Jewish Illegality: the case of Ethiopian Jews between 1955-1975

Jewish Illegality: the case of Ethiopian Jews between 1955-1975

Efrat Yerday, Tel Aviv University


Ethiopian Jews were present in Israel since its establishment; however, the state did not consider them Jews and, therefore, they were not eligible for Israeli citizenship. Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel between the early 1960s and 1975 under the “Entry Law” as tourists and migrant workers stayed to naturalize later. The law of return did not apply to them, and they remained “illegal” residents for few years. This was the first time in the history of Israel that Jews were denied a citizen status and thus their status forms a unique case of Jewish illegality.

In this paper I would like to address two intertwined lacunae: in the sociological research on Ethiopian Jews and the Israeli national historiography. Critics of the Israeli immigration regime typically emphasize the discriminatory policy that allows naturalization only for Jews.[1] The uniqueness of the case of Ethiopian Jews is that the racialized logic operates within the ethno-religious community and not without.

The question of who is eligible for citizenship is comprised of legal and socio-political aspects. Ethiopian Jews were in an ongoing relationship with rabbinical authorities and political and state bureaucrats since 1948. This study is based on documentary analysis of Israel’s State Archives, Hazi Ovadia archive[2] and NLI-The National Library of Israel.  It is also part of a larger research based on other archives in addition to those mentioned above and Life Narratives interviews with Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel between 1955 to 1975, as well as on their private archives.


Where are the Ethiopians? The historical lacuna

Despite the active attempts of Ethiopian Jews to immigrate for decades, Israel’s national historiography highlights their “discovery” by explorers such as Joseph Halevi and Jacques Faitlovitch; the journey of Ethiopian Jews to Sudan in the early 1980s; the 1980s-1990s rescue operations; and the role of prominent Israeli leaders such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and prime minister Menachem Begin. Meanwhile, scholars of Ethiopia’s Jews have been researching the religious and racial origins of Ethiopian Jews;[3] the Zionist and humanitarian activities of Jewish individuals and organizations before 1948;[4] the ongoing integration crisis;[5] and the community’s religious beliefs and traditions.[6] A small amount of this research corpus deals with North American Jews’ involvement in the struggle for aliya[7] and the group known as Falashmura.[8]

According to the Israel’s currently hegemonic national narrative, the historical encounter between Ethiopian Jews and the sovereign entity occurred in November 1984, the year of “Operation Moses” when the state of Israel airlifted Ethiopian Jews from Sudanese refugee camps and not before. This notion was not the result of a lack of research, on the contrary, Ethiopian Jews are among the most studied communities in Israel. But the study of Ethiopian Jews mostly represents the national narrative about this group, which over the years scholars reproduced. The Ethiopian Jewish presence in Israel from 1948 and their struggle for recognition and citizenship by the state authorities is absent from this history.

The national historiographical framing tendency highlights the alleged containment of the State of Israel and the detachment of Ethiopian Jews from the Jewish Diaspora for 2000 years. This historiographical dynamic, which ignores much of the Jewish community’s history in Ethiopia, is not unique to Ethiopian immigration. According to Amnon Raz Krakotskin, the Zionist historical consciousness promotes continuity between the ancient past to the modern present which appears only through the Zionist movement that sees itself as a renewal of ancient Jewish political sovereignty. Thus, Jewish communities exist only insofar as they are encountered by the state of Israel. This consciousness cannot capture the vitality of Jewish diasporic communities.[9]


Different historical path-the missing part

A small group of Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel in 1955 as part of the “Kfar Batya Youth”[10] project initiated by Jacques Faitlovitch (1881-1955), a Zionist researcher and supporter of the Ethiopian Jewish cause. This group arrived in Israel to study agriculture, Jewish law, and Zionism in order to go back to Ethiopia and to educate their communities there. The youth went through a “special conversion” process in 1957 in a “Special Court for the Conversion of Falasha[11] Youth”[12] because they were considered as questionable Jews – meaning they were perceived as Jews with doubts, therefore they had to convert to Judaism.

Another group that arrived during the early 1960s and 1970s remained in Israel illegally after visa extensions and expirations. In 1965, correspondence on a plan to settle 50 Falasha families in Upper Galilee[13] was exchanged between various departments of the foreign affairs ministry including Israel’s embassy in Addis Ababa. The project was archived for “political reasons.” In a meeting of the Ministry of Interior from 26 October 1966 it was decided:

“The Falashas – as concluded- considering that we are talking on minors – to skip the fact that the Falashas stayed in Israel illegally. Apparently, the instruction to close the file on Mr. Meleke did not come from the general director (of the ministry of interior). It was decided to extend everybody “temporary” (residency) for another year.”[14]

These individuals were probably no longer minors during these correspondences but arrived in Israel as minors in the Kfar Batya Youth project and stayed as “trespassers” without civic status.

