In Ethiopia, the Jews referred to themselves as Beta Israel (the House of Israel) but were most commonly known as Falashas (wanderers, outsiders). In Israel, these same people call themselves Ethiopian Jews, symbolically expressing their equality with other Jews and rejecting the stigma they once held in Ethiopia.
There were 85,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel in 2002, 23,000 of whom were Israeli born. Their mass emigration from Ethiopia began during the early 1970s, encouraged by a decree issued by Israel's chief rabbis that the Jews from Ethiopia were "full" Jews (although they still required symbolic conversion to Judaism). In Operation Moses (which took place during 1984–1985), 7,700 Jews were airlifted to Israel from refugee camps in Sudan. A second large-scale airlift known as Operation Solomon took place in 1991. As the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime was collapsing in Addis Ababa, 14,400 Ethiopian Jews were transferred to Israel.
The majority of the early immigrants to Israel from Ethiopia hailed from the northern province of Tigre and are Tigranian speaking. More than 80 percent of Ethiopian Jewry in Israel originate from Gonder, Semien (or Simyen), Woggera, and other areas. They speak Ethiopia's official language, Amharic, which is a Semitic language. The younger immigrants in Israel speak Hebrew. Beta Israel holy books, including the Bible, are written in Geez, the script of Ethiopian scholarship.
In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel community observed a unique form of Judaism that was based on biblical commandments and was influenced by Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity (which in turn displays remarkable similarities to aspects of Judaism). The Beta Israel did not know the Oral Law; nor were they aware of rabbinic interpretations. They strictly observed rules of purity and pollution. The cornerstone of their religion until this century was monasticism, with the monks passing down liturgy, literature, and religious edicts.
During the twentieth century, urged on by visiting Jews such as Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch from Paris, some Beta Israel were exposed to mainstream Judaism. Faitlovitch's pupils, who studied in Europe and other countries, included Taamrat Emmanuel (1888–1962), aide to the Emperor Haile Selassie; Tadesse Yacob (1913–), deputy minister of finance in Ethiopia; and Yona Bogale (1908–1987), who acted as teacher and intermediary between Jews in Ethiopia and Israel.
The Ethiopian Jews are in the process of coming in line with Israeli Judaism, although some kessoth (priests) and members of the community do not wish to accept the authority of Israel's chief rabbinate. In 1985 the Ethiopian Jews demonstrated in front of the rabbinate's offices, objecting to the ritual immersion they had to undergo for acceptance as "full" Jews. To date, Ethiopian Jews are referred to one particular rabbi for marriage purposes.
In 1992 some Ethiopian Jews organized demonstrations to demand that the Feresmura, Jews who had converted to Christianity in Ethiopia from the nineteenth century on, should be allowed to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return (1950). In 2003 the Ariel Sharon government gave 19,000 Feresmura the right to immigrate to Israel.
In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel were primarily agriculturists and tenant farmers. They also engaged in petty trading and seasonal occupations, such as metalwork and sewing. In Israel, they have been settled almost exclusively in seven concentrations in a few localities (Netanya, Rehovot, Haifa, Hadera, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba) where they are largely employed in manufacturing and public services. In 1999 53 percent were in the labor force. Most Ethiopian Israelis own their homes. There is still a difficult situation regarding the housing of singles who live in mobile-home sites.
All Ethiopian Jewish children study in regular Israeli schools. Teens attend residential schools. Large numbers of young people have undergone occupational retraining courses. Several hundred Ethiopian Jews study in institutes for higher learning in Israel; many more have graduated from colleges and universities, majoring in technological and social sciences and in paramedical fields.
See also Law of Return.
Parfitt, Tudor, and Trevisan Semi, Emanuela, eds. The Beta Israel in Ethiopia and Israel: Studies on Ethiopian Jews. Surrey, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1999.
Quirin, James. The Evolution of the Ethiopian Jews: A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) to 1920. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
Swerski, Shlomo, and Swerski, Barbara. "Ethiopian Housing, Employment, Education." Israel Equality Monitor, 11 June 2002.
Weil, Shalvah. "Ethiopian Jews in Israel: A Survey of Research and Documentation." Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review 2 (1989): 28–32.
shalvah weil updated by emanuela trevisan semi