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THE ETHIOPIAN JEWS: BACKGROUND

The Ethiopian Jews, men and women alike, were known as Falashas in Ethiopia, although in the last decade they have eschewed this appellation with its stigmatic connotation of stranger, implying low, outsider status. In Israel, they tend to be called Ethiopian Jews, whilst in Ethiopia they often referred to themselvesand are referred to in the academic literatureas Beta Israel (Weil, 1997a). The Beta Israel hail from villages in Gondar province, Woggera, the Simien mountains, Walkait and the Shire region of Tigray. They are divided into two distinct linguistic entities speaking Amharic and Tigrinya respectively.

The origins of this ethnic minority in Ethiopia are obscure. Almost all researchers, including those who maintain that the Ethiopian Jews did not exist in Ethiopia until the Middle Ages, at the earliest, admit that Jews have lived in Ethiopia from early times (Kaplan 1992). Some say that they are descended from the union of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba; other theories refer to them variously as descendants of Yemenite Jews, Agaus, Jews who went down to Egypt and wandered south, or even an outgrowth of Jews who inhabited the garrison at Elephantine (Kessler, 1982). Some academic research suggests that they formed as a group under the influence of Ethiopian Christian monasticism in the fourteenth century (Kaplan 1992; Shelemay, 1986).

The Beta Israel practiced a Torah-based, non-Oral-Law style of Judaism. They were monotheistic, celebrated many festivals and fasts prescribed in the Torah, and circumcised their boys on the eighth day. Some religious festivals known to other Jewish communities were not marked by the Beta Israel, but they, in their turn, celebrated certain days which were not marked by other Jews (Aescoli 1935/6; Weil 1989). Their religious practices were heavily influenced by Ethiopic Christians and many elements were common to both religions, such as praying to Jerusalem, the common liturgical language of Geez, and the emphasis on Israel and Zion (Pankhurst, 1997). It is significant that the Teezaza Sanbat, which some researchers designate as the most authentic Beta Israel text, personifies the Sabbath as a woman (Leslau 1951).

The process of the alignment of the Beta Israel with world Jewry had its seeds in the nineteenth century and arguably before, but real contact with world Jewry began only in the twentieth century with the advent of Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch (18811955), a Semitic scholar from the Sorbonne, who invested his life in bringing the Jews from Ethiopia in line with other Jews. Dr. Faitlovitch managed to influence sections of the community to adapt to world Jewry (Trevisan Semi 1994)a process that was actually completed in the 1980s and 1990s with the transplantation of a whole community to the State of Israel.

Interestingly, the greatest legend in Beta Israel annals, after the famous meeting between Queen Sheba and King Solomon, revolves around a woman, Queen Judith, variously known as Yodit, Gudit (the bad), Esther, Esato (=fire), Gawa and Tirda Gabaz. The Scottish explorer James Bruce, in his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, describes how the beautiful queen Judith, queen of the Beta Israel, single-handedly overthrew Christianity and eliminated most of the Solomonic royal dynasty based at Aksum. In its place, she established a Jewish dynasty, which ruled for several generations (Bruce 1790 :451453).

Researchers have pointed to the similarities and differences between the two great Beta Israel legends mirrored in Ethiopian Christian history, of the Queen of Sheba and Queen Judith (Kaplan 1992). Both women were perceived to be extremely powerful royal figures. Both were depicted as converts to Judaism. Both led the Jews against the evil Christians; both were considered to be victorious. However, while according to the Ethiopian text Kebra Negest, the Queen of Sheba established the Solomonic dynasty by having relations with King Solomon against her will, Queen Judith is depicted as the one who destroyed that same lineage. According to Salamon: The Jewish woman leader in Ethiopia may symbolize the potential for power castration of the dominant group at the hands of the minority (1999:127 fn.10).

Beta Israel oral tradition also remembers several outstanding women who occupied high office, both within the community and in society at large. Examples of the former are Rahel, Milat, Abre Warq and Roman Warq, who were leading members of their community, although dates and exact roles are unknown (Holert 1999).

According to Bruce, although the Beta Israel reigned supreme for several generations and succeeded in subjugating their Christian neighbors, by the seventeenth century the Beta Israel had become a powerless minority with little or no rights to land (1790). During this period, the Beta Israel women worked as artists and decorators in the Christian churches. By the nineteenth century, the Beta Israel eventually took up stigmatized craft occupations, which also became associated with the connotation Falasha (Quirin, 1992). The men became blacksmiths and weavers and the women became potters. The Falasha pottery which is still famous in the Gondar region, became the major industry of the village Wolleka. Beta Israel women selling pots and statuettes attracted many tourists, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. However, from an Ethiopian perspective, pottery was a low-status profession, associated with fire and dangerous beliefs that the Beta Israel were buda, supernatural beings who disguised themselves as humans during the day and at night became hyenas that could attack humans (cf. Salamon 1999).

The Beta Israel in Ethiopia tended to live in scattered villages located on a hilltops near streams. It was the job of women to haul water to their homes in earthenware jugs strapped to their backs. Women were in charge of the domestic sphere, baking the basic bread (enjera) on an open hearth, which they also stoked to gain warmth. They prepared the stew (wat), commonly made of lentils and chicken or meat, to go with the enjera. The meal was often accompanied by a type of home brew (talla) made of hops, other grains and water fermented in pot containers made by women. Food was stored in baskets made of rushes from local plants, dried in the sun and twisted into coils. Women spent time weaving these bright-colored baskets, in which they stored foodstuffs, or on which they served food, if the basket was flat-topped. The preparation of coffee was also the province of women, who washed and roasted the raw coffee beans before grinding them manually in a mortar. They brewed the coffee in a pot over the fire and served it in small cups to guests, primarily females, who dropped in to drink coffee and exchange gossip.

Women looked after the children at an early age. A mother would strap the smallest baby on her back, while drawing water from the stream or cooking. Young boys would stay with her in the home until they joined their fathers in the field; young girls were expected to help their mothers and take care of the younger children until the age of marriage, around first menstruation.

Among the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, masculinity was an ultimate value. The Amharic language is full of expressions praising men and degrading women. Shillele war songs, also sung at weddings and other ceremonious occasions, are designed to arouse male bravery before battle (cf. Herman 1999). A well-known Amharic proverb says: It is good to beat donkeys and women. Mens sexual organs are, by definition, the source of their masculinity. Female genital surgery, or female circumcision (otherwise known as genital mutilation), was normative among Beta Israel women (Grisaru et al. 1997). In Beta Israel society, men had to gain sexual prowess. They were allowed to experiment during the stage of adolescence (goramsa), whereas females had to be virgins at marriage, which usually took place close after first menstruation. While males were expected to be sexually experienced, Beta Israel females could be excommunicated if they were not virgins at marriage. Although marriage is officially monogamous, in practice Beta Israel men sometimes entered polygamous unions with a second wife, or relations with a common-law wife, a concubine, a slave (barya), or simply a divorced woman (galamotta) who was searching for protection in Ethiopian terms (Weil 1991). A rich man could have several women, usually residing in different villages, so that there was little knowledge of the other women or contact between them. There are many cases of an older man marrying a younger bride, sometimes even a teenager or a virgin, thus proving his status and wealth to the society at large. Whereas masculinity was symbolized by the staff which every Beta Israel male carries in Ethiopia, femininity was symbolized by blood.

For the Beta Israel, as for many others, the purity of women and their blood signifies womanhood, and the pulse of life as it revolves around sexual relations and the renewal of male-female relations.

In the Bible it states: When a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the period of her impurity through menstruation.The woman shall wait for thirty-three days because her blood requires purification; she shall touch nothing that is holy, and shall not enter the sanctuary till her days of purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean for fourteen days as for her menstruation and shall wait for sixty-six days because her blood requires purification. (Leviticus 12:1,26). The Beta Israel of Ethiopia observed this tenet in strict fashion, precisely following the Torah commandment, isolating the woman in a hut of childbirth (yara gojos/ ye-margam gogo) for forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after the birth of a girl. According to contemporary researchers, the strict observance of purity laws after birth is also one of the boundary-markers between Ethiopian Jews and Ethiopian Christians (e.g.Salamon 2000:98).

In the same book of Leviticus, it is further written: When a woman has a discharge of blood, her impurity shall last for seven days; anyone who touches her shall be unclean till evening. Everything in which she lies or sits during her impurity shall be unclean. (Leviticus 15:1920). In Ethiopia, every woman belonging to the Beta Israel spent approximately a weekthe length of her menstruationin a special menstruating hut (ye-margam gogo/ye-dam gogo/ye-dam bet), where she was prohibited from coming into contact with people who were in a pure state. As a person who was impure by virtue of her blood, she was isolated for the length of time of her menstrual period and could share the hut only with other menstruating women. Since her impurity was contaminating, she was not allowed to dine or spend time with pure people, least of all her husband, who could resume sexual relations with her only after she had purified herself in the river. A series of stones surrounded the menstruating hut, separating the impure women from other members of the village. In many villages, the hut was situated almost outside the village, on the peripheries of conquered, civilized spacethe villageand the unknown, the wilds, the unconquerable spacethe outside. In the village of Wolleka near Gondar that I visited in Ethiopia (in 1971 and 1988 respectively), which was known as a Falasha tourist village where Falasha pottery was sold, the menstruating hut was situated on the hill in the center of the village, albeit far away from the view of passing tourists, but nevertheless in center-stage as far as the villagers were concerned. It was marked off by stones surrounding the hut in circular fashion, and little children would push food on ceramic plates inside the circle, which would then be taken by the menstruating women. Although Dr. Faitlovitch and other Westerners, as well as Ethiopian pupils who had studied in the West, tried to persuade the Beta Israel women not to observe the purity laws according to the Biblical precepts and tried to encourage them to come in line with Jews elsewhere (Trevisan Semi 1999), Beta Israel women in Ethiopia kept these rules strictly until their immigration to Israel, and often thereafter.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, emissaries from Israel and Jews from other countries visited Ethiopia and encouraged the Jews to emigrate. However, aliya did not become a reality until the mid-1970s, when the Sefardi and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbis declared in 1973 and 1975 respectively that the Falashas (sic) were Jews and could therefore come and live in Israel. In 19841985 seven thousand seven hundred were airlifted from the Sudan to Israel in Operation Moses and 14,400 were airlifted in twenty-four hours from Addis Abeba to Israel in Operation Solomon in 1991. Some women gave birth on the flight itself.

During the 1990s thousands of people belonging to the group today called the Feresmura or Felesmura (Jews converted to Christianity from the nineteenth century on) migrated to Israel. In 2003, the numbers of Jews of Ethiopian origin and their children, some of whom were born in Israel, is estimated to be 85,000 souls. Fifty percent of the Ethiopian population in Israel are women (Central Bureau of Statistics 2001; personal communication from Israel Ministry of Absorption). A government decision in February 2003 moved to bring an additional twenty-one thousand Feresmura to Israel in the near future.

One of the greatest changes which the Ethiopian Jewish community has undergone in Israel in their move from an underdeveloped society to a modern, Western society is in the specific realm of family and personal relations. Female genital surgery is hardly performed in Israel and women express no desire to continue this practice (Grisaru et al. 1997). Girls can no longer marry at first puberty; in fact, it is illegal to marry in Israel until the age of seventeen. In addition, girls have to attend school until the minimum age of sixteen. Married women are encouraged by social workers and others to go out to work in order to assist with the family income, and it is often easier for a woman rather than a man to find employment, particularly in temporary, unskilled jobs, in which the Ethiopian Jews, despite the numerous vocational courses offered to the community, tend to congregate (Weil 1991). According to research conducted by Phillips Davids, early marriage and childbearing are being replaced by later marriage and first birth, which will eventually have a profound effect on life-time fertility (1999).

For the first time, rural Beta Israel are handling money and have bank accounts; a womans salary may be paid straight into her bank account; or she may be earning more than her husband. Quarrels tend to break out between the marriage partners over genzeb (Amharic: money). The Israel rabbinate has established a special department dealing with Ethiopian divorces. One-third of all Ethiopian Jewish families in Israel are one-parent families; the other two-thirds are largely made up of complex families constructed from two or more one-parent families, which are intrinsically unstable (Weil, 1991).

The divorce rate among Ethiopian Jews in Israel is far higher thanthat among the general population (Weil 1991). The single main reason for this is the demasculinisation experienced by Ethiopian Jewish men. Males no longer reign supreme; Israeli women answer back. If women are beaten, as was the practice in Ethiopia, they can turn to the police and file a complaint against their husbandsand many do. Ethiopian women in Israel look with curiosity and also envy at their Israeli counterparts, and selectively imbibe Israelis lip-service to egalitarianism between the sexes.

Between 19051934, Dr. Faitlovitch selected twenty-five Beta Israel from Ethiopia to educate in Palestine and Europe, where he planted them in orthodox Jewish communitiesin London, Paris, Florence, and Frankfurt. The idea was that they would return to their villages in Ethiopia and teach their brethren. This dream was not fully realized, but some students pursued a career in education (Trevisan Semi 1994). Not a single female was selected to study in Europe, since it was considered too dangerous a voyage, but there were one or two female pupils at Dr. Faitlovitchs school in Addis Abeba, founded in 1923.

In the 1950s, two groups of young Beta Israel students came to Israel in order to study; most returned home at the request of the Emperor Haile Selassie to take up governmental and teaching posts in Ethiopia. The groups were mixedmale and female and two women stayed on in Israel after marrying Israeli men.

Since their immigration to Israel, both boys and girls study at educational establishments. In a survey carried out in 1996 of 120 Ethiopian high school graduates of the Israeli educational system who studied in schools during the years 19871989, ninety-eight percent of the respondents, who were now in their 20s and 30s and setting up their own families, answered that they favored egalitarian education for both sexes (Weil 1997b:102). Girls educational achievements were similar to those of boys. Whereas in 19871989, nearly ten percent of girls of Ethiopian origin of high-school age were not studying at any educational institution, probably because they were already mothers (Weil 1997b), today nearly every female adolescent is enrolled in school. However, some young Ethiopian female adolescents are joining their male counterparts, albeit at a slower rate, in dropping out of school without completing twelve grades. Recently, there is an increase in the number of Ethiopian females who are referred or turn to institutions for girls in distress.

At the other extreme, women are among the forerunners of those receiving higher education in Israel. Yardena Fanta holds a doctorate in education from Tel Aviv University. Other women have completed their MAs or are making successful careers in law, social work, social sciences or physiotherapy. In the Hebrew University Program for Excellence in Education among Ethiopian Jews, which trains young Ethiopian Jews as teachers, just over half the students are female.

Approximately one-third of Ethiopian women in Israel are employed, as distinct from more than one half of Jewish women from other origins (Swirsky et al. 2002). The Ethiopian women are largely concentrated in unskilled occupations, although some are employed in white collar occupations, as social workers, clerks, dental assistants and so on. According to an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) source in February 2003, forty-eight percent of Ethiopian women serve in the IDF. Approximately half of those who do not, volunteer for National Service. Several exceptional women have taken up key positions of leadership in the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. The changing of the guard is not only with respect to a new, young, secular leadership in Israel, as opposed to an old, religious guard (Weil 1997c); today, women have also taken the reins. While Ethiopian Jews in Israel are afforded equal privileges and responsibilities in practically every sphere of life, in practice they are socially and spatially segregated, which sometimes gives rise to feelings of deprivation (Weil 1999). Shula Mola, as the director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, tries to battle this. Negest Mengashe has recently been appointed the administrative director of the National Project for Ethiopian Jews, aimed at raising vast governmental and outside funds to ameliorate the condition of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. She can also be credited with being the first Ethiopian woman in Israel to run (unsuccessfully) on the list of a womens political party to the Knesset (Israel Parliament). Truwork Mulat directs the Steering Committee for Ethiopian Jews attached to the Ministry of Education. Simha Getahun is the coordinator of multicultural programs in Elem, an organization for disattached youth. Tsega Melaku is deputy-director of the Amharic Radio of Kol Israel. Meski Shibru is Israels most famous Ethiopian Jewish model and singer.