In March 10th, 1965 a letter, that was part of an ongoing written dialogue between the embassy in Addis Ababa and the coordinator of East Africa in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the Falashas youth, indicated the inconsistency of Israel’s policy toward the Falashas:

“We cannot agree on scholarship (for Falasha) as we do with others (Ethiopians and others EY) in the framework of our foreign relations with different countries… We see the question of whether to give scholarships to the Falashas as a matter of Israel’s stance toward them which is taken care with lack of treatment, (lack) clear policy, inconsistency and its knack for misunderstandings and bitterness.”[15]

Tesfay Mengisti, the man under discussion about whether to give him scholarship, appeared in another document in 1967, when he was still living in Israel with no civic status.[16]

In 1971, long before the 1984 “discovery,” a group of 17 Ethiopian Jewish elders signed a letter to the chief Sephardic rabbi Isaac Nissim in which they agreed to accept his spiritual leadership and his authority.[17]

On 14 November 1972, the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa sent a letter to the Consular Department regarding two requests for entry visa:

“Because I suspect that these two are Falashas who intend to stay in Israel, I am asking for your instructions…”[18]

A request was attached to this letter from Kibbutz Ma’abarot[19] to the Israeli embassy in Ethiopia to provide tourist visas to four Ethiopians:

“We hereby confirm that we are willing to accept the names below as students in our Hebrew class. We will be grateful for his honor to provide them tourist visas for 3 months…”[20]

Shortly thereafter, the Ministry of Interior issued visa expiry announcements and demanded the immediate departure of several Ethiopian Jews. Some of them then met with Ovadia Yosef, the chief Sephardic rabbi of the state of Israel appointed after Isaac Nissim, following his correspondence with Hazi Ovadia.  Subsequently, in March 1973, Rabbi Yosef made the controversial rule of Halacha claiming that Ethiopian Jews are in fact Jews and are therefore eligible to the law of return and should reunite with Israel’s people.

“The Falashas are Jews that must be saved from assimilation and there is need to expedite their Aliyah … I am certain that the government authorities, the Jewish agency, and organizations in Israel and the diaspora, will assist us in the best ways they can in this holy mission … this is a mitzvah [our religious commitment] of saving our brothers.”[21]

The ruling by Rabbi Yossef was contested by diverse public figures, bureaucrats, institutions, and authorities. Two central authorities that related to the religious and political aspects of the subject matter are the Ashkenazi chief rabbi and the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption. The Ashkenazi chief rabbi Shlomo Goren claimed that the decision about who is a Jew should not be made by rabbis, but rather it is under the authority of the “Rabanut Council.” Scholar Yossef Litbak from the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption published the “Falashas” report[22] in the same year as Rabbi Yossef’s rule of Halacha.  Among many arguments against the immigration of the Falashas to Israel – genealogical, medical, and social – he stated:

“Even if they will convert under pressure, there is no realistic chance that the religious public in Israel will credit their formal conversion with no reservations and fully integrate socially among them.  Moreover, it is unlikely that the secular public will contain people who are culturally strange when the only factor that connects these groups is a common religious belief.”

On July 17, 1974, Michael (Admas) Eshkol, an Ethiopian Jew who was one of the main activists among the Jewish community in Ethiopia before coming to Israel, sent a letter to Rabbi Ovadia Yossef asking for an ID card.[23]Conflicting authorities and bureaucrats’ interests allowed this group to remain in Israel though in a vague legal status. InApril 1975 under government resolution, Ethiopian Jews were eligible to the law of return.[24]

After Yossef’s ruling of Halacha, Ethiopian Jews in Israel start the process of family reunification after some of them undergo special conversion (Giyur L’humra)[25] and receive a legal civic status. The “special conversion” path is a rare path in the history of the state of Israel. There is no evidence for any other collective required to “join” Judaism in the “special conversion.” Ethiopian Jews were thus Jews and non-Jews at the same time.

In 1977 activists met Menachem Begin to convince him to make progress toward Aliyah. In August 1977, the first “legal” group of 122 Ethiopians entered Israel through the figurative “front door,” rather than coming as trespassers.


