Tracing back to more than 15 centuries before the creation of the modern nation state of Israel, the Jews of Beta Israel own a rich history of spiritual and cultural practices rooted in Judaic traditions. With a lineage dating back to to the first temple, Beta Israel Jews are widely accepted to be descendants of King Solomon and Queen Sheba.
It is believed that their son, Menelik was raised in Ethiopia, but at the age of 22 he returned to the land of Israel where he was welcomed with open arms by his father King Solomon. After some time together, Menelik convinced King Solomon to send with him a copy of the Ark Of the Covenant as well as the first born sons of Israel’s elders to accompany him back to the Ethiopia. Thus with the return of Menelik to Ethiopia, birthed the Jewish nation of Beta Israel.
The ‘Sefer’ of Eldad
Around the Nineth century, a Jewish Merchant by the name of Eldad Ben Malchi ha-Dani was said to have made contact with the Jewish Tribe of Issachar somewhere in what is believed to be modern day Yemen. Eventually continuing eastward into Persia, he came into contact with various Jewish tribes that had been existing outside the land of Israel since the destruction of the temple. More notably however, Eldan Ben Malchi attested his own origins to these other displaced tribes, coming from the Jewish tribe of Dan, something that aligns with traditions of Beta Israel.
Edad ha-Dani’s account would be logged officially in his Sefer Eldad, spreading across the Jewish diaspora notable places like the Roman Empire and Spain, breathing life into the legend of Jewish autonomous kingdom in Ethiopia.
In the 1600’s under the rule and influence of Portuguese missionaries, the Jews of Ethiopia begun to face systematic oppression, losing their autonomy, the right to own land, and in many cases their Jewish identity. Now isolated and displaced within Ethiopia, the Jews of Ethiopia became referred to as “Falsha” – “wanderers without land.” Yet despite their internal displacement, the remaining Jews of Beta Israel continued to practice and maintain their religious traditions in isolation.
In the following centuries, the conditions and treatment of the Beta Israel Jews would vary and fluctuate, depending on the rule under which they were subject to. Living in isolated ruralities, the Jews of Beta Israel would soon become recognized, stigmatized and mystified for their skills at potting and masonry. Due to local superstitions deeming iron masonry as being connected to witchcraft and sorcery, the Jews of Beta Israel would soon find themselves surviving further isolation and discrimination by their own Ethiopian brethren. Paralleled to the anti-antisemitism Jews throughout Europe experienced, the Beta Israel Jews would forgo centuries of antisemitism based in both African and Christian beliefs. Existing within their internal displacement, the Jews of Beta Israel eventually came to believe that they were in fact the only remaining tribe of Jews in the entire world.
It would not be until the 18th century when a French Jew by the name of Joseph Halevy embarked on an expedition to Ethiopia, that this conception would soon end. Having documented his findings, Joseph Halevy’s works would inspire Jaques Faitlovitch to set out to Ethiopia in the early 1900s, where he worked to improve the integrity of the Beta Israel community through creating small schools for Jewish Studies throughout Addis Ababa. Additionally, Jaques Faitlovitch would partition two official letters of recognition from the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Yaakov Shaul Elyashar and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, reigniting hope within Beta Israel to return to their homeland of Israel.
This hope however was quickly stifled in the 1930s following the Italian invasion of Ethiopia led by the fascist government of Benito Mussolini. Under Italian occupation, special laws were enacted stripping Beta Israel Jews of whatever little wealth they had accumulated via trade and metal work. It was during this period up until the end of World War 2, that contact between Beta Israel’s Jews and European Jewry would be stifled.
Around 20 years after World War two as well as the creation of the modern State of Israel, in the 1960’s Beta Israel Jews began to come to Israel, however it would not be until 1975 that the Israeli Government lead by Yitzhak Rabin officially accepted the people of Beta Israel under the Law of Return. It was also around this time in 1974 that a military Junta known as the “Derg” seized power over Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Eventually rose an anti-religious ethos of the radical communist Junta, stifling conditions for all religious groups in Ethiopia. Many attribute the aforementioned acceptance under the Law of Return by Yitzhak Rabin’s government to the the worsening of conditions during this time.
Due to the geopolitics of the cold war, the immigration of Beta Israel Jews from Ethiopia to Israel came under an Ethiopian state sanctioned ban. Additionally, state wide famines resulted in the displacement of many Beta Israel Jews into Sudan. It is here that the Israeli government covertly launched an operation of airlifting Ethiopian Jews from Sudan into Israel.
Over 8,000 Beta Israel Jews would be brought to Israel over the course of seven weeks in what would become known as Operation Moses. Subsequent operations such as Operation Joshua and Operation Solomon would bring another 15,000 Beta Jews to the land of Israel.
As of 2018, the population of Beta Israel Jews in Israel was over a quarter of a million.
Yet the struggles that the Jews of Beta Israel did not end upon returning to the Land of Israel. Although the first generation of Beta Israel Ollim often faced cultural difficulty adjusting to life in Israel, contemporary issues such as systematic and cultural racism as well as poverty have continued to plague Israelis of Beta Israel decent to this very day. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the average net income of an Etheopian Israeli household was 4,506 shekels (29%) less than the rest of the population.