Ethiopian Jewish women have made dramatic changes in their move from Ethiopia to Israel. In different periods in Beta Israel history, women were attributed great power, and sometimes reified, as in the case of Queen Judith. In other periods, and particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries prior to immigration, Beta Israel women were inactive in public and were in charge of the domestic sphere. In the Ethiopian villages, women looked after the young children, drew water from the stream and cooked for them and their menfolk. Some women were educated, but since the age of marriage was so low, very few terminated school. Womens purity was central to both women and men, and women were isolated in a special hut during menstruation and after childbirth.

Immigration to Israel changed Ethiopian Jewish family life in a dramatic manner. In Israel, girls are not allowed to marry at first menstruation and women are encouraged to go out to work. Some young women have been referred to welfare institutions; some live beneath the poverty line. One third of Ethiopian families in Israel are one-parent families. At the same time, some young women have become community leaders; others are acquiring a higher education. As the apparent gap between migrant Ethiopian women and men continues to grow, new forms of family structure and adjustments will no doubt emerge.

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NACOEJ – Our Mission

In Ethiopia, the Jewish community struggled just to survive. During the 1980s, with famine and disease rampant in Ethiopia, NACOEJ sent 18 missions to Jewish villages, bringing in doctors, medicine, clothing, and school supplies. NACOEJ played a key role in the quiet rescue of Ethiopian Jews before and between Operations Moses and Solomon.

Following Operation Solomon, NACOEJ provided food, education, employment, and religious facilities to Ethiopian Jews waiting to make aliyah. Programs included a Jewish day school, daily School Lunch Program, Feeding Center for Children Under Age 6 & Pregnant and Nursing Mothers, adult education, and employment help for adults. NACOEJ also continued to play a significant role in enabling Ethiopian Jews make the journey to Israel.

In Israel today, the Ethiopian-Jewish community is an important part of society. However, their struggles are not yet over. Many Ethiopian-Israeli families live below the poverty line and cannot give their children the tools they need to do well in school. They strive to build a future, despite the obstacles.

NACOEJ programs in Israel help Ethiopian students build a bright future by providing them with educational and financial support. NACOEJ believes that a strong education today opens the door to success tomorrow.

NACOEJ programs include the Limudiah Intensive After-School Education Program, which provides assistance for Ethiopian elementary school children, the NACOEJ/Edward G. Victor High School Sponsorship Program to help Ethiopian-Israeli teens attain quality high school education, and the NACOEJ/Barney & Rachel Landau Gottstein Adopt-A-Student College Sponsorship Program that enables Ethiopian-Israeli college students pursue higher degrees.

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NACOEJ – Our Mission

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Evidence mounts of ancient Jewish roots of Beta Israel …

A Genetic Perspective on the Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews

While Ethiopian Jews, historically known as the Beta Israel (or derogatorily as Falashas), constitute an inseparable component of todays Israeli society, the question as to how and what makes them different from non-Jewish Ethiopians remains a prominent subject of discussion. As I discuss in a prior article (Omer, 2013), scholarly circles today remain overwhelmingly attracted to the hypothesisalso known as the traditional theorythat attributes the origins of the Beta Israel to medieval theological transformations within Christianity (e.g. Quirin, 2010; Kaplan, 1995), rather than to Jewish origins. By this theory, the relationship between the Beta Israel and the native populations is defined as socially constructed, with no ancestral or genetic connection to the ancient Hebrews.

My argument draws on evidence that the group is of ancient Jewish descent. Beside the abundant historical evidence, I base my argument on the recent genetic researchsummarize by Jon Entine in Abrahams Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen Peoplewhich shows that the Beta Israel were established since the mid-first millennium CE period. Genetic research suggests that some shared ancestry from the latter time period is preserved within the group (p. 149; 2007; Saey, 2010, p. 13; Ostrer, 2012); that is through maintaining kinship ties and obviously through restricting intermarriages with outsiders. I also argue that the intermixture of the Beta Israel with neighboring populations was an inconsistent process that occurred gradually over extended periods of time. Outsiders were integrated into the group through spontaneous interaction and assimilation. One point I emphasize is that the historical, geographical and probably genealogical connections between the Beta Israel and Northern Sudan, which no scholar has practically examined in depth, is essential to understanding the groups origins.

Benjamin Netanyahu (Prime Minister) with various leaders of the Ethiopian community celebrating Jerusalem Day. Click image for larger version.

Background

Although the majority of the Beta Israel, known in the local Geez-Semitic as Falasha, which translates to mean strangers, were settled in Israel since the 1980s, they have historically inhabited the northwestern areas of the Ethiopian highlands. Their settlements were distributed around Lake Tana, the Semien mountains, as well as western areas in what is today Northern Sudan (Tegegne & Pinchuk, 2008, p. 43-4; Jacobovici, 2004). Historically prohibited by the Abyssinian law from owning land, the Beta Israel primarily worked as tenant farmers and artisans.

Traditionally, they also practiced blacksmithery and pottery. Back in time, they spoke a range of Geez dialects, though in the twentieth century Tigrinya and Amharic were already the dominant languages of the group. Accordingly, they have been generally viewed as part of the Amhara and Tigray-Tigrinya people, also known as Habashor Abyssinians. While preserving a restricted level of interaction with outsiderswith intermarriage strongly prohibitedthe Beta Israel remained an isolated and a distinct ethno-religious entity.

Methodology

Non science scholars today excessively rely on the existing religious texts of the Beta Israel to analyze their Jewish heritage and distinctive traits that are not shared with the Abyssinian Christian society. Researches, however, suggest that the sum of authentic Jewish material within the religious texts of the group is small (Devens, 1995, p. ix). Rather, the texts are shown to contain significant borrowings from Christian sources. These conclusions are widely accepted by scholars as supporting evidence to the argument of the traditional theory that the Beta Israel people were originally non-Jewish (Quirin, 2010, p. 5-6).

These scholars, however, fail to consider how the various human and environmental calamities experienced by the Beta Israel could have contributed to the loss of significant religious texts. Moreover, the groups long history of isolation in the remote Semien and Tana regions would have resulted in total, or almost total, illiteracy. Hence, it is viable to speculate whether the groups textual heritage was much expanded at some point in time; that is when illiteracy was not as prevalent as it has been in recent times. On this, Leslau (1951, p. xlii) elaborates:

First of all, the isolation from the Jewish world on one hand and the more or less close contact with the Ethiopian population on the other led to the abandonment of many traditional customs and the introduction of religious elements of non-Jewish origin. Secondly, we must not forget that the observance of some Jewish religious customs requires a more or less high economic standard among the people and that consequently the lack of material resources in the Falasha communities might have led them to give up some of these practices.

The role of militant invasions and famines in causing the losses of textual material is well exemplified in the testimony by a Beta Israelite during the 1890s (A Letter as cited in Quirin, 2010, p. 169):

Formerly we were very numerous; formerly there were 200 synagogues, now only 30 remain. In the time of the Dervishes [Sudanese-Mahadist invaders] a frightful number of people died from famine. We are in great misery. Our books have been destroyed; the Dervishes burnt them by fire. We have no longer any schools; they are destroyed.

Hence, the surviving religious texts of the Beta Israel do not form reliable sources when it comes to understanding their Jewish heritage; they offer only partial and limited indications. Rather historical evidence, genetic research and archeological data must be examined to provide the most ideal material for analysis.

Scholarly discussion

The traditional theory, as advocated by Quirin (2010) and Kaplan (1995), identify the Beta Israel as the product of a fourteenth-to-sixteenth century separatist movement within Christianity. A problematic trend, expressed by proponents of this theory, involves suppressing the distinctions between the Beta Israel and the non-Jewish Abyssinians. They argue that the distinctive traits of the group were socially invented by and within the Abyssinian society and, therefore, the group had no ancient Jewish roots. Hence, they cite differences between the Beta Israel religious traditions and normative Judaism as supporting evidence.

This trend is well exemplified by Daniel Summerfield (2003, p. 133) when he argues that the concept of an Ethiopian Jew is an invented twentieth century phenomenon. Accordingly, he seems to claim that Judaism was adopted by the Beta Israel for the purpose of relating to the world Jewry. As evidence for his argument, Summerfield cites examples of religious elements recently adopted by the group from normative Judaism; that is during the nineteenth and twentieth centuriessuch as the Jewish star, prayer shawls, and use of Hebrew in services (p. 131-2).

There are four major problems come with this view. First, Summerfield, like other proponents of the traditional theory, ignores the larger picture; that is the religion of the Beta Israel seemed to have broad equivalences with practices of the wider Jewish world, except they did not know Hebrew or the Talmud or follow post biblical practices such as the Chanukah as Quirin (2010, p. 5) admits.

Second, the adoption of some normative Jewish practices does not contradict the evidence for the ancient Jewish origins of the group; nor does it support the idea that the concept of an Ethiopian Jew (Summerfield, 2003, p. 133) is invented. As Teferi (2005, p. 176) states Indeed, one can write a lot on the differences of practice with normative Judaism but that, by no means, implies that the Ethiopian Jews have a different religion Summerfield seems to ignore that the essential Jewish beliefs of the Beta Israel in the Orit (Torah), the coming of the Messiah (Kessler, 2012), and the pre-rabbinical principles, all pre-date the groups introduction to normative Judaism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Third, his argument begs two basic questions: First, why would the Beta Israel adopt normative Jewish traits if they were not Jewish in the first place? And second, why did they identify themselves, and were identified by others, in the Israelite-Jewish context prior to their exposure to normative Judaism? While references to Israelite presence in Kush are well founded in Biblical literature (e.g. Psalm 87:4, Isaiah 11:11, and Zephaniah 3:10), a wide spectrum of medieval and contemporary sources refers to Jews in the areas of the Semien and Tana (Ashkenazi, 1987, p. 10). And if Summerfields hypothesis is based on the assumption that normative Judaism was adopted by the Beta Israel as a more civilized and foreignperhaps Europeaninfluence, then his argument also fails. For such an assumption would contradict the Beta Israels overwhelming rejection of Europes Christian missionaries. According to one statistic, missionaries converted only about 1% of the poor Beta Israel population within a fifty year period (Hamilton, 2007, p. 143). And even those who converted during this period have predominantly returned to Judaism (Seeman, 2010, p. 63).

Fourth, Summerfield fails to consider the gap between the religious material of the Beta Israel and normative Judaism as a natural outcome of the groups geographical isolation, social marginalization and various levels of deprivations.

Identity

The Beta Israel have traditionally attributed their descent to the Israelite tribe of Dan. On the other hand, they were commonly identified by the Abyssinians with prejudice, as strangers (Falasha) and as being inferior. The Israelite Jewish identity of the group is historically well established across a vast spectrum of sources. Notable of these was the ninth-century Jewish scholar Eldad Ha-Dani, whose very name translates to Eldad the Danite, and who identifies himself as the citizen of a Jewish state beyond the rivers of Cush [Kush] (Halper, 2009, p. 49). Eldad was precise about the unique Israelite identity of his people from the tribe of Dan. Others include the twelfth century traveler Benjamin of Tudela (as cited in Kaplan, 1995, p. 50) who refers to Israelites in the mountains proximate to Nubia i.e. the medieval name of the Nile Valley area of Kush in Northern Sudan. Also worth mentioning is the Chief Rabbi of Egypt who wrote in the sixteenth century confirming the origin of the Beta Israel as Jews from the tribe of Dan (as cited in Bleich, 1977, p. 302).

However, the perception of the traditional theory, given its trend in suppressing the distinctions of the Beta Israel from the Christian society, has distorted the historical reality of the groups identity. Kaplan, for example, identifies ayhud, which is the Agaw word for Jews, as a vague term that includes vilified Christians. He cites cases in which medieval authors, starting from the fourteenth century, pejoratively referred to antagonized Christian groups as ayhud.

The word Falasha, on the other hand, was not used in pre-sixteenth century sources (Kaplan, 1995, p. 60). Hence, Kaplan seems to conclude that the ayhud were somehow different from the Falasha. He identifies the ayhud as the product of influences from groups both within and outside the Ethiopian Orthodox Church(p. 77). I argue to the contrary; the pejorative use of ayhudto label Christian adversariesis best explained within the context of a pre-existing Jewish community of which the Abyssinians are socially aware.

Additionally, ayhud was not the only term that was historically used to refer to the Beta Israel. In fact, the group was dubbed with different terms at different times and with varying degrees of regional interchangeability (Quirin, 2010, p.13). A term that was viewed as pejorative by some Beta-Israel in one area was accepted by members of the same group in another area (Ezer, 2002; Aescoly, 1943). Kayla, Tabib, and Bejrond, are examples of other names used to dub the group. (For more on Bejrond see Quirin, 2010, p. 137-8). (The origin of the term Kayla is unknown; Tabib seems to translate to healer possibly due to a perception that associated the group with superstition; and Bejrond developed as the result of nineteenth century stereotypes associated with artisan and labor occupations.)

Hence, the term ayhud was not an exclusive reference to the Beta Israel, beside Falasha. And although the term was at times derogatorily manipulated to refer to ostracized Christians, it was fundamentally conceived in context of its literal translation, simply meaning Jewsand has accordingly referred to the Beta Israel. Even Kaplan acknowledges, in contradiction to his own line of argument, that geography, historiography, and religion all seem to link the two groups [the ayhud and Falasha of later periods] (Kaplan, 1995, p. 63).

Early Jews of Aksum

Aksum was established as a recognizable civilization no earlier than the first century CE. Situated between the Kushite kingdom along Sudans Nile Valley to the west and the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea to the east, Aksum was a crossroad of major trade routes. Local Agaw, Northern Sudanese-Kushite, and South Arabian elements blended together in Aksum (Dumper & Stanley, 2007, p.17). Studies have already established that Judaism had entered Aksum prior to the establishment of Church; that is sometime between the first and fourth centuries CE (Kaplan, 1995, p. 19). There is no doubt that Jews participated in the establishment of Christianity in Aksum, as well known through the Hebraic influences found in the early Christian texts of the Ethiopian Church.

A popular misconception among scholars today is that a Jewish migration from the Mediterranean through Northern Sudan would have been nebulous (Quirin, 2010, p. 10). Thus, a majority of scholars suggest South Arabia as the likeliest source of Aksums Jewish influence. Yet, the wide range of historical, archeological, and linguistic evidenceincluding the institutionalization of Greek during the fourth century CEsignify that contacts between Aksum and the Mediterranean were strong and direct. In fact, Aksums economic prosperity is inseparable from its reputation as a master of the Indian Ocean-Mediterranean trade routes (Adler & Pouwels, 2014, p. 229). Ceramics and funerary evidence from what is today northern Ethiopia, show Kushite cultural influences all through the second half of the first millennium BCE (see: Hatke, 2013, p. 32; Fattovich, 1994, p. 14-8; Lobban, 2004, p. 58).

Besides being an important trade partner, Kush, which predates Aksum by more than fifteen hundred years (Omer, 2013), offered the direct and relatively easy land routes through which Aksum accessed the Mediterranean world (Phillipson, 1998, p. 24). In fact, in the second century CE, Greco-Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy wrote about the Aksumites as a nation of Ethiopia (Mokhtar, 1990, p. 381).

