With the exception of the well-publicized Operation Moses, Joshua, and Solomon Airlift of 20,000 Ethiopian Jews from that war and famine ravaged nation to Israel between 1984 and 1991, few people outside the Middle East are aware of the tens of thousands of people of African ancestry living in the Jewish state. As University of Tel Aviv historian Dafnah Strauss writes below, these Israelis of African ancestry are four distinct communities with different places of origin, different cultures, and different religions. Nonetheless, they now call Israel home and continue to try to integrate themselves into a population which is deeply ambivalent about their presence.
Four major groups make up the sub-Saharan African Diaspora in Israel: 1) Ethiopian immigrants, the majority of which belong to the Ethiopian Jewish community, the Beta Israel, but including a significant minority of descendants of Christian Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry called the Falas Mura; 2) African migrant workers and refugees; 3) Black Bedouin; and 4) African-American ‘Black Hebrews,’ who call themselves the African Hebrew Israelites. Each group comprises a distinct ethnic, religious, and social community and they have little interaction with each other. These groups, comprising a black minority within a mostly white but multi-ethnic country, underscore the complex and multifaceted nature of Israeli society and reflect the intense public discourse concerning the boundaries of Judaism and Israeli citizenship.
The first- and second-generation Ethiopian immigrants make up the largest community of sub-Saharan descent in Israel, numbering 125,000. Eighty-thousand Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Israel in several waves since the 1980s, including two massive airlifts: between November 1984 and January 1985, 6,700 immigrants were brought from refugee camps in Sudan, where they congregated after smuggling themselves across the Ethiopian-Sudanese border by foot; and in May 1990, nearly 14,000 immigrants were brought from Addis Ababa within 36 hours.