‘Bring me the Jews of Ethiopia’

The fascinating story of the journey of Ethiopian Jews through Sudan is told in words and pictures.

Ethiopian Jew_521 (photo credit: (Beit Hatfutsot photo archive))
Ethiopian Jew_521
(photo credit: (Beit Hatfutsot photo archive))
Books: JEWISH EXODUS FROM ETHIOPIAEdited by Yuval Arnon-Ohanna and Alec Braizblatt | Ariel University and IIHCC | 141 pages
The story of the journey of the Ethiopian Jews from their homes to Israel via Sudan is one of the great Jewish stories. Although it is widely known in certain circles, the actual story never ceases to amaze. Beginning in the late 1990s, the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center decided to collect stories from Ethiopian Jews who had been children at the time of their aliya in 1984-1985. Around 80 stories written by children were received in 1997, and 15 were selected for inclusion in this volume. The book was published in collaboration with Ariel University in Hebrew in 2005, and has now come out in English. Although a relatively short read, it contains the most heartbreaking and intimate stories about the journey from villages in Ethiopia. It is adorned with stunning and shockingly clear black-and-white photos.
The story of how Operation Moses, which aided Ethiopian Jews in immigrating via the Sudan, came to be is complicated. In 1972 the Sephardi chief rabbi recognized the Ethiopian Jewish community, known as Beta Israel, as Jews. This encouraged prime minister Menachem Begin, after assuming office in 1977, to order the Mossad to “bring me the Jews of Ethiopia.” In the 1980s, after several other escape routes had become impossible, the Jews began to hike to refugee camps in Sudan where other Africans had congregated. The Mossad, meanwhile, had begun operating a “tourist resort” in Sudan to stay in contact with the Jews.
The mass exodus came about through word of mouth: “Recently the Jews of Dab-Behar began to feel that something was in the air, that they could become the blessed generation chosen to go to Jerusalem.” In another case a mysterious man arrived in a village and told the people, “The time has come.” The long walk began with the sale of all the animals in the village and the preparation of large quantities of food. What money the people had was gathered together to pay guides and smugglers along the way.
In the end the journey was savage and the Jews were faced with unrelenting evil at the hands of the people of Ethiopia and Sudan. The guides were corrupt: “The guide we hired gathered us together and told us we have to pay him money or otherwise we wouldn’t continue.” But all the bribery in the world didn’t help because in the end most of the Jews were then set upon by robbers: “That picture of robbers who attack passersby was not new to any of the people in the column. Many of them had already met with robbers a few times during their life.”
When the Jews finally reached Sudan, they made their way to refugee camps where they hid their Jewish identity. Then they began to get sick from the diseases and hunger that beset the refugee camps: “There was no Jewish cemetery there, so Jews were buried among Christians.”
It is believed that one-third of the Ethiopian Jews died on their way here. In total the Jews spent the better part of a year, or in some cases more, in Sudan.
The journey here by airplane simply began a new struggle, to integrate and find their way in Israeli society. The Jews were shocked by what they found; they were asked to change their names to “Hebrew” names and then shunted off to development towns, not even allowed to settle and live in the holy city that they had so desired to see. They received little help from academia which has subjected them to unrelenting abuse, accusing them of not being Jewish under the guise of “anthropology” and calling them racist “slave owners” under the guise of “sociology.” But that is another tragic story.
The book Arnon-Ohanna and Braizblatt have created is a rare gem that will bring tears to the reader’s eyes.