Israel's Ethiopian community and the message of Israel
More than 70 years after its founding, Israel maintains its character as a land of
immigrants, returning to the land of their ancestors. Despite the fact that most of the country's residents have now been born on Israeli soil, it continues to be defined by the diversity of its people, with individual communities and segments of society existing within the greater mosaic of modern Israel.
It is for this reason that immigration, and the continual promotion of immigration, remains central to Israel's national ethos.
To better understand this phenomenon, and the lengths to which Israel goes to bring home brothers and sisters in distress, it is worth taking a look at one of the most dramatic operations in the history of Israel -an operation that literally changed the face of the country as it is known today.
Operation Moses, a largely clandestine mission involving the CIA, the Mossad and other agencies, began 35 years ago this week, on November 21, 1984. It was, in every way, a modern-day exodus. Operation Moses, and several other key historical moments that took place in November, are part of a series of short films dedicated to Israel History Month at Unpacked for Educators.
The setting for the operation was a famine that had swept through Ethiopia and forced thousands of Beta Israel to flee into Sudan. The Beta Israel are an ancient community, whose Jewish roots date back more than 3,000 years. Along the way into Sudan, a journey made entirely on foot, some 4,000 people died. Upon arrival in Sudan, those who survived were often herded into brutal refugee camps where the Jews were the subject of particularly harsh treatment.
Recognizing their plight, the LA teamed up with the Mossad to find a way to bring them home to Israel.
Over the next seven weeks, about 30 flights bound for Israel took off from Sudan, each packed with hundreds of Ethiopian Jews. The mission was carried out in secret, but once the Arab nations found out about it the Sudanese authorities were forced to crack down on the flights. However, by the time the mission was over, 8,000 Ethiopian Jews had reached Israel.
Prior to Operation Moses, only handful of Ethiopian Jews had ever made it to Israel so, in the span of two months, a new and very different community had found its way to the modern Jewish state. In 1991, the next large wave of some 14,000 Ethiopian Jews would arrive as part of Operation Solomon.
Today, the Ethiopian community is an integral part of Israeli society, yet, in many ways they continue to face challenges in acclimating and integration. These are issues we've explored in the past, and similar to many other progressive-minded modern nation-states, the Israeli people and government are working to improve race relations. Nevertheless, the Ethiopian community is recognized by most Israelis as a proud and vibrant expression of the diversity of the Jewish people. The daring success of missions like these remind Israel - and the entire Jewish world - of the commitment the Jewish state has to caring for our people wherever on the globe they might be found. But, most of all, it reinforces the ancient message that Israel is the eternal land our people - and the place to which we can always come home.
The writer is the senior vice president of Education of Jerusalem U, which has launched a program for November called "Israel History Month on Unpacked for Educators," its Israel education resource website.