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Ethiopia once had a sizable Jewish population known as the Beta Israel, or House of Israel. Theories about the Jews’ origins range from the legendary belief that they are descendants of Menelik I, said to be the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, to speculation that they are related to the lost tribe of Dan, Samson’s tribe. Scholars believe that Judaism had arrived in Ethiopia by the fourth century A.D., probably introduced by Jews from Egypt or the Arabian Peninsula. The Beta Israel likely didn’t emerge as a separate community until the 14th or 15th century. Denied land, they became weavers and ironsmiths—skills that helped them survive but branded them as dangerous sorcerers, further isolating them from Ethiopian Christians and Muslims. In the mid-1980s 7,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted via Sudan to Israel in an effort named Operation Moses. In 1991 thousands more fled to Israel during the final days of communist strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam. Today only a few practicing Beta Israel remain in Ethiopia.
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