Sociological Lacuna – Racialized mechanism of naturalization

According to the Law of Return, anyone who converts can immigrate to Israel and obtain citizenship. However, Ethiopian Jews who were present in Israel did not receive citizenship, were required to convert, and it took several years for their right of citizenship to be recognized. Moreover, there is an inconsistency regarding civic status between different contexts of immigrants i.e. the while the Kfar Batia youth obtain civic status, other Ethiopians didn’t receive it.

This anomaly embodies the racialization of the citizenship mechanism: first, the rejection of Ethiopian Jews as Jews; second, the demand for conversion. And third, the denial and later hesitation of the rabanut and the Ministry of Interior of the right to citizenship after conversion. Moreover, the wide range of discretion by the state as well as the individualistic practice of naturalization are also part of racialization of the citizenship mechanism. These practices of exclusion shaped their legal status and their strategies toward recognition and citizenship.

While the Law of Return is defined as a “natural right” bestowed upon the state by the Jewish nation,[26] the ethnic definition (“who is a Jew”) of the state’s official discourse is fluid, negotiable, and performative. The examination of who belongs to the ethnic nation, a Jew, does not derive from a structured and ordered set of laws. The negotiation takes place regarding a set of rules and ideological and normative perceptions. This negotiation is part of ideological and political struggles and interests. The mixture of Jewish law and liberal Israeli law creates a gap between the state law of who can be a citizen and the Jewish law of who is a Jew.[27] These differences led to irresolution regarding the definition of “who is a Jew” in the Law of Return (1950) for two decades, until 1970, where a limited solution was put in place.

Unlike other Jews, Ethiopian Jews entered Israel from the “back door” as tourists or migrant workers and became “infiltrators.” However, unlike non-Jews “infiltrators”- mostly Palestinians and migrant workers- they were expected to enter through the “front door” under the Law of Return a few years later.

The state thus reacts to the Ethiopian case as an anomaly. It leaves them “outside the tent.” On the one hand, the state negotiates with this group as though they are Jews but, on the other hand, prevents them from being Israeli citizens. I would argue that this is not an anomaly but part of state logic regarding immigrants who do not conform to the white national character.

Israel’s stratification of citizenship through the definition of who is a Jew interacts with whiteness. The question of “who is a Jew” is also racialized by its fluid answers and not questioning the racialization of Jewishness itself. Previous studies indicate selective regulation policies of immigration applied to different ethnic groups. For example, differences in quotas, medical tests requirements, and Jewishness documentations, i.e., documents that a potential immigrant is required to submit.[28] Most studies on Jewish immigration to Israel focused on the selective integration policies comparing western Jews to eastern Jews.[29] Though these studies indicate discriminatory policies, they do not suggest citizenship denial.

When considering the Law of Return, we should address three layers: ideological- who is a Jew; legal- the law itself; and its target audience – the role of the potential citizen (the performative role of the potential citizen) regarding the law.

  1. The ideological-normative layer is before articulating the law and constitutes Zionism’s values and beliefs of the stakeholders involved: gathering of the exiles, a safe haven for Jews from around the world based on democratic values.
  2. The legal layer is the juridical articulation of law itself and its target audience. When bureaucrats and politicians during the formative period discussed the Law of Return, they did so while imagining European Jews. Ethiopian Jews were not part of this image. This image of white Jews is not relevant only for the formative years, but it is part of the state logic decades later. We can see how it manifest in the 1970 amendment of the law of return that allowed white non-Jews to naturalize via the law of return.
  3. Who is a Jew is typically understood as an individualistic matter, based on the ability of an individual to negotiate concerning his Jewish origin. In the case of Ethiopian Jews, it was not an individualistic matter but a collective issue. Ethiopian Jews entered to the political community via a collective reference, the examination of Jewishness was not Ad hominem but a collective examination of the community. In the group relevant in this research, the state negotiates their status as individuals and individuals that are part of a questionable community. Eventually, their position as illegal residents shaped the struggle for citizenship.

