By many estimates, the world’s Jewish population hovers around 14 million. Most of those people — around 12 million — live in either the United States or Israel. No other country, as seen in this chart, has even a million. And if you click that link and scroll and scroll and scroll some more, you’ll see that an estimated 100 Jews live in Ethiopia. That number was once much, much higher.
In the mid-1700s, a European explorer named James Bruce journeyed from Scotland to the Horn of Africa. While in present-day Ethiopia, Bruce discovered a population of people, then-estimated to be around 100,000, following Jewish traditions and observing many of the holidays and laws typically observed by Jews. That group, now known as Beta Israel, dates back until the 4th century if not earlier, and some believe that they are descendants of the lost biblical tribe of Dan. While at times the people of Beta Israel were persecuted for their beliefs, the population held at about 15,000 to 25,000 until around 1974. That year, a Soviet-backed military junta known as the Derg took control of Ethiopia. The Derg’s leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, was no friend of Ethiopia’s Jews, killing many shortly after taking control of the nation, barring the study of Hebrew, and at times, outlawing the practice of Judaism altogether.
Over the next decade, Israel, the United States, and an unlikely cast of allies (particularly, the Sudanese) tried to bring Beta Israel out of Ethiopia and into Israel. The first attempt, Operation Moses, ran from November of 1984 until January of the following year, and managed to evacuate about 7,000 Jews from Ethiopia. While somewhat successful, about two-thirds of the Beta Israel population were left behind, and in many cases, children were separated from their parents. Israel kept an eye out for other opportunities to surreptitiously relocate the remaining Beta Israel population, and in May of 1991, one finally presented itself. Rebel forces overthrew Mariam’s regime and on May 21, 1991, the dictator fled, ultimately to Zimbabwe.
While the new Ethiopian leadership may have been kind to Beta Israel, there were hardly any guarantees (and certainly concerns, given other political tensions in the region). Israel, with the help of the U.S. under the George H.W. Bush administration, acted quickly, engaging in something called Operation Solomon. A total of 34 jumbo jets were enlisted for a series of non-stop flights between Ethiopia and Israel over a 36-hour period centering on May 24, 1991. Many of the jets had their seats ripped out in order to provide more space for refugees, as seen above (via this gallery of photos from the Operation), and one flight, officially, held a record 1,087 people — and that didn’t include a few dozen children who weren’t on the official manifest. Five children were born on board the flights, and at one point, as many as two dozen planes were in the air at the same time.
Over the 36 hour period, almost the entire Beta Israel population — roughly 14,500 people — was evacuated from Ethiopia. Despite the fact that many of those transported via Operation Solomon left almost all their belongings behind, the majority of the Beta Israel group were elated to have emigrated to a new home. As one immigrant told the New York Times, “It was a very nice flight. We didn’t bring any of our clothes, we didn’t bring any of our things, but we are very glad to be here.”
Take the Quiz!: Name the Six Countries that Border Ethiopia in 60 Seconds or Less. Spelling counts.
From the Archives: Around the Horn: How the Derg flipped Cold War tensions in the Horn of Africa.
Related: “Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews” by Stephen Spector. 3.9 stars on 9 reviews.