Here, it should be noted that the name Ethiopia in ancient times referred to the civilization of Kush in northern Sudan, not to Aksum in todays Ethiopia. (This complexity in usage led to great confusion among scholars in the past [i.e. Omer, 2013].) Hence, Claudius reference to the Aksumites, in the context of Ethiopia, may indicate that the Aksum area was in a subsidiary relationship to Kush. And although Claudius refers to the cities of Meroe and Adulis, he makes no mention of Aksumneither as a city nor a kingdom.

Thus, in context of the historical, archeological, and geographical indications, it is reasonable to suggest that the first Jewish elements within Aksum trace to Kush. A number of accounts, including those provided in Beta Israel traditions suggest that the ancestors of the group arrived through the Nile Valley (Quirin, 2010, p. 23). As mentioned, Biblical passages, in addition to a number of extra-Biblical traditions, suggest an Israelite presence in Kush, particularly in Zephaniah 3:10 From beyond the rivers of Cush [Kush] my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings (New International Version). In addition to Eldad Ha-Dani, Obadiah of Bertinoro during the fifteenth century suggests that the spices sold by the Kushites come from (Abrahams & Montefiore, 1889) the Beta Israel, and Chief Rabbi David ibn Zimra of Egypt in the sixteenth century identifies the Beta Israel as the Jews from the Land of Cush (as cited in Bleich, 1977, p. 302).

After tedious research, Kessler (2012, p. 60) analyzes:

Scholars agree that the Jewish religion had a considerable following in the Axumite state before the time of King Ezana and as it is probable that there was a Jewish presence in the neighboring kingdom of Mero with which Axum was in communication Jewish influences could have followed the well-worn routes across the border by way of the Blue Nile and Atbara rivers, while similar, though somewhat different, influences could also have penetrated from south Arabia and subsequently disappeared.

Thus, Jewish presence in Kush appears to predate the entry of the Jews in Aksum. By the time of their migration to Aksum, these Jews would have already exhibited the phenotypes of Northern Sudanese populations. This would explain the physical affinity between the Beta Israel today and the people of Northern Sudan, which will be discussed below.

Contacts with surrounding populations

The date for the departure of Jews from the Aksum area and their subsequent clustering in the Semien region is widely estimated to the early sixth century (Kaplan, 1995, p. 39). This date correlates with the reign of the fervent Christian king of Aksum Kaleb. Known for conducting wide scale conversions, church building, and anti-pagan campaigns, Kalebs relationship with Aksums Jewish population was probably restless. In 520, he waged a war against a Jewish king in South Arabia and overthrew him in favor of a Christian one. Dating to his reign, Cosmas writes (as cited in McCrindle, 1897, Book II): As for the Semenai, where he says there are snows and ice, it is to that country the King of the Axmites expatriates any one whom he has sentenced to be banished.

Kaplan (p. 39) speculates whether those sentenced to be banished were the Jews of Aksum. As mentioned, genetic research points to the establishment of the group in the mid-first millennium CE (Entine, 2013, p. 149; 2007; Saey, 2010, p. 13; Ostrer, 2012). Hence, at this point we have enough historical evidence, and correlative genetic indications, to suggest that the ancestral establishment of the contemporary Beta Israel goes back to the amalgamation of Jewish communities in the Semien and Tana regions sometime between fourth and sixth centuries CE (Omer, 2013). Thus, starting from the latter period, the banished Jews were transformed from scattered and fragmented Aksumite Jews into an ethnically, socially, and culturally integrated, yet fairly isolated, Beta Israel population.

The Semien areas of the Beta Israel may have been autonomous since the late sixth century; that is when the Aksumite kingdom lost its grip over its northern and western territories (see: Kobishchanov & Michels, 1979). Despite the attempts of the Beta Israel at restricting contacts with outsiders, intermarriage with surrounding pagan populations, in the western highlands, have probably occurred. According to some reports, the majority of western Agaw populations remained pagan until the sixteenth century (Abir, 1980, p. 161). Underdeveloped and decentralized, the pagans would have rarely intimidated the Beta Israel. Unlike the Christians who commonly perceived the Beta Israel as the crucifiers of Christ (Journal, 1994), pagan societies probably held no relevant perspective. In fact, there appear to have been a tendency among the church and royal authorities, during medieval times, to view the Beta Israel and pagans under one umbrella of heresy (Quirin, 1988; Kaplan, 1995, p. 61).

The pagan Agaw, in particular, appear to have shared a close historical relationship with the Beta Israel. This relationship is best exemplified in the Zagwe dynasty who replaced the Aksumite kingdom at an unknown date. While the Zagwe were prosperous in the early twelfth century, they were absorbed by the Abyssinian dynasty in about 1270. Nonetheless, the history of the Zagwe is hard to construct for it is plagued by political instability and internal strife. Although the Zagwe were Christians for most of their known history, traditions suggest that the dynasty was initiated by Beta IsraelJews.

In fact, the Zagwe rulers not only claimed Hebraic roots, but alleged to have descended from Moses and Zipporah (Burton, 2007, p. 188). The infamous Jewish Queen Judith (Jeffrey, 2007, p. 155), who was documented as invading the Aksum area from the west (Trimingham, 1952, p. 52) in the late ninth or tenth century, is suggested to have been an early ruler of the Zagwe (Burton, 2007, p. 187-8). In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, rulers of the dynasty controlled important Beta Israel regions, with Lasta being a core area. It was this historical relationship, between the Beta Israel and the Agaw, that inspired scholars to exaggerate and argue that the Beta Israel have descended from Agaw converts to Judaism (Ezer, 2003, p. 27; Ullendorff, 1968). The problem with this argument, however, is that there is neither evidence, nor tangible justification, for the happening of such an Agaw conversion to Judaism.

The Qemant were another small native population who might have partially integrated with the Beta Israel. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both the Beta Israel and the Qemant in Gondar were popularly identified with labor occupations (Quirin, 2010, p. 89-101). In fact, some identified the Qemant as a Hebraic group (Blady & Kaplan, 2000, p. 355). A cooperative relationship between the two groups may have, thus, developed as some Qement are said to have viewed the Beta Israel as a natural barrier against the Amhara (Semi, 2005, p. 42).

That said, we ought to take great caution not to exaggerate the level of integration between the Beta Israel and such pagan populations. Religious beliefs and ethnic affiliations would have formed a wide social gap between the groups so that intermarriage would not have commonly occurred. Not to mention, there are no notable evidence that suggests the occurrence of a significant intermixture.

Conversions to Christianity

In the fifteenth century, the Abyssinian monarchs sought to expand their territories to the western area of the highlands so as to exploit the economic resources of the regions inhabited by the Beta Israel (Ashkenazi, 1987, p. 11), particularly those of northern Tana. Correlating with these royal infiltrations was the growth of missionary activities and monastic movements in the regions.

One of the early documented missionaries was that of Gabra-Iyyasus, during the second half of the fourteenth century, who converted a leading figure amongst the Beta Israel, Zana Gabo (Quirin, 2010, p. 50; Ramos & Gamada, 2000, p. 176). His conversion was followed by the baptism of his fellow relatives. The king himself is said to have fallen in love and married Zana Gabos daughter. Their children later formed the clergy of the monastery of Debra San whose prestigious Beta Israel background was well recognized (Rossini, 1938, p. 409-52; Quirin, 2010, p. 50). Through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries missionary activities impacted the different settlements of the Beta Israel. Regional Christian communities of Beta Israel descent were developed in different areas. In the fifteenth century churches sprang in Shawa for the Beta Israel converts. At one point a Beta Israel convert was awarded the priestly authority over four churches (Quirin, 2010, p. 48; Tamrat, 1972).

Evidence suggests that the Christians held prejudiced feelings even towards the Beta Israel who converted to Christianity, which accords with the groups separate ethnic status within the Abyssinian society. This is evident through the account surrounding the conversion of a Beta Israel once messianic figure Yessahalo (Kaplan, 1995, p. 59; Rossini, 1910, p. 103-9). Even though Yessahalo became a Christian, he experienced prejudice first hand when he was prevented from entering the church by the clergy who claimed to have doubted his faith.

Another illustrative account involves the succession to the throne of Sarsa Dangal (1563-97) by his son Yaqob from a Beta Israel mistress. Being a Christian like his deceased father, Yaqob was crowned as the new heir to the throne in 1597. His mother, due to her Beta Israel ethnicity, was distanced from the royal body. Due to being half Beta Israel, Yaqob was so alienated from the nobility and military leadership that he was easily overthrown by a contestant a few years later. Fearing for his own safety, Yaqob attempted to escape to his uncle in the Semien who happened to be the infamous Beta Israel leader Gedewon. He was, however, caught and convicted by the court for encroachment of power, paganism and sexual perversion (Kaplan, 1995, p. 89). Further, it was claimed that he was not the son of Sarsa Dangal (Quirin, 2010, p. 82).

As one author puts it, Yaqob was evidently guilty of nothing other than of having tried to be king (Berry, 1976). After a period of exile, Yaqob was persuaded by dishonest military leaders to attempt to reclaim the throne. Lacking in support, Yacob was killed by another claimant in 1607 (Kaplan, 1995, p. 90; Perruchon, 1896). Such and other historical circumstances elucidate the prejudiced perspective that the Abyssinian Christians held towards the Beta Israel as an ethnic group regardless of religious affiliation.

The Beta Israel were exposed to Christian missionaries during the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century. Since the dire defeat of the Beta Israel militant movement by the royal armies in 1626, their overall condition was in a downward spiral. Widespread social tension and political instability, caused in part by the increased sovereignty of the nobility in the Gondar area and accompanied by plundering activities and raids by the royal troops ravaged the country side. Sudanese-Mahadist invasions from the west devastated the region, notably in 1885 and 1888. The Great Famine (1888-92) is claimed by some to have killed one-third of the countrys population (Gilbert, 2005, p. 89).

Missionaries of the London Society claimed to have converted 1,470 Beta Israel, between 1868 and 1894, out of a total of 10,000 to 50,000 (Seeman, 2010, p. 63). The percentage is evidently small when viewed in context of the great efforts of the missionaries. The result was an unassimilated Beta Israel/Falasha Christians, or Falash-Mura, a majority of whom have returned to Judaism.

Just as in medieval times, testimonies suggest that the Beta Israel converts were not readily accepted by the Christians and experienced prejudices. Until the 1960s, there was a popular belief that the Beta Israel converted to Christianity just to own land (Messing, 1982, p. 97). (i.e. King Yeshaq [141330] issued the first known decree that prohibited the Jews from owning land when he declared: He who is baptized in the Christian religion may inherit the land of his father. Otherwise let him be a Falasha! [Parfitt, 1987, p. 125])

The fact that leaders of the Beta Israel were rarely interested in pursuing theological discussions with the Christian missionaries, further affirms that the group was established on an ethnic rather than a religious foundation. Historically, arguments raised by the Beta Israel, in response to the preaching of missionaries, typically emphasized the sacredness of preserving the unity of the group.

In the late nineteenth century, one Beta Israel priest expressed (Quirin, 2010, p. 189) in protest of the missionaries, We are, and remain, and will die Falashas, with the words on our lips: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord. When challenged about their practice of sacrifice, another Beta Israel Priest is documented stating (p. 189): My children, our faith is the true faith, and our bloody sacrifices have been ordered to us by Moses. We will remain what we are.

Returning to Judaism

The return of a Beta Israel population to Judaism following a forcedusually superficialconversion to Christianity, is a pattern that variably reoccurs through the history of the group. King Amda Seyon (1314-44) is documented to have sent military campaigns to subdue insubordinate Beta Israel who were formerly defeated in the Semien and other neighboring sites. According to the report (p. 49) Formerly, these people were Christians, but now they have denied Christ like the Jews, []

Of great importance here is the indication that they were Christians, which as Quirin (p. 49-50) admits, may reflect earlier evangelization efforts, as far back as Aksumite and Zagwe times, when some ayhud underwent nominal conversion and had since lapsed as royal authority in the area waned. During the fifteenth century a Beta Israel is documented (as cited in Kaplan, 1995, p. 59) as telling a Christian missionary: We are Christians [but] not from our hearts but [because] we feared the command of the king and governors. Baptize us. Hence, there is no reason to interpret such a situation as a phenomenon of Christians joining an ayhud community as Quirin (2010, p. 67), later concludes.

Such a phenomenon may also be detected through the tale of the monk Abba Sabra. According to the story, the monk was converted by the Beta Israel to Judaism while he was trying to convert them to Christianity. The monk ended up writing, or rewriting, religious books for the Beta Israel and taught the Orit. If we assume that Abba Sabra was not fictional, then we may speculate on whether he was of a Beta Israel descentas in the case of the aforementioned Debra San clergy. In any case, such a monk would have mostly likely gained his importance amongst the Beta Israel out of his literacy skills.

As discussed earlier, the geographical isolation of the Beta Israel would have contributed to the prevalence of illiteracy. Thus, the Beta Israel would have welcomed the coming of such a compliant and literate monk with great delight. This is also well exemplified through the account of a monk named Qozmos who joined the Beta Israel after he abandoned his monastery due to theological disagreements with the clergy (Ashkenazi, 1987, p. 13). Qozmoss union with Beta Israel began after an accidental encounter when he met some Beta Israel while wandering in hunger. When he asked them for food, they accepted but with the implied condition that he write the Orit for them.

The proposal raised by Quirin (2010, p. 66) and proponents of the traditional theory that Abba Sabra has instituted the Beta Israel-Falasha religion is, hence, an exaggeration to say the least. In addition, Quirins skepticism that the monk might have introduced monasticism is unlikely. Monastic practices, as suggested in the writings of Abul-Mocali, most likely predate the time of Abba Sabra (see: Teferi, 2005, p. 185; Shelemay, 1994, p. 145). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this phenomenon is no less notable. In addition to the mentioned 1,470 Beta Israel who were claimed to have converted to Christianity between 1868 and 1894, but who have mostly returned to Judaism, studies identified 50,000 Beta Israel in the 1960s who identified as Christians, but who continued to practice Jewish traditions (Messing, 1982, p. 93-9; Quirin, 2010, p. 188).

Genetics

As mentioned, genetic evidenceas best introduced by Entine in Abrahams Children (2007) has already demonstrated that the group maintains an ancient descent that traces all the way back to the mid-first millennium CE (Entine, 2013; Saey, 2010; Ostrer, 2012). As someone who is of East African descent, I argue that the African ethnicity of the Beta Israel appears to be more complex than just Ethiopian.

The observed phenotypes of the Beta Israel-Ethiopian Jews today strongly reflect the features of the riverine Northern Sudanese populations. To a lesser proportion, they reflect the phenotypes commonly found among the mainstream Habash-Abyssinian populations of what is today northern Ethiopia. Contrary to the argument that propose the Beta Israel to have originated from Agaw converts (Ezer, 2003, p. 27; Ullendorff, 1968), only a minority of the population today displays distinguishable Agaw featuresi.e. large and deep-set eyes, notably thin eye-brows, and the usual dark complexion but with a unique smooth-yellowish tone. This may indicate that intermarriage with the Agaw was limited.

A small minority displays clear Somali features with longer faces and darker than average complexion. A much smaller minority of the group shows clear West/Central African features attributed to the Barya populations who were noted in the fourth century CE inscription of Ezana (Zarroug, 1991, p. 8). The Barya were historically subjugated by the Abyssinians and forced into farm work as late as the mid-twentieth century.

Hence, phenotypes indicate a fair degree of African diversity with the Beta Israel. That being said, understanding the potential contributions of Northern Sudan is significantly important to better understand the development of the Beta Israel, particularly as it pertains to their historical and ethnic roots.