In addition to the law of return, we should consider other immigration and citizenship laws relevant to Ethiopian Jews until 1975. The law of return is relevant only for Jews, the following laws are relevant to non-Jews. The entry into Israel Law, 1952- Israel nationality is acquired by return (the law of return for Jews) by residence, by birth (relevant for minors); the Prevention of Infiltration Law, 1954, was relevant mostly for Palestinian refugees who try to return from hostile nations; article 7 to the Citizenship Law  on Family Reunification, relevant for husband or wife of Israeli citizen. The Law of Entry regulating entry and residing in Israel for non-Israeli citizens and non-Jews and gives full discretion to the interior minister. The 1st Amendment of 1966 ruled that the Minister of Interior can grant four types of visas of the following types at his discretion: Visa and Permit of Transitory Residence up to five days; Visa and Visitor’s Permit of Residence for up to three months; Temporary Residency Visa for up to three years; and Permanent Residency Visa. The Prevention of Infiltration Law was initially enacted to prevent Palestinian refugees’ return and displaced persons who tried to return to their homes after 1948.  Article 7 on family reunification allows Israeli citizen’s spouse or minor children to naturalize.

Some of the Ethiopians that enter Israel during the 1950s received permanent residency visas that allowed them to work and move freely. When 3 of the Kfar Batia Youth project wanted to gain membership in Kibbutz Nezer Sereni, they had to be citizens and they started to work toward citizenship. They received citizenship around 1970. Ethiopians that arrived in the 1960s and early 1970s arrived with visa permits for 3 months and they had to renew it every 3 months in the Ethiopian consulate. Like the three mentioned above, they did not enjoy the rights Jewish immigrant enjoyed like “absorption basket” which is a financial assistance during the initial settling period in Israel and housing rights for Jewish new immigrants that can include public housing, rent assistance or mortgage grant.

Ethiopian Jews encounter a legal conflict based on normative conflict; both are part of racialized logic. These conflicts are intertwined though they are different in how they shape the character of the struggle for recognition and citizenship. Ethiopian Jews present in Israel until 1975 had to confront the state authorities while being in a vague legal status, unsecure, deportable, and under the threat of the authorities. Due to their “un-Jewishness,” they had to execute their political work as “infiltrators.”

Systemic disqualification in this manner is not relevant only to a specific law but to the ideological and normative state logic and its naturalization mechanism. These deviations from the state logic of the Ethiopian case are part of the state logic. The state considers Ethiopian Jews an anomaly and therefore, they need a unique system of regulations and mechanisms to naturalize. The consequences of this systemic disqualification appears in every step of their struggle for recognition and naturalization until they will enter the polity from the front door, i.e. the law of return, as any Jew. In order to enter the front door, they needed to dismantle the normative and legal racialization.

A particularly striking dynamic characterizes nationalism in Israel considering the State of Israel’s desire to secure a Jewish majority and at the same time to prefer the European component of the immigrant identity over the Jewish component. It is evident from the 1970 amendment of the Law of Return, which allows non-Jews by the earlier definition of the law to naturalize under the new law of return, mostly from the USSR.

The nation-state is not passive towards the waves of immigration. The state reaction is rooted in a historical, political, and cultural context. The state uses diaspora communities to promote its demographic interest.[30] This claim fits in opposite ways to USSR immigrants and Ethiopian immigrants. In the case of immigrants from the USSR, the country made legal and international efforts to enable their arrival. In contrast, in the case of Ethiopian Jews, despite a continuous presence in Israel, the state prevented and hardened their ability to integrate into the Jewish collective and avoided enacting laws that could allow immigration until 1977.

The state of Israel was hesitant toward the containment of Ethiopian Jews into its polity. It seems that since Ethiopian Jews encounter the state, they confront numerous obstacles before they can enter Israel. These obstacles appearing both in the legal level and the rabbinical-religious level. Most of the stakeholders involved including the ministry of interior, ministry of absorption, the chief rabbis (both Ashkenazi and Sephardi), the foreign affair ministry and humanitarian and philanthropic Jewish institution consent on their questionable status and express in diverse practices. These trajectories of Ethiopian Jews to enter the Jewish state may be the basic reason for their anomalous statues in contemporary Israeli society.




[1] Hacohen Dvora, 1998, The Law of. Return – Its Content and Disputes Around It in Anita Shapira (ed.), Independence- The First Fifty Years, Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center for the History of Israel, 1998)

Naama Carmi, The Law of Return, Immigration and the Law of Return: Immigration Rights and Their Limits

Gavison Ruth, “Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint” -: a meta-purpose for Israel and its implications, Neaman Institute

[2] Hazi Ovadiah (1922-2012) was an Israeli Yemenite who became an activist for the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jews and the head of the Association of Ethiopian Jews between 1972-1977. The association was the first representative organization of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

[3] Kaplan, 1988; Waldman, 1989;  Quirin, 1993

[4] Trevisan-Semi, Emanuela, 1997; Summerfield, D. 2003

[5] Ben‐Eliezer, 2004; Herzog, 1998, Lazin, 1997, Ofer, 2007; Shalom, 2012

[6] Shelemay, 1986; Kaplan, 1995

[7] Dezmenovich-Tenenbaum, 2013,

[8] Talmi Cohn, 2018; Goodman, 2008.

