After the rise of Christianity in Ethiopia in the fourth century, the Jews who refused to convert were persecuted and withdrew to the mountainous Gondar region where they made their homes for more than 2000 years. In the tenth century, they rose against the Axum dynasty led by Queen Judith who overthrew the "negus" (king) and sought to eradicate Christianity throughout the country. She is not forgotten to this day. Later, with the establishment of a new royal dynasty, the Jews of Ethiopia enjoyed great influence for some 350 years often acting as the balance of power between the Muslims and Christian forces.
The return to power of the ancient Axum dynasty in 1270, marked the beginning of 400 years of war and bloodshed which ended in the 17th century with the final end of Jewish independence. After the final battle when the Jewish forces were finally defeated "Falasha men and women fought to the death from the steep heights of their fortress...they threw themselves over the precipice or cut each other's throats rather than be taken prisoner. (Christian Ethiopian Chronicles) The Jews now faced years of suffering, their lands were confiscated, and for a period were forbidden the practice of their religion. The wars, the bloodshed and the glory were over, but persecution in various forms continued.
The first modern contact with the now oppressed community came in 1769 when the Scottish explorer James Bruce stumbled upon them while searching for the source of the Nile River.
Missionaries in the nineteenth century drove many to begin a doomed trek to Jerusalem, but over the years others were successful.
In the early years of the twentieth century, only a small trickle made their way to Israel. In 1954, the Jewish Agency (www.jafi.org) sent an educational emissary to Beit Israel with the task of training groups which would eventually travel to Israel for study and return home as teachers of Hebrew and Jewish studies in their villages. The first group arrived at Kfar Batya in 1955 and these operations continued for a number of years. Other Jewish groups offered aid, welfare, medical care and education including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (www.jdc.org) which commenced welfare operations in 1983.
During the reign of Haile Selassie (1930-1974) the Jews of Ethiopia were treated with indifference but their inability to own land was coupled with the scorn of their neighbors who attributed to them every misfortune which befell them. In the struggles following the deposition of Haile Saleassie, an estimated 2,500 Jews were killed and 7,000 rendered homeless. From the end of 1977, small groups of Jews began to flee, joining refugee villages on the other side of the Sudanese border. Those caught trying to flee Ethiopia were arrested and tortured.
Claiming that Hebrew was being taught in preparation for emigration to Israel, the governor of Gondar confiscated Hebrew books, the practice of religion was forbidden, Jewish schools and synagogues closed and students caught talking to tourists were questioned and imprisoned. Travel was restricted and a Jew without a travel pass was assumed to be trying to escape and liable for imprisonment. But, the exodus continued. Within three years, there were hundreds of Jews in Sudan living in terrible conditions.
Pressure from world Jewry increased, the government of Israel pledged itself to save the Jews of Ethiopia and the Jewish Agency shifted its policy from quiet diplomacy to call for a worldwide campaign to publicize their plight.