Conclusion

In conclusion, historical indications overwhelmingly suggest that the intermixture of the Beta Israel with surrounding populations was spontaneous, inconsistent and infrequent. Evidence suggests that the traditional theory, which attributes the origin of the Beta Israel to Abyssinias Christian society, is unreliable. Evidence also suggests that the Beta Israel originated from Jews who migrated from Kush to Aksum sometime between the first and fourth century CE. It was this Jewish community that was exiled from Aksum to the Semien and Tana areas in the sixth century by King Kaleb that ultimately produced the Beta Israel society. Accordingly, the groups identity has historically conformed to an ethno-religious Israelite-Jewish-ayhud context in the simplest and most direct manner.

The prejudices that the Beta Israel Christian converts have experienced within the Abyssinian Christian society, as well as the tendency of the converts to return to Judaism, further points to the ethnic character of the group. And as elaborated, a Northern Sudanese element is evident through the current phenotypes of the Beta Israel, which may suggest that the ancestors of the group arrived from Kush. On the other hand, the peripheral nature of the groups traditional regions, which marginally stretched into Northern Sudan, may also be considered as a factor in an intermixture with Northern Sudanese populations.

More genetic research on the Beta Israel is needed in order to free the course of exploration, on their origins and development, from the biases of the traditional theory. Such research may introduce us to new approaches that may help expand our perception on the formation and influence of Jewish cultures in Africa. It may also shed light on the reliability of the Biblical narrative, particularly with regards to the existence of an Israelite community in the land of Kush as represented by the Beta Israel.

References:

A Letter from Falashas. (1905, October 13). The Jewish Chronicle.

Abir, M. (1980). Ethiopia and the Red Sea: The rise and decline of the Solomonic dynasty and Muslim-European rivalry in the region. New York: F. Cass.

Abrahams, I., & Montefiore, C. (1889). The Jewish Quarterly Review. (Vol. 1). Macmillan.

Adler, P., & Pouwels, R. (2014). World Civilizations: Volume I: To 1700. Stamford, Ct.

Aescoly, A. (1943). The Book of the Falasha. Tel Aviv, Israel

Ashkenazi, M. (1987). Ethiopian Jews and Israel. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books.

Berry, L. (1976). The Solomonic Monarchy at Gonder, 1630-1755: an institutional analysis of kingship in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia. Ph.D. dissertation. Boston University.

Blady, K., & Kaplan, S. (2000). Jewish Communities in Exotic Places. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson.

Bleich, J. (1977). Contemporary Halakhic Problems, 1. Jersey City, N.J.

Burton, K. (2007). The Blessing of Africa: The Bible and African Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill.

Devens, M. (1995). The Liturgy of the Seventh Sabbath: A Bet Israel (Falasha) Text. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Dumper, M., & Stanley, B. (2007). Cities of the Middle East and North Africa: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Ca: ABC-CLIO.

Entine, J. (2007). Abrahams Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People. Grand Central Publishing

(2013, July 7). Interview by I. Omer. Questions about Ethiopian Jewish genetics.

Ezer, G. (2003). The Ethiopian Jewish Exodus: Narratives of the journey. London: Routledge.

Fattovich, R. (1994, December). Gash Delta Archeological Project: 1991, 1992-93, 1993-94 Field Seasons. Nyame Akuma, no. 42, 14-8.

Gilbert, G. (2005). World Population: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Ca: ABC-CLIO.

Halper, B. (Ed. & Trans.). (2009). Post-Biblical Hebrew Literature: An Anthology. Philadelphia, Pa.: BiblioLife.

Hamilton, R. (2007). Routes of Passage: Rethinking the African Diaspora. East Lansing, Mi: Michigan State University Press.

Hatke, G. (2013). Aksum and Nubia: warfare, commerce, and political fictions in ancient Northeast Africa. New York: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

Jacobovici, S. (Director). (2004). Falasha [DVD]. Wellspring Media.

Jeffrey, G. (2007). The New Temple and the Second Coming: The prophecy that points to Christs return in your generation. Colorado Springs, Co.: WaterBrook Press.

Journal of Religion in Africa: Religion en Afrique, 24-25. (1994).

Kaplan, S. (1995). The Beta Israel: Falasha in Ethiopia From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century. New York: New York University Press.

Kessler, D. (2012). The Falashas: A Short History of the Ethiopian Jews [E-reader Kindle Edition]. Taylor and Francis (Parent company of Routledge).

Kobishchanov, I., & Michels, J. (1979). Axum. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Leslau, W. (1951). Falasha Anthology. New Haven, Ct: Yale University Press.

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McCrindle, J. (1897). Christian Topography of Cosmas, an Egyptian Monk. London: Hakluyt.

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The History of Ethiopian Jewry – My Jewish Learning

Piecing together legends and stories. By Atira Winchester

A Jewish community in Ethiopiathe Beta Israel (House of Israel)has existed for at least 15 centuries.

Because of low literacy levels, a tendency to rely on oral traditions, and nomadic lifestyles among most Ethiopians prior to the 20th century, historic material about this community is scant and unreliable. However, a tentative story can be pieced together from written records of Ethiopian rulers as well as testimony from the Beta Israel themselves.

Most likely, the Beta Israel arrived in Ethiopia between the first and sixth centuries, coming as merchants or artisans from various countries in the region.

An Ethiopian Jewish family shortly after arriving in Israel in 2009. (Jewish Agency for Israel/Flickr)

Scholars once believed that during the Middle Ages the Beta Israel were a homogeneous group living under unified, autonomous Jewish rule. Yet new discoveries have shown that the truth is far more complex. It seems the Ethiopian Jewish community was for the most part fragmented both physically and religiously, with each Beta Israel village appointing its own spiritual and secular leaders. There was little contact between Beta Israel communities, and usually no overarching leadership uniting them.

Sometimes the Beta Israel were treated well by the Ethiopian monarchy, but at other times they suffered persecution. Many fellow Ethiopians refer to the Beta Israel as falasha (a derogatory term meaning outsider), In 1624, the ruling kings army captured many Ethiopian Jews, forced them to be baptized, and denied them the right to own land. According to local legend, some members of the Beta Israel chose suicide over conversion.

Since the Beta Israel community existed in isolation from other Jewish communities around the world, they developed a unique set of religious practices in some ways quite different from what is typically considered Jewish.

For example, an order of Ethiopian Jewish monks was founded in the 15th century to strengthen the communitys religious identity and resist Christian influence. This monastic movement introduced an organized approach to religious practice, creating new religious literature and prayers, and adopting laws of ritual purity.

Historians learned about the communitys religious life in the 19th century from the writings of Joseph Halevy, a French Jew who visited the area in 1867. He provided the first eyewitness account of Beta Israel life from a European Jewish perspective.

Halevy described a community that followed legal sections in the Hebrew Bible and observed laws of purity surrounding menstruation, birth, and death. They observed Shabbat and believed in values such as respecting elders, receiving guests, and visiting mourners. They referred to the Torah as Orit (possibly from the Aramaic term for the Torah, Oraita), and kept their Torah scrolls covered in colorful cloths in houses of prayer or in the homes of one of the kessim (priests).

Ethiopian rabbis (Kessim) at the ceremony of a new spiritual leader in Ashkelon, Israel, in 2012. (Wikimedia Commons)

Like today in Israel, Ethiopian Jews celebrated Sigd, a festival which commemorates the giving of the Torah. On this holiday, community members would fast, climb the highest mountain in the area, and listen to the kessim chant passages of the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Nehemiah. In the afternoon they would descend, break their fast, and rejoice in their renewed acceptance of the Orit.

At the time of Halevys report, one of the biggest challenges facing the Ethiopian Jewish community was European missionary activity. Though the community had frequently been pressured to convert by Ethiopian authorities, missionaries from abroad with large-scale, organized missions presented an even stronger threat.

European missionaries, well-versed in the Hebrew Bible, were educated and skilled in debate. The Beta Israels clergy could not compete. By providing schools and Bibles written in the local language, Amharic, the missionaries challenged the communitys practice and faith.

On a number of occasions the Beta Israels monastic clergy tried to escape the missionaries influence by leading their communities to the Promised Land (Israel). By and large, these journeys were disastrous. One particular attempt in 1862 ended in large-scale starvation and death.

Between 1882 and 1892 the regions of Ethiopia where the Beta Israel lived suffered from a famine that killed an estimated one third to one half of the Beta Israel.

Ethiopian Jewish women pray during a Sigd celebration in Jerusalem in 2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

Halevys student, Jaques Faitlovitch, was the first Jewish foreigner to work in earnest on improving conditions for the Ethiopian Jewish community. Arriving for his first visit in 1904 and returning several times in subsequent years, Faitlovitch created tiny schools in Addis Ababa for Beta Israel members, hand-picked 25 young leaders for education abroad, and acted as an emissary on behalf of the world Jewish community.

Faitlovich secured two letters from rabbis abroad acknowledging the Beta Israel as fellow Jews. The first letter, written in 1906, called the Beta Israel our brethren, sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who dwell in Abyssinia and our flesh and blood. The letter, which promised to help the community in its religious education, was signed by 44 world Jewish leaders including the chief rabbis of London and Vienna and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.

The second letter, from 1921, was written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the revered Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Palestine. He called on the Jewish people worldwide to save the Beta Israel 50,000 holy souls of the house of Israel from extinction and contamination.

Faitlovichs work on behalf of the Beta Israel community came to a dramatic halt with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-6. Under fascist rule, it became forbidden to practice Judaism in Ethiopia.

Some of Faitlovitchs work was undeniably controversial he created a schism dividing the young, westernized leaders he chose from the elders of the rural communities. But, until the 1960s, no one but Faitlovitch took such a dedicated interest in the community, invested in it financially and educationally, and visited with such regularity. Moreover, it was the letters that Faitlovitch brought to Ethiopia from Kook and other contemporary Jewish leaders that allowed the Beta Israel to cling to their hopes of returning to the Promised Land, and, decades later, for world Jewry to readily accept them.

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Atira Winchester is a journalist who worked for many years as an editor for The Jerusalem Post. She currently lives in London, England where she works as a freelance writer, specializing in arts, culture and contemporary Israeli life.

A Jewish community in Ethiopiathe Beta Israel (House of Israel)has existed for at least 15 centuries.

Because of low literacy levels, a tendency to rely on oral traditions, and nomadic lifestyles among most Ethiopians prior to the 20th century, historic material about this community is scant and unreliable. However, a tentative story can be pieced together from written records of Ethiopian rulers as well as testimony from the Beta Israel themselves.

Most likely, the Beta Israel arrived in Ethiopia between the first and sixth centuries, coming as merchants or artisans from various countries in the region.

An Ethiopian Jewish family shortly after arriving in Israel in 2009. (Jewish Agency for Israel/Flickr)

Scholars once believed that during the Middle Ages the Beta Israel were a homogeneous group living under unified, autonomous Jewish rule. Yet new discoveries have shown that the truth is far more complex. It seems the Ethiopian Jewish community was for the most part fragmented both physically and religiously, with each Beta Israel village appointing its own spiritual and secular leaders. There was little contact between Beta Israel communities, and usually no overarching leadership uniting them.

Sometimes the Beta Israel were treated well by the Ethiopian monarchy, but at other times they suffered persecution. Many fellow Ethiopians refer to the Beta Israel as falasha (a derogatory term meaning outsider), In 1624, the ruling kings army captured many Ethiopian Jews, forced them to be baptized, and denied them the right to own land. According to local legend, some members of the Beta Israel chose suicide over conversion.

Since the Beta Israel community existed in isolation from other Jewish communities around the world, they developed a unique set of religious practices in some ways quite different from what is typically considered Jewish.

For example, an order of Ethiopian Jewish monks was founded in the 15th century to strengthen the communitys religious identity and resist Christian influence. This monastic movement introduced an organized approach to religious practice, creating new religious literature and prayers, and adopting laws of ritual purity.

Historians learned about the communitys religious life in the 19th century from the writings of Joseph Halevy, a French Jew who visited the area in 1867. He provided the first eyewitness account of Beta Israel life from a European Jewish perspective.

Halevy described a community that followed legal sections in the Hebrew Bible and observed laws of purity surrounding menstruation, birth, and death. They observed Shabbat and believed in values such as respecting elders, receiving guests, and visiting mourners. They referred to the Torah as Orit (possibly from the Aramaic term for the Torah, Oraita), and kept their Torah scrolls covered in colorful cloths in houses of prayer or in the homes of one of the kessim (priests).

Ethiopian rabbis (Kessim) at the ceremony of a new spiritual leader in Ashkelon, Israel, in 2012. (Wikimedia Commons)

Like today in Israel, Ethiopian Jews celebrated Sigd, a festival which commemorates the giving of the Torah. On this holiday, community members would fast, climb the highest mountain in the area, and listen to the kessim chant passages of the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Nehemiah. In the afternoon they would descend, break their fast, and rejoice in their renewed acceptance of the Orit.

At the time of Halevys report, one of the biggest challenges facing the Ethiopian Jewish community was European missionary activity. Though the community had frequently been pressured to convert by Ethiopian authorities, missionaries from abroad with large-scale, organized missions presented an even stronger threat.

European missionaries, well-versed in the Hebrew Bible, were educated and skilled in debate. The Beta Israels clergy could not compete. By providing schools and Bibles written in the local language, Amharic, the missionaries challenged the communitys practice and faith.

On a number of occasions the Beta Israels monastic clergy tried to escape the missionaries influence by leading their communities to the Promised Land (Israel). By and large, these journeys were disastrous. One particular attempt in 1862 ended in large-scale starvation and death.

Between 1882 and 1892 the regions of Ethiopia where the Beta Israel lived suffered from a famine that killed an estimated one third to one half of the Beta Israel.

Ethiopian Jewish women pray during a Sigd celebration in Jerusalem in 2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

Halevys student, Jaques Faitlovitch, was the first Jewish foreigner to work in earnest on improving conditions for the Ethiopian Jewish community. Arriving for his first visit in 1904 and returning several times in subsequent years, Faitlovitch created tiny schools in Addis Ababa for Beta Israel members, hand-picked 25 young leaders for education abroad, and acted as an emissary on behalf of the world Jewish community.

Faitlovich secured two letters from rabbis abroad acknowledging the Beta Israel as fellow Jews. The first letter, written in 1906, called the Beta Israel our brethren, sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who dwell in Abyssinia and our flesh and blood. The letter, which promised to help the community in its religious education, was signed by 44 world Jewish leaders including the chief rabbis of London and Vienna and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.

The second letter, from 1921, was written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the revered Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Palestine. He called on the Jewish people worldwide to save the Beta Israel 50,000 holy souls of the house of Israel from extinction and contamination.

Faitlovichs work on behalf of the Beta Israel community came to a dramatic halt with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-6. Under fascist rule, it became forbidden to practice Judaism in Ethiopia.

Some of Faitlovitchs work was undeniably controversial he created a schism dividing the young, westernized leaders he chose from the elders of the rural communities. But, until the 1960s, no one but Faitlovitch took such a dedicated interest in the community, invested in it financially and educationally, and visited with such regularity. Moreover, it was the letters that Faitlovitch brought to Ethiopia from Kook and other contemporary Jewish leaders that allowed the Beta Israel to cling to their hopes of returning to the Promised Land, and, decades later, for world Jewry to readily accept them.

