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The Amazing Story of Ethiopian Aliyah

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November 9, 2012

Dear Friend of Israel,

It is one of the most amazing stories in Israel’s history – perhaps in world history. In 1769, while searching for the source of the Nile River, Scottish explorer James Bruce discovered something extraordinary – a community of approximately 100,000 Ethiopian Jews, living according to the precepts of biblical Judaism.

Little attention was paid to this community of Jewish exiles – believed to be members of the lost Jewish tribe of Dan – until the 1950s, when the Jewish Agency for Israel began constructing schools and seminaries in Ethiopia to serve them. Over the next two decades, Ethiopia and Israel enjoyed positive diplomatic relations, which was a hopeful sign to many in the Ethiopian Jewish community that they might one day return to their biblical homeland. Then, in 1973, Ethiopia severed relations with Israel due to pressure from Arab states in the wake of the Yom Kippur War.

After this, the plight of Ethiopian Jews became bleaker and bleaker. Subject to dictatorial rulers and increasingly harsh restrictions on practicing their faith (Ethiopia outlawed Judaism in the early 1980s), the community suffered greatly. It became clear that something had to be done. Israel finally took action, and in late 1984, the covert “Operation Moses” airlift brought 7,000 Ethiopian Jews to safety – and freedom – in Israel. More immigration followed, much of it funded by The Fellowship.

Since “Operation Moses,” Ethiopian aliyah has been a boon to the Jews of Ethiopia. Though they face the challenges of learning a new language and adapting to a new culture, once in Israel they have a chance at a new, better life. They’re no longer held hostage to anti-Semitism, abject poverty, or the policies of an Ethiopian government that has all too often treated them with hostility. For them, coming to Israel is the fulfillment of a generations-long dream. Ethiopian aliyahis also a boon to the entire state of Israel. Though their assimilation into Israeli society has been, and in some respects will continue to be, fraught with challenges, Ethiopian Jews have made Israel a better, more welcoming, more vibrant nation.

I’m excited to recommend to you a book on the topic, entitled On Wings of Eagles: The Secret Operation of the Ethiopian Exodus. In it, author Micha Feldman, a dear, trusted friend of mine who serves as the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Coordinator for Ethiopian aliyah, sheds new light on this amazing story. Consisting of diary entries written by the author dating from the earliest days of Ethiopian aliyah up to 1992, interspersed with first-person stories from Ethiopian Jews, On Wings of Eagles is a fascinating account full of personal insight that puts a human face on this pivotal event in Jewish history.

As I mentioned, The Fellowship has played an integral role in supporting Ethiopian aliyah for many years. I have traveled to Ethiopia numerous times to meet witholim (immigrants) – Micha served as my guide and mentor on many of these trips – and have come to know many here in Israel. Even so, after reading On Wings of Eagles, I have gained a deeper understanding of Ethiopian aliyah, and the role The Fellowship and its supporters have played in bringing God’s people home. Sitting in Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv waiting for the arrival 240 Ethiopian Jews just last week, I so clearly felt God’s hand at work; I have never been prouder that The Fellowship has been part of this fulfillment of biblical prophecy. I highly recommend that you read the fascinating chronicle of its origins in On Wings of Eagles. And see if, after reading it, you don’t count it among the greatest stories ever told.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Chairman, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews® of Australia