jet
made the Guinness Book of World Records. But much more importantly, when the
military censor finally allowed Israeli radio and television stations to begin
broadcasting the news that the last of the planes was on its way, Israel’s
veteran citizens were filled with a deep sense of pride and satisfaction: This
is what it means to be Israeli, they told each other with sureness and
The wider population turned out en masse to donate clothes, toys
and even furniture for the new Israelis. Collection points sprang up overnight,
and immigrant advocacy groups, overburdened in their efforts to assist the
concurrent flood of olim from the former Soviet Union, were now inundated with
offers for help. Nowhere was there talk of the color of anyone’s
But euphoria doesn’t last forever. Two decades later, figures
gathered from the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Knesset Research Center and
other sources show that Ethiopian- Israelis, who today number about 120,000, are
three times more likely to live in poverty than non-Ethiopian Jewish
Among those of working age, twice as many are likely to be
Juvenile delinquency is as much as four times higher among
Ethiopian-Israeli youth than it is among the country’s Jewish youth in general.
While the proportion of Ethiopian youngsters who graduate high school has been
rising, the 42.1 percent who successfully completed 12th grade in 2010 lagged
significantly behind the 64.6 percent given high school diplomas among the
general Jewish population. And spousal murders among Ethiopian immigrants,
almost all at the hands of husbands, is generally seen as being far ahead of the
figures for the general and Jewish populations.
Ethiopian-Israelis have had and continue to have their problems, with government
authorities and NGOs in the field often unable to meet their many needs. But as
will be evident from this special section and its individual stories, there is
also triumph and success, with Ethiopian-Israeli faces emerging in the fields of
medicine and law, in academia and the media, in government and the
Clearly, there is opportunity. It’s just that the road leading
to it is still too often cluttered with obstacles and barriers that needn’t be
there. And with plans afoot to bring to Israel thousands of Falash Mura –
non-Jewish Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors had generally been forced to
convert to Christianity – this issue takes on an increasing urgency.