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June 22, 2021
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Ethiopian Jewish brethren

As far back as the early 1970s, then-Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had ruled that members of the ancient Beta Israel community were indeed Jewish

Ethiopian Israelis celebrate the holiday of Sigd in Jerusalem on November 27
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

KAN TV last week broadcast the first part of a compelling two-part documentary in its Zman Emet series on the true story behind the daring operation by the Mossad to rescue Ethiopian Jews via Sudan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The recent Netflix film The Red Sea Diving Resort is based on this story, but the truth is larger than life and even more dramatic. Israeli agents and elite navy frogmen operated a diving resort on the shores of the Red Sea and used it as a cover to enable them to smuggle out some 7,000 Ethiopian Jews who had crossed the desert and reached ad hoc refugee camps.

The mission was dangerous. It was clear that had they been discovered in a hostile Muslim country they would have been killed. Then-prime minister Menachem Begin was the one who insisted on some kind of broad rescue operation for Ethiopian Jewry – known as the Beta Israel community – when he became aware of their plight.

This week, KAN news published a report that – more than 40 years on – the Council of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel has finally recognized the Jewishness of this community. Forty years was a long time – too long – to wait for such a decision.

As far back as the early 1970s, then-Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had ruled that members of the ancient Beta Israel community were indeed Jewish, which was the background to the incredible rescue campaign. His ruling was pivotal in recognizing them as full members of the Jewish people, although the Chief Rabbinate required them to undergo a humiliating pro forma conversion. (The status of the Falash Mura community, descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity in the 19th century, is not covered by these rulings.)

Tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel in different difficult operations, from Operation Brothers at the Red Sea resort of Arous, to Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991. Today the community in Israel numbers some 130,000.

In 2008, Sigd, the Ethiopian Jewish holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah and the longing for Zion, was put on the official Israeli calendar. Every year, 50 days after Yom Kippur, thousands of Ethiopian immigrants and no less importantly their Israeli-born offspring, gather in Jerusalem to give thanks and to remember the hundreds who perished on the way – those who fell prey to disease or were killed by marauders as they crossed the desert on foot to reach the refugee camps.

The decision by the Chief Rabbinate Council to officially endorse Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s ruling was reportedly made in November but not revealed until this week. The secrecy surrounding the ruling is disturbing and unfortunate. It implies that although the Chief Rabbinate has finally done the right thing, it is concerned about how its decision will be received, particularly by the ultra-Orthodox. Sadly, despite the incredible achievement of airlifting the community at risk to the Jewish homeland, the absorption process has not been smooth.

Ethiopian Israelis have complained of discrimination in many spheres, not least in the religious world where aspersions have been cast on their Jewishness when they come to the rabbinate to marry, and scandalously in recent cases in which employees in a kosher winery were questioned by the kashrut supervisor.

The decision in November was reportedly to a large extent the result of an effort by Rabbi Yehuda Deri, the chief rabbi of Beersheba and the brother of Shas Party chairman and Interior Minister Arye Deri – devoted disciples of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

This ruling should make it absolutely clear: Members of the Beta Israel Ethiopian community are kosher. They are Jews. They are brethren and full-fledged members of the Jewish people. Beta Israel means the House of Israel. After more than 40 years, it is time that the Jewish state recognizes that they are at home here in Israel.

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