Continued here:

The History of Ethiopian Jewry – My Jewish Learning

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July 4, 2016   Posted in: Ethiopian Jews  Comments Closed

Ethiopian Chapter – Black Jews

A Historical Analysis by Rabbi S.B. Levy 2002

At first glance one might incorrectly assume that the only thing Ethiopian Jews, who call themselves Beta Yisrael (The House of Israel), have in common with black Jews in other parts of the world is that their ancestors once lived on the same continent. While not entire true, this small fact is significant because Africawhether we acknowledge it or notis a crucial link that historically unites all Jews. Those whose African connection is more obvious because of race share this, too, as a bond for better or worse.

Actually, our similarities are more than skin deep. The direct connections between the Beta Israel and my community of black Jews in the United States antedates the recent public fascination with the African tribe by at least sixty years. The existence of all of our communities raise important questions about the ancient history, current composition, and future of Judaism. This essay covers the ancient history, culture and tradition of the Beta Yisrael. My analysis of their current status in Israel is covered on a separate page devoted to black Jews in Israel today.

The Beta Yisrael are perhaps the best known black Jewish sect in the world. Despite their ancient and well-documented history, they, like all black communities, have had their historical connections to Judaism challenged, the validity of their religious practice scrutinized, and their acceptance within the white Jewish world hindered. When the Ethiopians left the cultural isolation of their remote villages, they entered a world prefigured by race. They soon learned that their Jewish heritage was not the only thing that made them Falasha, (outsiders). For the black Jews of America, the existence of Ethiopian Jews was living proof that black people have a connection to Judaism that is as old as any claimed by Europeans.

They called themselves Beta Yisrael because for centuries they believed that they were the last remnant of the ancient Israelites. In fact, in the nineteenth century when a French linguist named Joseph Halevy reached one of their villages on a mission from the Alliance Israelite Universelle, they did not believe that he, the European, could be a Jew. As Halevy described it, the Ethiopians said What!You a Falahsa! A white Falasha! You are laughing at us. Are there any white Falashas?[1] Imagine the irony of that moment: black Jews questioning the Jewishness of white Jews; and the white Jew trying to convince them of his authenticity. The levity of that scene is surpassed by a far more serious point: when different Jewish communities come together, one will usually occupy the superior position; the one of dominance, authority, and control. Not surprisingly, the dominant group is in a position to judge the subordinate. That is an exercise of power, and power underlies all of these relationships.

Dominance or power in this context is established by a combination of any or all of these factors: (1) numeric superiority, (2) access to wealth, (3) primo-occupancy; i.e. the act of being there first, (4) higher social status (this could be based on a privilege afforded one Jewish group by a Christian or Muslim authority that is more power than either Jewish group (5) racial or ethnic superiority (this would be true in racialized societies of the West and was evident in the interaction of Ashkenazim and Sephardim in Europe and Israel).

The Beta Israel maintain that their ancestors were descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. That union produced a child called Menileck (in Hebrew Mem Meleck literally means from king). This child was then trained by the wise men of Solomons court. They further assert that when Menileck left Jerusalem with a large retinue of Israelite nobles for Ethiopia they took with them the Ark of the Covenant that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Ethiopian claim is based on oral history that has been passed down from generation to generation by their elders, scholars called Dabtaras, and their priests, called Kahens (an Amharic word linguistically similar to the Hebrew word for priest, Kohen).[2] The written account of ancient Ethiopian history is known as the Kebra Nagast and it corroborates in even greater detail what the Beta Israel have always affirmed. Moreover, the Biblical record tends to substantiate their claim. It vividly describes the Queen of Sheba arriving in Jerusalem with a large entourage shortly after the completion of the temple. She is granted an audience with the king, they engage in a colloquy in which the queen is impressed with his Solomonic wisdom to the point where there was no more spirit left in her.And King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired, whatever she asked, in addition to all that he gave her of his royal bounty.[3]

Meeting of Solomon and Sheba Piero della Francesca, c. 1452

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheaba Illustrated by Avi Katz

Notice how the 15th century painter whose work is shown of the left depicted King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as being white, archetypal Europeans. The Israeli artist whose work is shown on the right presents a more realistic depiction showing Makeda as the African queen that she was. These conflicting images reflect the old presumption of whiteness that was traditionally applied to all Biblical characters and the new multicultural realism that acknowledges the Eastern and African origins of Biblical figures respectively. Such realism is to be embraced and celebrated rather than denied and discouraged.

Rudolph R. Windsor examined the validity of this claim in his book From Babylon to Timbuktu. There he argued that the queen who visited King Solomon in 1012 B.C. was indeed an Ethiopian queen known variously as Makeda or Bilkis. Her dominion at that time included a province on the Arabian peninsula called Sheba; hence the title Queen of Sheba. That area would be in the region of Yemen today. Geographically, the Arabian peninsula is a peninsula of the African continent.[4] Yemen and the ancient boundaries of Ethiopia are adjacent points, separated only by a very thin isthmus. Further, the renowned Jewish historian Flavius Josephus identified the ruler of Sheba as a queen of Egypt and Ethiopia.[5] Not only does this comport with the view that Sheba was a vassal state of Ethiopia, but as Windsor contends, lends credence to the view that the people of this region were blacksince Upper Egypt, the area once ruled by Ethiopia, is today called the Sudan and the indigenous people there are very dark. [6]

If the Beta Israel are the product of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, then they have been in Ethiopia since the 10th Century B.C. That is twelve centuries before the writing of the Mishnah and sixteen centuries before the codification of the Talmud. The first European traveler did not stumble into their village until the 9th Century A.D. His name was Eldad Ha-Dani (which in Hebrew means Eldad of the tribe of Dan). He reported that he discovered Jews in the mountains of northern Abyssinia. Moreover, he believed that these Jews were also of the tribe of Dan.[7] He saw that they were Jews and assumed that they had to be of the tribe of Dan, like him, because of the tradition among Sephardic Jews that members of that tribe had emigrated when the Kingdom of Solomon split after his death, and they did not want to be ruled by Jerobaom in the northern sector known as Israel.[8] Other travlers such as Benjamin of Tudela, Solomon of Vienna (the first Ashkenazi Jew to reach them in 1626), and the apostate James Bruce in the 18th Century. Their intermittent logs created the lore about black Jews in Ethiopia that the aforementioned Joseph Ha Levy came to investigate.

And when the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the Name of the Lord, she came to prove him with hard questions. She communed with him of all that was in her heart. And Solomon answered her all her questions: there was not any thing hid from the King, which he told her not. I Kings 10:1-3

How Jewish were the Beta Israel? Dr. Wolf Leslau spent ten months in 1947 living among the Beta Israel. He primarily studied the most urban of their isolated villages in Gondar, which is near Lake Tana and the Blue Nile. The influential book he published from his journals, Falasha Anthology, has become the source of much of the secondary literature on this subject. He observed that every Friday all work in the village stopped early in the afternoon so that the cooking, cleaning, and baking needed for the Sabbath could be completed before sunset. Their synagogues were humble, austere structures having at best a Star of David on display. Inside, the rooms were divided into two sections: the outer chamber for laymen who faced east toward Jerusalem while saying their prayers and the inner chamberrepresenting the holy of holies of the Mosaic Tabernacleinto which only the priests could enter.[9]

Priests of the Beta Israel pray seven time a day. Like the Levitical Priest of old, they sacrificed kosher animals on small alters built in front of their synagogues. Unlike the Levites, however, their positions were not hereditary; aspiring clerics had to study, apprentice, and live exemplary lives in order to be selected for the office. Once initiated, the priests wore a white cotton headdress that distinguished them from other Ethiopians. Their Torah, written in the Geez language on parchment, contained all the books of the Old Testament and some from the Apocrypha, but none of the New Testament and no references to Jesus at all. Some devotees have attempted to lead lives of solitude and quiet contemplation as nuns and monks.[10]

Judaism for them was not just an act of faith, it was a way of life governing almost every activity. All marriages were arranged by parents and elders. Individuals who married outside the group and women who were not virgins at the time of marriage could be banished. Their diet prohibited the eating of foods deemed uncleanincluding beef slaughtered by non-Jews or beef that has not had the sinew removed. They used a solar calendar for secular activities and a lunar calendar to calculate all Biblical festivals such as Passover, Shavuot, and the Day of Atonement. For example, the Feast of Tabernacle was celebrated in the seventh month with palm branches and weeping willows.[11]

Circumcision was performed on male children eight days after birth as the Torah proscribed. However, some have adopted the practice of female circumcision from their neighbors.[12] Burials were performed on the same day of death, if possible. Special blessings were said before and after eating and performing other rituals. In fact, the Beta Israel went to such great lengths to avoid spiritual defilement that locale gentiles referred to them as the people who smell of water because of their frequent baths and the touch-me-nots because of their aversion to physical contact with non-Jews.[13]

In his book, Acts of Faith: A Journey to the Fringes of Jewish Identity, Dan Ross described how the Beta Israel literally applied purity laws by building blood huts as temporary housing for women during menstruation:[14]

Like Samaritans, Falashas do not touch women during menstruation or after childbirth. But unlike Samaritans, Falasha women spend their menstrual periods in separate huts. Circles of stones mark a perimeter around those tukuls beyond which men may not pass. Additional huts are built for women to live in during their forty or eighty days of impurity after childbirth; these are burned afterwards.[15]

Dr. Leslau described the Judaism of the Beta Israel as being primitive because these people were not aware of all the rabbinic changes that have taken place since the redaction of the Talmud in the sixth century. From his perspective in the twentieth century, the menstrual huts and animal sacrifices must seem barbaric and a sure sign of ignorance. What he fails to recognizeor perhaps is ashamed to acknowledgeis that the customs of the Beta Israel today are a reflection of what the ancient Israelite must have looked like when they offered burnt offerings, incense, and libation to the same God that we as Jews worship today. Perhaps on some level this is unsettling. It is not often that a people can be confronted with their past in the present. Or, because Judaism outside of Ethiopia has changed so much over the centuries, those without the proper historical reference may not recognize their roots when the see them. Primitive, after all, is something associated with those uncivilized black tribes of Africa. Well, if that is true, then that is who, where, and how our Judaism evolved. I argue that rather than accept these possibilities, many scholars have blinded their eyes to these implications and have attempted to distance and disassociate themselves from the Beta Israel by discrediting their culture.

Despite all the evidence that has been adduced about the history and origins of the Beta Israel, there has been a profound, and often irrational, reluctance to accept that their claim is plausible. Scholars who are quite adept at understanding that the Bible may not always state the literal and unbiased truth of events, may yet remain an important tool in understanding how a people explained and preserved their culture. Nonetheless, many of these scholars seem incapable or unwilling to apply the same standards to their examination of the Beta Israel. Dr. Leslau in particular, seemed intent on dismissing the very evidence he presented. For example, he asserted that from all historical evidence it would seem that the Falasha never have been a Hebrew-speaking people.[16] Yet, before his eyes and throughout his text Hebrew words and names of months frequently appear. The fact that only a few Hebrew words have survived over the millennia does not mean they never had a working knowledge of the language. After all, Hebrew had ceased to be the lingua franqua of Israel long before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Would a traveler in the Holy Land at that time be correct in assuming that those Greek-speaking Jews never spoke Hebrew? Subsequent scholars have looked at words such as masia (messiah), mizvat (charity). Sanbat (Sabbath), Saitan (Satan), which bear remarkable similarity to Hebrew words but could derived from Amharic, another semetic language and the offical language of Ethiopia. However, the following words only appear in Falasha texts: safur (shofar), gadol (great), El Shaddai (Almighty God), goyyim (gentile) and Torah.[17] It seems perfectly logical that if one finds Hebrew words among people who claim to be descended from Hebrews, then the Hebrews are a likely source for how the words got there. It also does not require a great leap of faith to assume that if they know these words now, then they probably knew more words in the pastsince the tendency is for words to be lost over generations.

In the following passage, Dr. Leslau not only states his candid opinion of the Beta Israel, but he shares his insights into what many of his colleagues in the historical profession believe as well:

Very few of the western scholars who have dealt with the problem of the Falashas are of the opinion that they are ethnically Jews. Most of them think that they are a segment of the indigenous Agau population which was converted to Judaism. How and when they were converted is a problem for which historical evidence is lacking.[18]

It is extremely instructive for scholars looking anew at the Beta Israel to comprehend what Dr. Leslau admitted. Despite all the information he had in his possession, in the end, the Beta Israel did not look ethnically Jewish and because of that he and his colleagues were never able to overcome their doubt. Therefore, they concluded that the Beta Israel must have been convertedeven though historical evidence is lacking to support such a position. What effrontery. To dismiss a body of evidence that points in one direction in favor of another position for which there is no evidence.

Dr. Yosef Ben-Jocannan took issue with Dr. Leslau dubious reference to ethnic Jews. For Professor Leslau to have reached the conclusion that the Falashas are not ethnically Jews, he must have produced for public scrutiny at least one of his own Ethnic Jews from any part of the European and European-American communities where they still allegedly exist. But he must have started with the theory that there are such persons of Ethnic Jewish Origin dating back to the allegorical and mythical Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to validate his classification. [19]

What exactly is an ethnic Jew? This is the question that Dr. Ben-Jochannan and others have raised. Those who use this term assume that we know what it is. They can spot one when they see one and they know who looks Jewish and who does not. However, we need to examine more closely what is meant by these terms and how they are used. Naomi Zack defined and clarified terms such as this in her recent book, Thinking About Race. She argues that race and ethnicity are nebulous concepts into which and out of which a host of meanings can be put in order to socially construct an identity. As such, neither of these constitutes a fixed, universal, or objective reality; i.e. they mean whatever the society that uses them wants them to mean at the time. She points out that what masquerades today as the building blocks of ethnic identity (language, common origin, shared culture, etc.) are the same things that social scientist used prior to about 1920 when Jews, Poles, Italians, Germans, and others were classified as races.[20] What has changed since that timeparticularly in this era of political correctnessis that the word ethnicity is often used as a euphemism for race when speakers want to refer to race without causing offense to diverse listeners or readers.[21] Hence, all the groups previously mentioned have been transformed into ethnic groups, while people of African descent remain a race. This is not because physical characteristics are not a part of ethnicity; they often are, instead it seems that whiteness helps to make one ethnic.

Karen Brodkin has chronicled this process in her book, How Jews Became White Folks. Although she focused on explaining this phenomenon within the United States, I argue that how one defines American Jews, who are essentially European Jews transplanted, is to a large extent the standard against which all other Jews will be judgedsince Americans Jews are the largest, wealthiest, and most influential group of Jews in the world. And these American Jews have, despite rigorous resistance, become white folks.[22] Like Dr. Zack, Dr. Brodkin recognizes this racial dimension to how Jews are perceived and how they often perceive themselves. She actually prefers the term ethnoracial, but uses it inconsistently.[23] Nonetheless, their works help us to decode the hidden racial messages embedded in terms like ethnicity.

There are many who would argue that Jewishness does not conform to the ethnoracial paradigm that defines other groups. They might argue that Judaism is a religion that people of all ethnoracial backgrounds can and do practice. Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin have tried to carve out just such an exception. Their tact is a very interesting one. Rather than simply positing that Judaism is a religion of peace and love for all peoplewhich it is for manythey concede that there are popular conceptions of Judaism that promulgate racist or quasi-racist notions of Jewishness.[24] They further concede that the belief in a distinct Jewish genealogy and the belief that there is something indefinable and found only in Jewish women (not Jewish men) that make their children Jewish, strongly implies that there is a biological component to being Jewish. All the forgoing not withstanding, they argue that conversion to Judaism not only changes ones religion, it miraculously changes ones genealogy as well. In the case of male converts, circumcision alters them physically so that they now look like other Jews. In other words, by this process a convert is not someone of another ethnoracial group who has chosen to practice Judaism, he is in fact and genealogy as Jew. [The implied difference between practicing Judaism and being Jewish will become important to our discussion later.]

