Ethiopian Community

Voices from the field

Commemorating the Anniversary of Operation Solomon

By Rachel Levin

Every Sunday afternoon from July 2009 to May 2010, I would ride a small bus down a windy road from the center of Jerusalem to Mevasseret Tzion with some of my Hebrew Union College classmates. We would drive past the Mevasseret mall to the Ethiopian Absorption center and spend two hours playing games, coloring, or walking to the mall with “our kids”— new olim from Ethiopia. This is where my love and appreciation of the Ethiopian Jewish community (Beta Israel) began.

Rachel Levin with young Ethiopian immigrant to Israel

Every May 24 we commemorate the anniversary of Operation Solomon (1991) and recognize the journey of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants. Operation Solomon was a covert rescue mission that occurred in 1991 in response to political instability in Ethiopia as the ruling government faced attacks from rebel parties. Fearing that the situation for the Beta Israel would decline rapidly, Israel moved to transport as many people to Israel as quickly as possible. The operation lasted less than 36 hours and brought 14,400 Ethiopian Jews to Israel from refugee camps in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital city.

Upon arrival in Israel, Ethiopian Jewish immigrants needed to adapt to a new life in a very different country- culturally, economically, and technologically. “My kids” initially introduced themselves with a Hebrew and Amharic name, showing their relation to both elements of their new identities. Since the Jewish population had been isolated for centuries in Ethiopia, their Judaism developed separately from the rest of the world.  Holidays, laws, traditions, and symbols that are derived from post-biblical texts, such as Chanukkah, Purim, and the Star of David, were entirely unfamiliar to the community. Their Torah, known as the Orit, is written in Ge’ez, the script of an extinct language, and rabbis are known as kessim. Before entering Israel, most were unaware of the fact that fair-skinned Jews existed.

Since arriving, many members of the community have learned how to integrate Ethiopian cultural practices into their daily routine in Israel. Some families gather at the end of each day to participate in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony during which they drink three small cups of coffee and discuss their day in a relaxed atmosphere. In customary Ethiopian fashion, stews are served on top of a large piece of traditional Ethiopian bread, called injera, and are shared between family and friends. 

The community has also achieved formal recognition among the greater Israeli population.  In 2008, Sigd, a holiday that celebrates receiving the Torah from Sinai, became an Israeli national holiday and the Ministry of Education incorporated it into the classroom curriculum.  The music and rhythms of Ethiopia have made their way into popular Israeli music and youth villages are engaging in new ways to create the most successful learning environments for immigrants to adapt to Israel.

With every anniversary of Operation Solomon, we remember that incredible day when 14,400 Ethiopian immigrants arrived on Israel’s soil, many kissing the ground in relief and joy. I know that I will be thinking about their journey from Ethiopia to Israel and about “my kids” who impacted my own experiences of living in Israel.