[9] Raz-Krakotzkin, 1993

[10] The Kfar Batia Youth is a program initiated by Jacques Faitlovitch (1881-1955), a Zionist researcher and supporter of the Ethiopian Jewish cause This group arrived in Israel to study agriculture, Jewish law and Zionism in order to go back to Ethiopia and to educate their communities there. List of the youth from AAEJ archives on FEJ website.

[11] Falasha(s) is a derogatory name that been use toward Ethiopian Jews in Ethiopia and was common among non-Ethiopians as well. The term meaning is without roots or land. I will use this term respectively to the original materials, otherwise I will use the term “Ethiopian Jews”.

[12] From Haim Gvaryahu, director of the department of Jewish studies to Rabbi Shmuel Kipnis, member of the special court for conversion of Falasha youth, Israel’s State Archives, גל-15793/6

[13] Correspondence from Levi Kedar, Africa department, foreign affairs ministry to Israel’s embassy in Addis Ababa, December 23, 1965, Israel’s State Archives, חצ-440/9

[14] Minutes from a meeting on October 26, 1966 with the director general and the minister of interior, Israel’s State Archives, 12039/7-גל

[15] A letter to Ben Yehuda M, Coordinator of East Africa from Levin A, Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa, March 10th, 1965, Israel’s State Archives,חצ-440/9

[16] List of the friend in Israel, Hazi Ovadiah archive, 1967, 005_001_0041

[17] A letter to the chief Sephardi rabbi Isaac Nissim signed by 17 elders from the Ethiopian Jewish community in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, May 23, 1971, Hazi Ovadiah archive, 001_001_0169

[18] A letter to the consular department from the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa regarding entry visa, November 14, 1972, Israel’s State Archives,חצ-5191/20

[20] A letter to Israel’s embassy in Ethiopia from Israel Furman, manager of Ulpan (Hebrew school) Ma’abarot, October 2nd, 1972, Israel’s State Archives, חצ-5191/20

[21] Letter from Y. Dweik, spokesperson and bureau director of the chief Sephardic rabbi to Rabbi Akiva Gotlib, chief secretary of Chief Rabbinate of Israel, opinion of the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel in regard to the Falashas, July 19, 1974, Israel’s State Archives, ג-7071/10

[22] From Mordechai Rozeman, assistant of the minister, to the chief bureau of the prime minister, “Falashas” report, Yossef Litbak, January 1973, ministry of immigration and absorption, the sub-department for programs and research, the department for the research of the Jewish people in the diaspora. Israel’s State Archives,


[23] Michael Eshkol to Rabbi Ovadia Yossef Ha’Rishon Le’tzion, July 17, 1974, Hazi Ovadia Archive, 001_001_0070

[24] Historical Jewish Press (JPress) of the NLI & TAU, Davar newspaper, April 11, 1975

[25] Giyur L’ehumra is a specific type of conversion which its basic assumption is that the subject is “Jew” by halachaic terms though there is a slight doubt on his Jewishness. To prevail this slight doubt there is a need for a conversion that includes a ceremonial process and do not include the study of Jewish law as it required in an ordinary conversion of non-Jews. The process include immersion for men and women and symbolic circumcision for men.

[26] Dvora HaCohen, The Law of Return as an Embodiment of the Link between Israel. and the Jews in the Diaspora. Journal of Israeli History, volume 19 no.1. Tel Aviv University, Frank Cass, London 1999. pp.61-89.

[27] For further reading on the basic clashes between liberal and ethno-religious aspects of the Jewish state Gans, C. (2008). A just Zionism: On the morality of the Jewish state. Oxford University Press.‏

[28] Avi Picard, 2013, Cut to measure: Israel’s policies regarding the Aliyah of North African Jews, 1951-1956,

[29] Saporta, I., & Yonah, Y. (2004). Pre‐vocational education: the making of Israel’s ethno‐working class. Race Ethnicity and Education, 7(3), 251-275; Swirski, S. (1981). Orientals and Ashkenazim in Israel: The ethnic division of labor. Haifa: Machberot LeMechkar U’leBikoret (in Hebrew).‏

[30] Yonah, Y. (2005). In virtue of difference: The multicultural project in Israel. Jerusalem: Van Leer Institute.‏