More revealingly, however, the convert’s name is changed to ‘ben Avraham” or “bas Avraham,” son or daughter of Abraham. The convert is adopted into the family and assigned a new “genealogical” identity, but because Abraham is the first convert in Jewish tradition, converts are his descendants in that sense as well. There is thus a sense in which the convert becomes the ideal type of the Jew.[25]

The denouement of the Boyarin theory is not that Judaism can never be thought of as a kind of race, but that anyone who joins the religion simultaneously becomes a member of the same race. Well, that certainly would make being Jewish different from being black, white, or Asianif it were true. However, if the Boyarins mean that all Jews are members of the same Jewish race in the eyes of God, then it would not help us to see how Jews view each otherparticularly those who started out as members of other races.

In the 1930s, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan advocated another way of thinking about Judaism. His movement led to a new denomination of Judaism in the United States called Reconstructionist Jews. One basic tenet of Reconstructionism is that Judaism is not necessarily a race, religion, or an ethnic group, but can be experienced as part of a civilization. Here the emphasis is on Jewish culture rather than any particular Jewish practices or beliefs.[26] If Judaism is a culture, as Reconstructionist hold, does that culture have any bearing on race?

Walter Benn Michaels has studied the relationship between cultural groups and race. He began by looking at how social critics and historians such as Mellville J. Herskovits attempted to define black people in America in purely cultural terms. Herskovits was interested in understanding what role, if any, African cultures and American culture had on the development of what might be called African-American culture. This included such things as art, music, literature, speechanything except race. Michaels, who deplores racial classifications or distinctions, found that most groups that define themselves as a culture rely on things that are inherently racial in nature for defining membership in their culture. Therefore, the term culture may sound race neutral, but often it is not. In the case of African-Americans, it was fairly easy to prove, at least rhetorically, that most of the cultural connections that were being made between people in one place and people in other place were based on the premise that both peoples were of the same race; i.e. black. Michaels noticed that the racial underpinnings of group cultures were not always as obvious as the example, but they were usually present. As he explained:

It is only the appeal to race that makes culture an object of affect and that gives notions like losing our culture, preserving it, stealing someone elses culture, restoring people’s culture to them, and so on, their pathos. Our race identifies the culture to which we have a right, a right that may be violated or defended, repudiated or recovered. Race transforms people who learn to do what we do into thieves of our culture and people who teach us to do what they do into the destroyers of our culture; it makes assimilation into a kind of betrayal and the refusal to assimilate into a form of heroism. Without race, losing our culture can mean no more than doing things differently from the way we now do them–the melodrama of assimilation disappears.[27]

Michaels thesis is directly on point. His argument is not about what constitutes a culture, he is concerned about what constitutes the our in our culture, or the their in their culture. That is where the racial element is to be found if it exists. When people refer to Jewish culture or Jewish civilization the things they point to may be racially innocuous; e.g. cooking or music, but, when pressed to explain what is Jewish about it or what connects them to it and each other, and the user of the cultural term soon finds himself in a morass of racial euphemisms. The racial elements are what usually allow members of the group to explain why this is mine and that is yours. If we are all participants in something then that thing is de facto a part of our shared culture. We are what we do. Race allows us to claim or deny connections based on who we are, not what we do. Like African-American culture, Jewish culture implies that this Jew and that Jew have something in common that goes much deeper than the matzo balls. The question which culture we belong to is relevant only if culture is anchored in race.[28]

To be ethnically Jewish is to be Jewish according to white European or American standards. It was obvious and undeniable that the Beta Israel were doing Jewish things. By Michaels non-racial standards, people who do the same things share the shame culture unless a racial claim in made; ergo Beta Israel are part of Jewish culture unless white folk say there not. However, we recall that the Boyarins asserted that Jews are people who are Jewish by birth or conversion and who do Jewish things. Therefore, by the latter racialized definition, people who are not recognized as being Jewish first, can do all the Jewish things they want for as long as they can and it will not make them Jewishit can only make them persistent, exhausted, and ultimately frustrated Jewish imitators.

Beta Israel, and black Jews in other areas, are discovering that neither who they are nor what they do guarantees their membership or acceptance within a racial context.

In 1904, Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch (1880-1955) was given a grant by Baron Edmond de Rothschild and the blessings of the Chief Rabbi of Paris, Zadok Kahn, to go to Africa and investigate persistent rumors of there being black Jews in Ethiopia. He returned to France the following year to report that the people he saw are really Jews. By 1906, Dr. Faitlovitch was trying to convince the rabbis of Europe that the black Jews of Ethiopia were our flesh and blood.[29] This announcement by a prominent Jewish scholar was soon followed by photographs, articles, and speaking engagements. Unlike his predecessors, Dr. Faitlovitch was steadfastly committed to winning recognition for the Beta Israel. For the rest of his life he worked tirelessly on three continents and through two world wars to remedy the plight of black Jews in Ethiopia. Although his methods and actions are open to scrutiny, his sincerity and dedication are not.

The first major victory that Faitlovitch won for the Beta Israel came in 1906. He persuaded forty-four eminent rabbis to sign a letter addressed to the Beta Israel that referred to them as our brethren, sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacobour flesh and blood. The signers included: Herman Adler (Chief Rabbi of London), Raphael Meir Panigel (Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jersusalem / Palestine) and Jacob Reines of Russia (head of the Mizrachi movement) and others.[30] For a moment, it looked as if the world Jewish community was going to come to the immediate and unconditional aide of their fellow Jews in Ethiopia. But, the following year a Turkish rabbi named Haim Nahoum made his own journey to Ethiopia and upon his return he reported that It does not seem to me desirable that anything should be done.[31]

Thus would begin a cruel pattern of expressions of enthusiastic support and solidarity followed by long periods of inactivity and indifference. Because the Beta Israel were frequently forgotten, they have been repeatedly rediscoveredmost recently again during the dramatic airlift of fifty thousand Ethiopians to Israel in the 1980s. However, individuals like Faitlovitch consistently tried to keep the Ethiopian issue on the agendas of major Jewish organizations. In March of 1914, just prior to the outbreak of World War One, Faitlovitch established the Pro-Falasha Committee as a lobbying group solely dedicated to this cause. They had officers in several European countries and one in New York City.[32] The Alliance Israelite Universelle, which had been an early sponsor, thought the best way to help the Ethiopians was through vocational training. Faitlovitch favored classical academic training. In many ways, their disagreement over the best way to help the Ethiopians parallels the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois over the best way to help black people in the United StatesWashington favoring vocational and DuBois, liberal artsthough in both cases the differences should not be exaggerated. Where they are similar, however, is that vocational training is an approach usually applied to the masses, while university training is usually directed at an educated elite.

Here we begin to see a troubling side to Dr. Faitlovitchs advocacy of the Beta Israel. Dr. Simon Messing, who knew and interviewed Dr. Faitlovitch, explained that many people of that period believed that Africans lacked the intellect to acquire a classical education. So, Faitlovitch demonstrated Falasha mental capacity by a test that was accepted in the ethnocentric Europe of the time: One of his students had been brought to Switzerland where he had learned to speak fluent German![33] After this student, Faitlovitch created about six Ethiopian protgs who often accompanied him on speaking and fund raising tours. He arranged for their educations, attempted to direct their careers, reshaped their religious views, and tried to control their political activities. Dr. Faitlovitch fervently fought for the advancement of Ethiopian Jews, but he defined progress by his ability to make Ethiopian Jews more like European Jews. Tragically, his program began to resemble a Jewish version of the White Mans Burden; i.e. it was the moral duty of European Jews to save and civilize the Jews of Africa.

He was determined to rescue the Falashas and to bring them into rabbinic Judaism, the pattern known in Western Europe as Torah im Derkh-Eretz (lit. Bible together with the Way of the Land), which signified strict religious Orthodoxy together with modern behavior in manner, clothing, shelter, fine arts and careers.[34]

When the first of Faitlovitchs students, Getye Jeremias, returned to his Ethiopian village dressed in a European jacket and high leather riding boots, he was an envied model of what others should become. He next student, who would become the well-known Professor Taamrat Emmanuel and have an important interaction with the black Jews of Harlem, was literally rescued from a Chrisitan mission that had already converted his parents. Faitlovitch was greatly impressed with the young man who was fluent in Italian, Tigrinya (a local dialect), and his native Amharic. Faitlovitch took him to Paris where he learned French, then to Italy where he studied at the Collegio Rabbinico, and finally to Jerusalem where he was entrusted to the supervision of Herr Goldschmidt. Like Getye before him, Taamrat was installed as the headmaster of one of the village Hebrew schools that Faitlovitch had created back in Ethiopia. Faitlovitch understood that he was making leaders; his students were being trained to lead their people out of darkness.[35] However, Taamrat and some of his peers had their own ideas on how best to use their talents. They had also come to the attention of the Emperor Menilek and his Regent in Addis Ababa, Ras Tafari Makonnenwho would later himself become the Emperor Haile Selassie I.[36]

What Faitlovitch did not realize at first and then later strongly discouraged, was that his prized students were not only black Jews, but black Ethiopians as well. As they traveled and read they became aware of how the Western world viewed them and how their own leaders treated them. Faitlovitch opposed the development of any race consciousness or nationalist sentiments other than his brand of religious Zionism. When Taamrat, Yonah Boggale, and Mequria Segay temporarily left their posts in the village Hebrew schools for government positions in Haile Selassies administration, Faitlovitch saw this as a personal betrayal and an abandonment of the missions for which they were trained. They were expected to shed their black identity and their Ethiopian identity; they were to master and emulate what they were taught; and, when enough of them had done this successfully, they would be accepted back into the Jewish fold. By taking these jobs his students were not merely motivated by a personal desire for greater wealth and statusalthough those were, no doubt, factorsbut, more importantly they were also sincere idealists who were swept up in the hope and optimism of creating a new Ethiopia and a new Africa. The significance of Haile Selassies rise to power in 1930 and the struggle for Ethiopian independence against Italian aggression, profoundly affected black people all over the worldparticularly black people in America and the Caribbean. Faitlovitch was less sanguine about these events. He returned to Ethiopia after WWII from Israel, his new home, and in his forceful manner cajoled Yonah to leave his postwhich was dangerous since the Emperor had not agreed to release him. Taamrat retired from his position as Cultural Attach at the Ethiopian Embassy in Paris in 1952, disillusioned by the slow rate of democratization and land reform. He, too, immigrated to Israel but continued to march to the beat of his own drum until his death in 1968. In many ways, Taamrats journey literally and symbolically adumbrated the physical, political, intellectual, and emotional journey of the thousands of black Jews who would follow him.

As a poltical activist, Taamrat regarded Faitlovitch as an antiquarian who was stern in his condemnation of Falasha wrong practices and insufficiently respectful of Falahsa pride in their long independence. Taamrat viewed the future of the Falashas as largely bound up with the modernization of Ethiopia. Only modern education of the general population could finally free the Falashas from being victimized by accusations of lycanthropy as were-hyenas. Neither did he think that Rabbinic Orthodoxy should be imposed on them to qualify them as Jews.[37]

Taamrat Emmanuels struggle to find a balance between preserving a healthy respect for the traditions of the Beta Israel, while at the same time trying to forge a meaningful relationship with European Jewry, proved to be illusory. Though well intentioned, Faitlovitch and those that followed him made what has become a classic liberal mistake: they setout to remake those they helped in their own image. This often has the consequence of saving the people, but destroying their culture. Complete cultural assimilation unintentionally leads to the cultural annihilation of the dependent group. The Nobel laureate, Chinua Achebe, described in his fictional novel, Things Fall Apart, how the stable social fabric of a pre-colonial Nigerian village began to unravel before the juggernaut of Western conformity. In this context, European Jewry is the juggernaut that black Jewish communities fear, admire, resent, and need.

In December of 1930, Taamrat ignored the urging of his handlers at the Pro-Falsha Committee in New York and journeyed uptown to Harlem were he met with Chief Rabbi Matthew and addressed the Commandment Keepers Congregation. Shortly thereafter, dozens of black Jews left the United States to establish a colony in Ethiopia that lasted until the Italian invasion and the death of Rabbi Arnold Ford in 1935.[38] During the years that followed, individuals from both communities would seek each other out whenever possible, but neither has been in a position to significantly help the other. Yet, the cry of Ethiopia continues to loom large in the hearts of black Jews all over the world for we share a common struggle.

Emperor Haile Selassie greeting Rabbi Hailu Paris, an Ethiopian-born leader and teacher in our community at a gathering in New York City in which he and Chief Rabbi W. A. Matthew went to meet the Lion of Judah, a direct descendent of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

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Israeli Government Admits to Sterilizing Ethiopian Jews …

February 21, 2012 According to recent Forbes and Haaretz articles, the Israeli government has been pursuing a long term plan of sterilization of immigrant Ethiopian Jews.

The Depo-Prevara injections were enforced upon women in transit camps in Ethiopia.

One might ask: why? At this point, no absolutely clear answer can be given. There are, of course, speculations about racial motives; that is, with the Israeli ruling class being mainly of Ashkenazi back ground, while the Ethiopian Jews are not. The outrage eventually led to the Israeli government suspending injections unless the women understood the ramifications. The shots have led to a drop in the Ethiopian Jewish birth-rate byabout 20%.

According to the UK Independent:

The drug in question is thought to be Depo-Provera, which is injected every three months and is considered to be a highly effective, long-lasting contraceptive.

as well as noting:

Sharona Eliahu Chai, a lawyer for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), said: Findings from investigations into the use of Depo Provera are extremely worrisome, raising concerns of harmful health policies with racist implications in violation of medical ethics. The Ministry of Healths director-general was right to act quickly and put forth new guidelines.

The Ethiopian Jewish community of course has its past shrouded in mystery. Different theories abound as to its origins. However, despite dispute about their ability to legally come to Israel, it was decided that those Ethiopian Jews who agreed to undergo a conversion to Orthdoox Talmudic Judaism would be allowed entry. The Ethiopian Jewish community has left in large numbers from Ethiopia, especially since the culture was hostile to them (for example, prior to the over-throw of the old imperial system, they could not own property).

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Ethiopian Jews in Israel – My Jewish Learning

Ancient traditions in a new Jewish State. By Atira Winchester

The Jews of Ethiopiaknown as the Beta Israelhave experienced a long history of famine, religious oppression, and civil war. But in the 20th century the community went through some major changes as it was transplanted into Israel.

In 1974, following a coup detat, Ethiopia came under the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Under Mariams regime, anti-Semitism rose, and physical conditions worsened for the Beta Israel, with starvation across the country.

In May 1977, Israeli President Menachem Begin started selling arms to Mariams government, hoping to secure freedom for Ethiopias Jews. Later that year, Israel took 200 Jews out of Ethiopia on a plane that had emptied its arms cargo for Mariams use. Mariam agreed to the airliftgiven his reliance on Israels arms, he could hardly refuse.

Between 1977 and 1984, a total of 8,000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel in a number of small airlifts, all authorized, albeit grudgingly, by the Ethiopian government. Large-scale aliya started in 1984 with Operation Moses, a mission that brought 8,000 Jews to Israel in just a few months. The operation, which began in November, 1984, ended prematurely in January 1985 when news of the airlift reached Ethiopias Arab allies.

In March 1985, another 650 Jews were rescued in Operation Joshua, but approximately 15,000 Beta Israel still remained in Ethiopia, many of them elderly, sick, or weak.

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Atira Winchester is a journalist who worked for many years as an editor for The Jerusalem Post. She currently lives in London, England where she works as a freelance writer, specializing in arts, culture and contemporary Israeli life.

