The Ethiopian Jews in Ethiopia lived primarily in villages in the north and Northwest of the country, far from their Christian neighbors, with separate social and economic institutions and conditions.
Their story is a fascinating example of Jewish perseverance and survival despite time, trial and tribulation.
It is a story of people long isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. That separation was so complete, that at one point, the Ethiopian Jews thought themselves the only remaining Jewish community in the world - the last guardians of Jewish knowledge, tradition and the "Torah of Moses." The Ethiopian Jews struggled mightily to retain that tradition and guard it from outside forces that would see it assimilated, conquered and destroyed. As a result, throughout Ethiopian history, they often fell sacrifice to Christian kings, wars and oppression.
That struggle continued in different forms even after the arrival of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Their homecoming, joyous as it was, was marked by a lack of acceptance, as state religious institutions did not officially recognize their status and Jews. These institutions made life hard for Ethiopian immigrants, and in some ways still do.
The first trickle of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to Israel began in the 1950s when 50 children were brought to study in Israel and return to Ethiopia as teachers. In the 1970s, individual Ethiopian activists and their families began crossing into Israel via Sudan. These journeys represent a crucial and important moment in Ethiopian Jewish History.
The dream of returning to Jerusalem, rejoining the Jewish Nation and building a state together seemed on the verge of coming true. In 1977, due to pressure from various quarters, then Prime Minister Menachem Begin proclaimed, "bring me the Ethiopian Jews," and the floodgates were opened. This set the stage for the mass exodus that took place in the mid-1980s.
In 1977 30 families came. Between 1977 - 1984, 3000-4000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel, primarily from the Tigrae region. "Operation Moses" brought another 8,000, mostly from Gonder. During that Aliyah, approximately 4,000 lost their lives in the desert wastes and refugee camps of Sudan. "Operation Solomon" saw another 15,000 Ethiopian Jews reach Israel, and small groups have continued to congregate in Addis Ababa, and immigrate ever since. Today there are approximately 85,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, 20,000 of who were born here.
The story of the Ethiopian Jews by no means ends with Aliyah. Their absorption and integration into Israeli society has been a long road of challenges, successes and difficulties. Some of the obstacles they faced were objective ones - such as the dislocation of moving from a developing nation to a modern industrialized one. Others were the products of institutions and authorities - such as the problems the community still faces with regards to religion, education, employment and housing.
The Ethiopian Jews are now counting their second decade in Israel, and their successes surely outweigh the difficulties they have faced. The community is grateful to all those individuals and institutions who were part of their immigration process, and who support them as they integrate into Israeli society. They hope that the process will only grow easier as they go.