Jews have a long history in Ethiopia. The Kebra Negast, an ancient account of Ethiopian history, claims Ethiopian royalty descended from Solomon’s relationship with the queen of Sheba through a son Menelik. Haile Selassie, the last Ethiopian King (deposed in 1974), claimed this ancestry as well. (His official title in office included the phrase “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.) Traditional accounts also bring Jews to Ethiopia as refugees from the Exodus, the Babylonian captivity, and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD..
Judaism definitely existed in Ethiopia from the time of Christ. Numerous Hebrew and Aramaic words appear in the ancient language of Ethiopia, and Ethiopian Christianity , uniquely, retains eighth day circumcision, dietary restrictions, Saturday worship, and a focus on the Ark of the Covenant. Their history in Ethiopia may go much further. When first “discovered” by Scottish explorer James Bruce, the Ethiopian Jews had no knowledge of the Talmud, Purim, or Hannukkah, all later additions to Hebraic tradition and which point to a very early arrival in Ethiopia. In medieval times there were more than five hundred Falasha villages around Lake Tana. They ruled the Ethiopian highlands. But then their fortunes changed.
The rise of Christianity in Ethiopia brought increasing persecution to the Ethiopian Jewry. Emperor Yeshaq in the 1400s ruled that only Christians could own land, earning the Jews the pejorative name “Falasha”, meaning homeless. Constant attacks from surrounding tribes decimated the population. By the late 20th century, most Beta-Israel Jews lived in poverty as second-class citizens and under rampant anti-semitism.
The ongoing famine and chaos that accompanied the 1974 revolution deepened the Falasha’s plight. Jewish activists in Israel and the US secured an airstrip in the Sudan with the objective of bringing the Falasha (who called themselves Beta Israel) home, and between 1977 and 1984 thousands of Ethiopian Jews made an arduous 200- mile trek to the airstrip. (It is estimated that nearly as many died trying to get there.) But actual flights were difficult to achieve, and as the population at the airstrip grew (creating a refugee camp with little sanitation or food supplies), hopes for rescue dwindled.
Operation Moses , a covert evacuation and a cooperative effort between the Israeli Defense Forces, the CIA, and Sudanese security forces, was launched November 21, 1984 under extreme secrecy. (Sudan feared the ire of its Muslim neighbors.) By January 5, 1985, some 8,000 lucky Jews had been airlifted directly to Israel. It ended abruptly on the same day. Prime Minister Shimon Peres held a press conference in which he both confirmed the airlift but declared it secret; Sudan abolished the airlift only moments after his speech ended.
The trek to the Sudanese airstrip had been arduous and it was largely the younger males who had attempted the journey; hoping to facilitate the later arrival of their families. The abrupt termination of Operation Moses left thousands of families split apart, with many underage children sent ahead leaving families in Africa. Diplomatic attempts to reunite families failed, and political tension continued to rise.
In Ethiopia, Mengistu (the head of the Communist Military junta that had ruled Ethiopia since deposing Selassie) had plunged the country into civil war. The plight of Beta Israel continued to deteriorate. As a counter-revolutionary party approached Addis Ababa, from all sides, ethnic cleansing of the Ethiopian Jews seemed inevitable. Furious diplomatic efforts by the George HW Bush’s White House, Israeli advocates for Ethiopian Jews, and the Israel Defense force finally secured permission for an airlift out of Addis Ababa. Again under great secrecy, preparations were made. Special permission was obtained to make the Sabbath flights, and at 10 am on May 24, 1991, Operation Solomon began.
Thirty-four hours later, forty-one total aircraft had been loaded and landed again in Israel, depositing 14,310 new Israel citizens on Israeli soil. (Many planes had the seats stripped out to allow for maximum human loads.) The Beta Israel were home.
But here’s where it gets really interesting. This thirty-four hours in history fulfilled a lot of prophecy. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’. Isaiah 43:5-6 It required a fair amount of pressure from the US and Israel, including concessions on the part of both nations (as well as a considerable sum of money) to encourage Ethiopia to let the Falasha go. They had to be persuaded to “give them up”!
See, I will … gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor; a great throng will return. Jeremiah 31:8 They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. Jeremiah 31:8-9 The Beta Israel had had a tradition that they would return to Israel on “wings of eagles” (Exodus 19:4) and viewed these airlifts as definitive confirmation of that prophecy. An IDF video of the event, viewable at http://www.sfej.org/operationsolomon/default.htm, shows the jubilant immigrants weeping, praying and singing as they return. Israeli photos of the event show young Israeli soldiers carrying lame and blind immigrants off of the planes.
But I saved the best for last. Remember that I said that 14,310 new Israeli citizens stepped off those planes? (14302 definitely qualifies as a great throng.) Only 14,302 were loaded! Eight babies were born in the air! Jeremiah 31:8 astoundingly predicts that the regathering of some women would be short enough to be fulfilled while in labor!
The regathering of the scattered house of David is fulfilling prophecy in every corner of the world, and we will continue to explore this topic in future weeks. But the story of Beta Israel is my favorite. Someone needs to make a movie. (Steven Spielberg? Are you out there?)