The Jews of Ethiopiaknown as the Beta Israelhave experienced a long history of famine, religious oppression, and civil war. But in the 20th century the community went through some major changes as it was transplanted into Israel.

In 1974, following a coup detat, Ethiopia came under the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Under Mariams regime, anti-Semitism rose, and physical conditions worsened for the Beta Israel, with starvation across the country.

In May 1977, Israeli President Menachem Begin started selling arms to Mariams government, hoping to secure freedom for Ethiopias Jews. Later that year, Israel took 200 Jews out of Ethiopia on a plane that had emptied its arms cargo for Mariams use. Mariam agreed to the airliftgiven his reliance on Israels arms, he could hardly refuse.

Between 1977 and 1984, a total of 8,000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel in a number of small airlifts, all authorized, albeit grudgingly, by the Ethiopian government. Large-scale aliya started in 1984 with Operation Moses, a mission that brought 8,000 Jews to Israel in just a few months. The operation, which began in November, 1984, ended prematurely in January 1985 when news of the airlift reached Ethiopias Arab allies.

In March 1985, another 650 Jews were rescued in Operation Joshua, but approximately 15,000 Beta Israel still remained in Ethiopia, many of them elderly, sick, or weak.

The final and most dramatic large-scale operation was Operation Solomon. 14,325 Beta Israel were airlifted to Israel in 36 hours on May 24 -25, 1991 amid political turmoil that forced Mariam to flee the country.

By the end of 1991, only a handful of Beta Israel remained in Ethiopia, although many thousands of Falasha Mura, whose Jewish identity has been disputed, still remain today.

While the operations that brought about Beta Israels exodus were dramatic and swift, integration into Israeli society has been painstakingly slow. Even today, the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel is still grappling with problems: they are marginalized socially, religiously, geographically, and professionally.

When they first arrived, housing was often provided in mobile homes located in Israels peripheral areas. Housing conditions were regularly squalid, inadequately heated in the winter or cooled in the summer. Ethiopians were isolated and disempowered, with children far from decent schools. Life in an industrialized, modern society baffled many of the older community members, and adjusting to simple things like electricity was often difficult.

Israelis were not always quick to help make the transition easier. For example, Yehuda Dominitz, then Director General of the Jewish Agencys Department of Immigration and Absorption, declared in 1980 that, [taking] a Falasha out of his village, its like taking a fish out of waterIm not in favor of bringing them [to Israel].

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Ethiopia Virtual Jewish Tour | Jewish Virtual Library

Once they were kings. A half million strong, they matched their faith with fervor and out-matched the Moslem and Christian tribesmen around them to rule the mountain highlands around Lake Tana. They called themselves Beta Israelthe house of Israeland used the Torah to guide their prayers and memories of the heights of Jerusalem as they lived in their thatched huts in Ethiopia. But their neighbors called them Falashasthe alien ones, the invaders. And even three hundred years of rule, even the black features that matched those of all the people around them did not make the Jews of Ethiopia secure governors of their destiny in Africa (Falashas: The Forgotten Jews, Baltimore Jewish Times, 9 November 1979).

For centuries, the world Jewish community was not even aware of the existence of the Jewish community of Ethiopia in the northern province of Gondar. The miracle of Operation Solomon is only now being fully understood; an ancient Jewish community has been brought back from the edge of government-imposed exile and starvation.

But once they were kings. . .

– History – Modern Contact – The Mengistu Threat – Operations Moses & Joshua – Operation Solomon – Authentic Jews – Jewish Apathy & its Defeat – Operation Dove’s Wings – Recent Developments

Christianity spread through the Axum dynasty of Ethiopia in the 4th century CE. By the 7th century, however, Islam had surpassed Christianity and had separated Ethiopia from its Christian African neighbors.

Prior to this, the Beta Israel had enjoyed relative independence through the Middle Ages. Their reign was threatened in the 13th century CE under the Solomonic Empire, and intermittent fighting continuing for the next three centuries with other tribes.

In 1624, the Beta Israel fought what would be their last battle for independent autonomy against Portuguese-backed Ethiopians. A graphic eyewitness account described the battle:

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 prisonerit was a Falasha Masada. [The rebel leaders] burned all of the Falasha’s written history and all of their religious books, it was an attempt to eradicate forever the Judaic memory of Ethiopia (Righteous Jews Honored by Falasha Supporters, AAEJ Press Release, 1981).

Those Jews captured alive were sold into slavery, forced to be baptized, and denied the right to own land. The independence of the Beta Israel was torn from them just as it was from their Israeli brethren at Masada centuries before.

The first modern contact with the now oppressed community came in 1769, when Scottish explorer James Bruce stumbled upon them while searching for the source of the Nile River. His estimates at the time placed the Beta Israel population at 100,000, already greatly decreased from an estimate from centuries before of a half-million.

Little additional contact was made with the community, but in 1935 their stability was greatly threatened as the Italian army marched into Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s ruler, Emperor Haile Selassie fled his country and actually took refuge in Jerusalem for a short time. Selassie returned to power in 1941, but the situation for the Beta Israel improved little.

In 1947, Ethiopia abstained on the United Nations Partition Plan for the British Mandate of Palestine, which reestablished the State of Israel. By 1955, the non-governmental Jewish Agency of Israel had already begun construction of schools and a teacher’s seminary for the Beta Israel in Ethiopia.

In 1956, Ethiopia and Israel established consular relations, which were improved in 1961 when the two countries established full diplomatic ties. Positive relations between Israel and Ethiopia existed until 1973, when, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Ethiopia (and 28 African nations) broke diplomatic relations with Israel under the threat of an Arab oil embargo.

Months later, Emperor Selassie’s regime ended in a coup d’etat. Selassie was replaced by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose Marxist-Leninist dictatorship increased the threat to the Beta Israel. During the weeks surrounding Mariam’s coup, an estimated 2,500 Jews were killed and 7,000 became homeless.

Soon Mariam instituted a policy of villagization, relocating millions of peasant farmers onto state-run cooperatives which greatly harmed the Beta Israel by forcing them to share their villagesthough they were denied the right to own the landwith non-Jewish farmers, resulting in increased levels of anti-Semitism throughout the Gondar Province. According to the Ethiopian government, over 30% of the population had been moved from privately owned farms to cooperatives as of 1989.

After taking office in 1977, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was eager to facilitate the rescue of Ethiopia’s Jews, and so Israel entered into a period of selling arms to the Mariam government in hopes that Ethiopia would allow Jews to leave for Israel. In 1977, Begin asked President Mengistu to allow 200 Ethiopian Jews to leave for Israel aboard an Israeli military jet that had emptied its military cargo and was returning to Israel. Mariam agreed, and that may have been the precursor to the mass exodus of Operation Moses.

In the early 1980’s, Ethiopia forbade the practice of Judaism and the teaching of Hebrew. Numerous members of the Beta Israel were imprisoned on fabricated charges of being Zionist spies, and Jewish religious leaders, Kesim,(sing. Kes) were harassed and monitored by the government.

The situation remained exceedingly bleak through the early 1980’s. Forced conscription at age 12 took many Jewish boys away from their parents, some never to be heard from again. Additionally, with the constant threat of war, famine, and horrendous health conditions (Ethiopia has one of the world’s worst infant mortality rates and doctor to patient ratios), the Beta Israel’s position became more precarious as time progressed.

The government began to slightly soften its treatment of the Jews, however, during the mid-1980’s when terrible famines wreaked havoc on the economy. Ethiopia was forced to ask Western nations for famine relief, including the United States of America and Israel, allowing them both to exert a modicum of pressure for the release of the Beta Israel.

Over 8,000 Beta Israel came to Israel between 1977 and 1984. But these efforts pale in comparison with the modern exodus that took place during 1984’s Operation Moses.

Under a news blackout for security reasons, Operation Moses began on November 18, 1984, and ended six weeks later on January 5, 1985. In that time, just over 7,000 Jews were rescued and brought to Israel.

But the mission was not without problems. Because of news leaks (blamed primarily on a December 6 article in the Washington Jewish Week and full page advertisements placed by the United Jewish Appeal), the mission ended prematurely as Arab nations pressured the Sudanese government to prevent any more Jews from using Sudan to go to Israel. Almost 15,000 Jews were left behind in Ethiopia.

Thus, by the end of Operation Moses in January 1985, almost two-thirds of the Beta Israel remained in Ethiopia. They were comprised almost entirely of women, young children, and the sick, since only the strongest members of the community were encouraged to make the harrowing trek to Sudan where the airlift would actually occur. In addition, many young boys were encouraged to make the dangerous trek to freedom due to the low age of conscription, often as young as age twelve.

As Babu Yakov, a Beta Israel leader, summed up, Those who could not flee are elderly, sick, and infants. Those least capable of defending themselves are now facing their enemies alone.

In 1985, then Vice President George Bush arranged a CIA-sponsored follow-up mission to Operation Moses. Operation Joshua brought an additional 500 Beta Israel from Sudan to Israel. But in the following five years, a virtual stalemate occurred in the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. All efforts on behalf of the Beta Israel fell on the closed ears of the Mariam dictatorship.

Meanwhile, those Jews who did escape during Operation Moses were separated from their loved ones while attempting to adjust to Israeli society. The new arrivals spent between six months and two years in absorption centers learning Hebrew, being retrained for Israel’s industrial society, and learning how to live in a modern society (most Ethiopian villages had no running water or electricity). Suicide, all but unheard of in their tukuls in Ethiopia, even claimed a few of the new arrivals due to the anxiety of separation and departure.

Over 1,600 orphans of circumstance lived day to day separated from their families, not knowing the fate of their parents, brothers, sisters, and loved ones.

The grim prospect of thousands of Jewish children growing up separated from their parents in Israel almost became a reality. Little could be done to persuade the Mariam government to increase the trickle of Jews leaving Ethiopia in the years between Operations Joshua and Solomon. But in November 1990, Ethiopia and Israel reached an agreement that would allow Ethiopian Jews to move to Israel under the context of family reunification. It soon became clear, however, that Mengistu was willing to allow Ethiopian Jews to leave outside of the guise of reunification. November and December, 1990, showed increased numbers of Ethiopians leaving for Israel. The Ethiopian Jews were finally ready to come home.

In early 1991, Eritrean and Tigrean rebels began a concerted attack on Mengistu forces, meeting with surprising success for the first time since the civil war began in 1975. With the rebel armies advancing each day, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam fled his country in early May. Rebels claimed control of the capital Addis Ababa shortly thereafter, and the situation of the Beta Israel took top priority in Israel. The Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir authorized a special permit for the Israeli airline, El Al, to fly on the Jewish Sabbath. On Friday, May 24, and continuing non-stop for 36 hours, a total of 34 El Al jumbo jets and Hercules C-130sseats removed to accommodate the maximum number of Ethiopiansbegan a new chapter in the struggle for the freedom of Ethiopian Jewry.

Operation Solomon, named for the king from whom one of the theories suggest that the Beta Israel draw their lineage, ended almost as quickly as it began. Timing was crucial, since any delay by Israel could have allowed the rebels to hold the Jews as bargaining chips with Israel or the United States. A total of 14,324 Ethiopian Jews were rescued and resettled in Israel, a modern exodus of the grandest design. Operation Solomon rescued nearly double the number of Jews as were saved during Operation Moses and Joshua, and it did so in a mere fraction of the time.

More than 36,000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel and despite both economic and social hardships, their community has an integral part in Israeli society. In 1999, Avraham Yitzhak became the first Ethiopian immigrant to earn an MD degree from an Israeli medical school. In 2011, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed Rachamim Elazar as Israel’s Ambassador to Ethiopia, making him the first Israeli of Ethiopian descent to ever serve as an ambassador for the State of Israel. There are still many problems within the Ethiopian community in Israel – poverty, lack of education, etc – but large strides are being made every day.

Because much of the Beta Israel’s history is passed orally from generation to generation, we may never truly know their origins. Four main theories exist concerning the beginnings of the Beta Israel community:

1) The Beta Israel may be the lost Israelite tribe of Dan. 2) They may be descendants of Menelik I, son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. 3) They may be descendants of Ethiopian Christians and pagans who converted to Judaism centuries ago. 4) They may be descendants of Jews who fled Israel for Egypt after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and settled in Ethiopia.

Without regard as to which theory may actually be correct (and each theory has its support), the authenticity of the Jewishness of the community became an issue.

As early as the 16th century, Egypt’s Chief Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Avi Zimra (Radbaz) declared that in Halachic (Jewish legal) issues, the Beta Israel were indeed Jews. In 1855, Daniel ben Hamdya, a member of the Beta Israel, was the first Ethiopian Jew to visit Israel, meeting with a council of rabbis in Jerusalem concerning the authenticity of the Beta Israel. By 1864, almost all leading Jewish authorities, most notably Rabbi Azriel Hildsheimer of Eisenstadt, Germany, accepted the Beta Israel as true Jews. In 1908 the chief rabbis of forty-five countries had heeded Rabbi Hildsheimer’s call and officially recognized the Beta Israel as fellow Jews.

In reaffirming the Radbaz’s position centuries before, Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, stated in 1972, I have come to the conclusion that Falashas are Jews who must be saved from absorption and assimilation. We are obliged to speed up their immigration to Israel and educate them in the spirit of the holy Torah, making them partners in the building of the Holy Land.

In 1975, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren wrote to the Beta Israel telling them, You are our brothers, you are our blood and our flesh. You are true Jews. Later that same year the Israeli Interministerial Commission officially recognized the Beta Israel as Jews under Israel’s Law of Return, a law designed to aid in Jewish immigration to Israel. The Beta Israel were ready to come home.

Indeed, the Beta Israel were strictly observant in pre-Talmudic Jewish traditions. The women went to the mikvah, or ritual bath, just as observant Jewish women do to this day, and they continue to carry out ancient festivals, such as Seged, that have been passed down through the generations of Beta Israel. The Kesim, or religious leaders, are as widely revered and respected as the great rabbis in each community, passing the Jewish customs through storytelling and maintaining the few Jewish books and Torahs some communities were fortunate enough to have written in the liturgical language of Ge’ez.

The struggle to free the Beta Israel was not fought solely against the Ethiopian government. Much like some timid Jewish leaders during the Holocaust, some recent Jews sought to prevent a shanda fur de goyim (an embarrassment in front of the non-Jews) by not stirring up waves over Ethiopian Jewry.

The history of the Beta Israel’s rescue is at times open to debate regarding the heroes of the Ethiopian Jewry movement. As with many struggles to free oppressed Jewry around the world, many advocated and vocalized opposition to those responsible for the lack of action on their behalf. Others, however, argued for a more quiet diplomacy, void of the public demonstrations and arrests that marked the struggle for Soviet Jewry.

Though over 8,000 Beta Israel managed to flee to Israel during his tenure, it was an Israeli official in charge of the Ethiopian Jews’ absorption who may best symbolize the insensitivity that an extreme minority of people once held. Yehuda Dominitz who served as Director General of the Jewish Agency’s Department of Immigration and Absorption, declared in 1980 that, [taking] a Falasha (sic) out of his village, it’s like taking a fish out of water…I’m not in favor of bringing them [to Israel]. Dominitz also refused to allow his agency to rent buses so Ethiopian Jews in Israel could travel to Jerusalem to observe their ancient holiday of Seged (Dominitz eventually relented, but had the buses take the Beta Israel to Haifa instead of Jerusalem).

Malkah Raymist, a writer for the World Zionist Organization, wrote in 1956 in The Jewish Horizon (of the Hapoel Hamizrachi of America Movement) that, the reasons [for not bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel] are simple and weighty. On one hand, they are well off where they are, while their development and mental outlook is that of children; they could fall an easy prey of exploitation, if brought here without any preparation. On the other hand, being a backward element, they would be and it would take several years before they could be educated towards a minimum of progressive thinking.

