The Early 1980sIn the early '80s, many Ethiopian Jews began leaving their villages in the rural areas and making their way to the southern Sudan, from where they hoped to make their way to Kenya -- and from there to Israel. The second stage of their journey was made from the Sudan aboard Israeli Navy craft which awaited them in the Red Sea and brought them to Israel. The existing Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel at this time numbered around 7,000 souls; by late 1981, 14,000 more Ethiopian Jews had arrived; this figure had doubled by mid-1984.
Mid-1984 saw the beginning of a mass rescue operation, entitled "Mivtza Moshe" [Operation Moses]: over a period of a few months, 8,000 Jews were flown from Khartoum [Sudan] to Europe and from there to Israel. News of the rescue leaked out to the foreign media in November 1985, with the result that President Numeiri of Sudan halted the operation for fear of hostile reaction from the Arab states. After mediation by the US, Numeiri allowed six American Hercules planes to airlift the last remaining Ethiopian Jews in Sudan; their arrival in Israel brought the numbers of olim to around 16,000.
Towards the 1990sIn December 1989, 15 years after the rupture of diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Israel, the Israeli Embassy in Addis Abbeba was reopened. With the renewal of diplomatic relations, contact was made between people who had left Ethiopia for Israel and those who had remained behind. Families were instructed to make their way to Addis Abbeba and apply to the Embassy to bring them to Israel. By the end of 1990, between 16,000 and 17,000 Ethiopian Jews had arrived in Addis.
In May 1991, after Ethiopian dictator Mengistu fled the country, the new regime consented to allow Israel to operate a continuous airlift for a consideration of forty million US dollars. Thus, on May 24 1991, over the Shavuot festival, 14,000 people were flown overnight to Israel. This was known as "Mivtza Shlomo" [Operation Solomon], a procedure which took all of 48 hours and during which 7 babies were born. Following this mass rescue, 6,000 more Ethiopian Jews came on aliya, bringing to an end the 3,000 year old saga of the Ethiopian Jewish community, as told in their tradition.
The Community in IsraelIn all, about 35,000 Ethiopian Jewish have come to Israel.
The integration of Ethiopian Jewry, with their distinctive appearance and customs, provided a Zionist challenge of the highest order to both the Israeli government and Israeli society. A special plan was drawn up to assist the absorption of this unique population into Israeli society.
The initial wave of aliya [1981-85] occurred during a period of record low for aliya in general and was staggered over several years. By 1986, half of the olim were already settled in permanent housing following their period of ulpan [Hebrew language instruction] and initial professional retraining. They were dispersed over some 40 towns and villages, with a preference for the central regions and proximity to the large cities.
In the second wave of aliya , most of the olim arrived within 48 hours at the same time as the country was experiencing a massive wave of aliya from the USSR [see: Aliya from the CIS]. In 1992, because of a dearth of housing, the olim of Mivtza Shlomo were transferred to temporary pre-fab housing sites around Israel. The issue of permanent housing was crucial and a plan was adopted in May 1993 to provide an 85% grant towards the cost of housing, with the balance to be defrayed as a soft loan in monthly repayments. By late 1995, 85% of the olim who had been living in the "caravan" sites had found housing in 65 different localities throughout Israel.
Special enrichment programs were launched in schools for Ethiopian children and the institutes of higher education operate preparatory courses for Ethiopian students. The IDF also became involved in the absorption of the Ethiopian aliya with a range of special educational programming. To date, 1,500 Ethiopian olim serve in the IDF, including 23 officers, and there is a growing number of volunteers applying to combat units. In general, the successes of both waves of aliya are among young people: in the army, universities and education.
There nevertheless emerged a number of problematic areas in their absorption:
Some of these difficulties were common to other waves of aliya, where they were largely resolved in time. It is to be hoped that the problems facing Ethiopian Jewry in Israel will follow a similar path and that they will make their own special contribution to the fabric of Israeli society.
- The transition from a traditional rural lifestyle to an urban, technological society in Israel was complicated and - for many, especially older immigrants - even a painful process.
- While the younger generation found it easier to integrate into a modernized society, this generated an exceptionally large gap between them and their parents.
- The transition process also led to a leadership crisis within the community: the elders who had led the Jewish community in Ethiopian villages, had difficulty in assuming this role in Israel.