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Thousands of Falash Mura, caught up in violence in Ethiopia, seek entry into Israel

A small Jewish community of Ethiopians known as Beta Israel has lived in Ethiopia’s Amhara and Tigray regions for 3,000 years. Some converted to Christianity to stay safe; they are known as the Falash Mura.

Members of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community attending a prayer service at the HaTikvah Synagogue in Gondar, northern Ethiopia.
Members of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community attending a prayer service at the HaTikvah Synagogue in Gondar, northern Ethiopia.
REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

There is a plant called wandering Jew. When I first heard that term, I was shocked. I’m a Jew, and it seemed like one more pejorative label used to describe Jews.

Jews are wanderers, of course, a people in a diaspora around the world. But there is a more sinister meaning to the term wandering Jew. There is a legend that a Jew scoffed at Jesus en route to the crucifixion and the Jew was subsequently cursed to wander the earth until the apocalypse.

This tale is not true; the legend arose in the 13th century, possibly in connection with Jews’ expulsion from England in 1290. It became popularized in the 17th century and perhaps was a rationale for the antisemitism of the time: Jews were expelled from France and Yemen, persecuted in Poland and Peru, forced into ghettoes in Italy and in Vienna, and tortured, including being burned at the stake, in cities all over Europe.

The Nazis appropriated the concept of the wandering Jew in the 20th century, translating it to der ewige Jude, meaning the eternal Jew, and referring to the medieval folklore character. The phrase was used for an art exhibit that showed Jews as the cursed and dehumanized “wandering Jews” from earlier centuries. A 1940 propaganda film of the same title was used to justify extermination of the Jewish people.

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But we are, indeed, wanderers, the result of expulsion and flight from persecutions throughout history and throughout the world.

Jews are at risk now in another perilous situation, this time in Ethiopia.

A small Jewish community of Ethiopians known as Beta Israel, or House of Israel, has lived in Ethiopia’s Amhara and Tigray regions for 3,000 years. They lived alongside Muslim and Christian populations, and like Jews in many places, they suffered religious persecution during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some converted to Christianity to stay safe; they are known as the Falash Mura.

In the 1970s, Ethiopia was torn apart by civil war and famine. The Beta Israel community was impoverished, forbidden to leave the country, and they were in danger of perishing altogether.

In 1977, Israeli leaders decided that the Beta Israel would be transported from Ethiopia to Israel for aliyah, settlement in the place they view as their homeland. The Israeli and American governments launched massive clandestine efforts from 1979 to 1991 and rescued nearly 100,000 people in dangerous and heroic missions. In one 36-hour period, 34 El Al planes, with seats removed to maximize passenger capacity, flew 14,325 Beta Israel to Israel.

Today there are 125,000 people of Ethiopian descent — Beta Israel and Falash Mura — in Israel. However, at least 8,000 Falash Mura still remained in Ethiopia after those rescues. The Israeli government had promised their emigration by the year 2020.

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Ethiopia is in turmoil. In November 2020, fighting in the Tigray region erupted between Ethiopian government troops and militias in Tigray known as the TPLF. The violence has been horrific.

Crimes reportedly include genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, rape and other sexual violence, and crimes against humanity. At least 2.2 million people have been displaced, many of them women and children, and an estimated 60,000 people have fled into neighboring Sudan. The need for food, water, shelter, and medical aid is at catastrophic levels, while access to those in need is either limited or nonexistent. U.N. watchdogs have been denied observation. The internet has been shut down since November, and journalists have been arrested.

Early in the conflict, government forces launched missile strikes at an airport in the city of Gondar in neighboring Amhara province. In retaliation, the TPLF fired missiles back from the base.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
An estimated 7,500 Falash Mura have been waiting in Gondar to emigrate to Israel since the war began. Rescues began on Dec. 3, 2020. The first of six planned rescue flights of 2,000 Falash Mura landed at Jerusalem’s Ben Gurion airport with 316 people on board. The sixth and final flight with 300 passengers arrived on March 11, 2021.

However, according to the Jerusalem Post, 5,500 Falash Mura are still waiting in Ethiopia. An additional 5,340 hope to claim immigration rights.

“While we rejoice over the 2,000 Ethiopian Jews who were granted approval to immigrate to Israel, we are deeply saddened over the thousands of Ethiopian Jews that the government has left behind,” said the Activists for Ethiopian Aliyah organization. “Terminating immigration from Ethiopia continues painful family separation, while leaving the fate of thousands in question.”

Loved ones have been apart for 20 years because of Israeli government policies. Now, Falash Mura remain in Gondar, caught up in a genocide, with little hope for emigration to safety. They are, truly, wandering Jews.

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***

World Without Genocide will hold a webinar on Thursday, April 29, noon to 1 p.m. CT, titled “Beyond the Borders of the Ethiopian Conflict: India, China, Russia, and Somalia.” The program is open to the public; registration is required by April 28. $10 general public, $5 students and seniors, $25 2 CLE Elimination of Bias credits (pending) for Minnesota lawyers. Continuing education certificates for teachers, social workers, and nurses.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. 

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