In an American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) press release, the AAEJ quoted its founder, Dr. Graenum Berger, as criticizing those who sought any delay in the rescue of the Beta Israel. Berger declared, Not when Jews are dying…these revelations show once again that the policy of influencing factions of the government of Israel always have been against the immigration of the Ethiopian Jews. And, the same people who controlled their immigration then are controlling it now. These are the same people who gave instructions to the Israeli Embassy in Ethiopia (1956-1973) not to issue immigration visas to any Jew from Ethiopia.

Berger himself came under criticism for his outspoken remarks concerning the Israeli efforts to rescue the Beta Israel, showing that nobody was immune from the rhetoric surrounding the issue.

In December 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to bring to the Jewish State the few thousands Jews remaining in the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia. Nicknamed Operation Dove’s Wings, the plan sought to fly a few hundred each month to Israel. The first flight brough 240 new Ethiopian immigrants.

In July 2012, the government decided to increase the rate of aliyah from Ethiopia to 160 per month over the proceeding 10 months. In August 2013, the final two flights of Operation Dove’s Wings arrived in Israel with 450 immigrants. In a ceremony held at Ben-Gurion Airport, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said: “We are closing a 3,000-year-old circle.”

To mark the occasion, Prime Minister Netanyahu released a statement saying, “I am proud that as Prime Minister, beginning in my first term, I upheld the Zionist and Jewish imperative of bringing to Israel our brothers and sisters from Ethiopia. I see this as a moral obligation.”

More than 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, 92,000 of whom have been brought into the country.

The Israeli government approved the entry of the last group of Ethiopian Jews in November 2015, aiming to finish what was started by Operation Moses 30 years prior. This announcement comes two years after Israeli government officials claimed that no Jews remained in Ethiopia. There have been several supposedly last groups of Ethiopian Jews that have made aliyah to Israel, with the most recent group of 450 arriving in Israel in 2013. It is estimated that this proposal approved the entry into Israel of approximately 9,100 Ethiopian Jews, most of whom were at the time living in refugee camps in Adis Ababa and Gondar.

Sources: Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ). Written by the staff of PRIMER – Promoting Research in the Middle East Region; Israel Hayom (August 29, 2013); Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Israel approves ‘last’ round of Ethiopian immigration, Al Arabiya (November 15, 2015)

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Friends of Ethiopian Jews

Friends of Ethiopian Jews, Inc. (FEJ) supports grassroots Ethiopian-Israeli organizations working to create full integration and successful absorption in Israel for the Ethiopian Jewish community. FEJ was founded in 1998 by members of theAmerican Association for Ethiopian Jews(AAEJ) and other veteran activists dedicated to assisting the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. Through supporting programs and projects led by Ethiopian-Israelis themselves, FEJ strives to empower the community, to help improve opportunities for Ethiopian-Israelis and to help create a just society in Israel overall. FEJ supports organizations that are effective, well-managed grassroots groups, which are achieving measurable, successful results. Today, FEJ helps sixEthiopian-Israeli groups, and welcomes donations on behalf of these outstanding organizations:

Friends by Nature Community EmpowermentFriends by Nature (FBN)Community Empowerment is a non-profit Israeli organization that was established in 2005 by a diverse group of Ethiopian-Israelis and veteran Israelis, secular and religious..Read More

Olim Beyahad Or Bandelay Woodelay (in Amharic), or Rising Together (in English) integrates members of the Ethiopian Israeli community as a normative and important part of Israeli life in the areas of employment, residence, education, and social life. ..Read More

Tech-Career Computer Training for Ethiopian-Israelis For over 25 years, Ethiopian-Israelis have been attempting to break out of the harsh socio-economic reality in which they live and integrate into Israeli society. According to the latest ..Read More

Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ) The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ),directed and run by Ethiopians, is a unique advocacy organization and formidable voice for, and defender of, the Ethiopian community in..Read More

Tebeka Advocacy for Equality & Justice for Ethiopian-Israeli.TEBEKA, (Amharic for Advocate of Justice), is the legal aid organization serving Israels 120,000-member Ethiopian-Israeli community. It was founded in 2000 by Itzik Dessie, the first ..Read More

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Ethiopian Jewish Women | Jewish Women’s Archive

THE ETHIOPIAN JEWS: BACKGROUND The Ethiopian Jews, men and women alike, were known as Falashas in Ethiopia, although in the last decade they have eschewed this appellation with its stigmatic connotation of stranger, implying low, outsider status. In Israel, they tend to be called Ethiopian Jews, whilst in Ethiopia they often referred to themselvesand are referred to in the academic literatureas Beta Israel (Weil, 1997a). The Beta Israel hail from villages in Gondar province, Woggera, the Simien mountains, Walkait and the Shire region of Tigray. They are divided into two distinct linguistic entities speaking Amharic and Tigrinya respectively. The origins of this ethnic minority in Ethiopia are obscure. Almost all researchers, including those who maintain that the Ethiopian Jews did not exist in Ethiopia until the Middle Ages, at the earliest, admit that Jews have lived in Ethiopia from early times (Kaplan 1992). Some say that they are descended from the union of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba; other theories refer to them variously as descendants of Yemenite Jews, Agaus, Jews who went down to Egypt and wandered south, or even an outgrowth of Jews who inhabited the garrison at Elephantine (Kessler, 1982). Some academic research suggests that they formed as a group under the influence of Ethiopian Christian monasticism in the fourteenth century (Kaplan 1992; Shelemay, 1986). The Beta Israel practiced a Torah-based, non-Oral-Law style of Judaism. They were monotheistic, celebrated many festivals and fasts prescribed in the Torah, and circumcised their boys on the eighth day. Some religious festivals known to other Jewish communities were not marked by the Beta Israel, but they, in their turn, celebrated certain days which were not marked by other Jews (Aescoli 1935/6; Weil 1989). Their religious practices were heavily influenced by Ethiopic Christians and many elements were common to both religions, such as praying to Jerusalem, the common liturgical language of Geez, and the emphasis on Israel and Zion (Pankhurst, 1997). It is significant that the Teezaza Sanbat, which some researchers designate as the most authentic Beta Israel text, personifies the Sabbath as a woman (Leslau 1951). The process of the alignment of the Beta Israel with world Jewry had its seeds in the nineteenth century and arguably before, but real contact with world Jewry began only in the twentieth century with the advent of Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch (18811955), a Semitic scholar from the Sorbonne, who invested his life in bringing the Jews from Ethiopia in line with other Jews. Dr. Faitlovitch managed to influence sections of the community to adapt to world Jewry (Trevisan Semi 1994)a process that was actually completed in the 1980s and 1990s with the transplantation of a whole community to the State of Israel. Interestingly, the greatest legend in Beta Israel annals, after the famous meeting between Queen Sheba and King Solomon, revolves around a woman, Queen Judith, variously known as Yodit, Gudit (the bad), Esther, Esato (=fire), Gawa and Tirda Gabaz. The Scottish explorer James Bruce, in his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, describes how the beautiful queen Judith, queen of the Beta Israel, single-handedly overthrew Christianity and eliminated most of the Solomonic royal dynasty based at Aksum. In its place, she established a Jewish dynasty, which ruled for several generations (Bruce 1790 :451453). Researchers have pointed to the similarities and differences between the two great Beta Israel legends mirrored in Ethiopian Christian history, of the Queen of Sheba and Queen Judith (Kaplan 1992). Both women were perceived to be extremely powerful royal figures. Both were depicted as converts to Judaism. Both led the Jews against the evil Christians; both were considered to be victorious. However, while according to the Ethiopian text Kebra Negest, the Queen of Sheba established the Solomonic dynasty by having relations with King Solomon against her will, Queen Judith is depicted as the one who destroyed that same lineage. According to Salamon: The Jewish woman leader in Ethiopia may symbolize the potential for power castration of the dominant group at the hands of the minority (1999:127 fn.10). Beta Israel oral tradition also remembers several outstanding women who occupied high office, both within the community and in society at large. Examples of the former are Rahel, Milat, Abre Warq and Roman Warq, who were leading members of their community, although dates and exact roles are unknown (Holert 1999). According to Bruce, although the Beta Israel reigned supreme for several generations and succeeded in subjugating their Christian neighbors, by the seventeenth century the Beta Israel had become a powerless minority with little or no rights to land (1790). During this period, the Beta Israel women worked as artists and decorators in the Christian churches. By the nineteenth century, the Beta Israel eventually took up stigmatized craft occupations, which also became associated with the connotation Falasha (Quirin, 1992). The men became blacksmiths and weavers and the women became potters. The Falasha pottery which is still famous in the Gondar region, became the major industry of the village Wolleka. Beta Israel women selling pots and statuettes attracted many tourists, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. However, from an Ethiopian perspective, pottery was a low-status profession, associated with fire and dangerous beliefs that the Beta Israel were buda, supernatural beings who disguised themselves as humans during the day and at night became hyenas that could attack humans (cf. Salamon 1999). The Beta Israel in Ethiopia tended to live in scattered villages located on a hilltops near streams. It was the job of women to haul water to their homes in earthenware jugs strapped to their backs. Women were in charge of the domestic sphere, baking the basic bread (enjera) on an open hearth, which they also stoked to gain warmth. They prepared the stew (wat), commonly made of lentils and chicken or meat, to go with the enjera. The meal was often accompanied by a type of home brew (talla) made of hops, other grains and water fermented in pot containers made by women. Food was stored in baskets made of rushes from local plants, dried in the sun and twisted into coils. Women spent time weaving these bright-colored baskets, in which they stored foodstuffs, or on which they served food, if the basket was flat-topped. The preparation of coffee was also the province of women, who washed and roasted the raw coffee beans before grinding them manually in a mortar. They brewed the coffee in a pot over the fire and served it in small cups to guests, primarily females, who dropped in to drink coffee and exchange gossip. Women looked after the children at an early age. A mother would strap the smallest baby on her back, while drawing water from the stream or cooking. Young boys would stay with her in the home until they joined their fathers in the field; young girls were expected to help their mothers and take care of the younger children until the age of marriage, around first menstruation. Among the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, masculinity was an ultimate value. The Amharic language is full of expressions praising men and degrading women. Shillele war songs, also sung at weddings and other ceremonious occasions, are designed to arouse male bravery before battle (cf. Herman 1999). A well-known Amharic proverb says: It is good to beat donkeys and women. Mens sexual organs are, by definition, the source of their masculinity. Female genital surgery, or female circumcision (otherwise known as genital mutilation), was normative among Beta Israel women (Grisaru et al. 1997). In Beta Israel society, men had to gain sexual prowess. They were allowed to experiment during the stage of adolescence (goramsa), whereas females had to be virgins at marriage, which usually took place close after first menstruation. While males were expected to be sexually experienced, Beta Israel females could be excommunicated if they were not virgins at marriage. Although marriage is officially monogamous, in practice Beta Israel men sometimes entered polygamous unions with a second wife, or relations with a common-law wife, a concubine, a slave (barya), or simply a divorced woman (galamotta) who was searching for protection in Ethiopian terms (Weil 1991). A rich man could have several women, usually residing in different villages, so that there was little knowledge of the other women or contact between them. There are many cases of an older man marrying a younger bride, sometimes even a teenager or a virgin, thus proving his status and wealth to the society at large. Whereas masculinity was symbolized by the staff which every Beta Israel male carries in Ethiopia, femininity was symbolized by blood. For the Beta Israel, as for many others, the purity of women and their blood signifies womanhood, and the pulse of life as it revolves around sexual relations and the renewal of male-female relations. In the Bible it states: When a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the period of her impurity through menstruation.The woman shall wait for thirty-three days because her blood requires purification; she shall touch nothing that is holy, and shall not enter the sanctuary till her days of purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean for fourteen days as for her menstruation and shall wait for sixty-six days because her blood requires purification. (Leviticus 12:1,26). The Beta Israel of Ethiopia observed this tenet in strict fashion, precisely following the Torah commandment, isolating the woman in a hut of childbirth (yara gojos/ ye-margam gogo) for forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after the birth of a girl. According to contemporary researchers, the strict observance of purity laws after birth is also one of the boundary-markers between Ethiopian Jews and Ethiopian Christians (e.g.Salamon 2000:98). In the same book of Leviticus, it is further written: When a woman has a discharge of blood, her impurity shall last for seven days; anyone who touches her shall be unclean till evening. Everything in which she lies or sits during her impurity shall be unclean. (Leviticus 15:1920). In Ethiopia, every woman belonging to the Beta Israel spent approximately a weekthe length of her menstruationin a special menstruating hut (ye-margam gogo/ye-dam gogo/ye-dam bet), where she was prohibited from coming into contact with people who were in a pure state. As a person who was impure by virtue of her blood, she was isolated for the length of time of her menstrual period and could share the hut only with other menstruating women. Since her impurity was contaminating, she was not allowed to dine or spend time with pure people, least of all her husband, who could resume sexual relations with her only after she had purified herself in the river. A series of stones surrounded the menstruating hut, separating the impure women from other members of the village. In many villages, the hut was situated almost outside the village, on the peripheries of conquered, civilized spacethe villageand the unknown, the wilds, the unconquerable spacethe outside. In the village of Wolleka near Gondar that I visited in Ethiopia (in 1971 and 1988 respectively), which was known as a Falasha tourist village where Falasha pottery was sold, the menstruating hut was situated on the hill in the center of the village, albeit far away from the view of passing tourists, but nevertheless in center-stage as far as the villagers were concerned. It was marked off by stones surrounding the hut in circular fashion, and little children would push food on ceramic plates inside the circle, which would then be taken by the menstruating women. Although Dr. Faitlovitch and other Westerners, as well as Ethiopian pupils who had studied in the West, tried to persuade the Beta Israel women not to observe the purity laws according to the Biblical precepts and tried to encourage them to come in line with Jews elsewhere (Trevisan Semi 1999), Beta Israel women in Ethiopia kept these rules strictly until their immigration to Israel, and often thereafter. From the 1950s to the 1970s, emissaries from Israel and Jews from other countries visited Ethiopia and encouraged the Jews to emigrate. However, aliya did not become a reality until the mid-1970s, when the Sefardi and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbis declared in 1973 and 1975 respectively that the Falashas (sic) were Jews and could therefore come and live in Israel. In 19841985 seven thousand seven hundred were airlifted from the Sudan to Israel in Operation Moses and 14,400 were airlifted in twenty-four hours from Addis Abeba to Israel in Operation Solomon in 1991. Some women gave birth on the flight itself. During the 1990s thousands of people belonging to the group today called the Feresmura or Felesmura (Jews converted to Christianity from the nineteenth century on) migrated to Israel. In 2003, the numbers of Jews of Ethiopian origin and their children, some of whom were born in Israel, is estimated to be 85,000 souls. Fifty percent of the Ethiopian population in Israel are women (Central Bureau of Statistics 2001; personal communication from Israel Ministry of Absorption). A government decision in February 2003 moved to bring an additional twenty-one thousand Feresmura to Israel in the near future. One of the greatest changes which the Ethiopian Jewish community has undergone in Israel in their move from an underdeveloped society to a modern, Western society is in the specific realm of family and personal relations. Female genital surgery is hardly performed in Israel and women express no desire to continue this practice (Grisaru et al. 1997). Girls can no longer marry at first puberty; in fact, it is illegal to marry in Israel until the age of seventeen. In addition, girls have to attend school until the minimum age of sixteen. Married women are encouraged by social workers and others to go out to work in order to assist with the family income, and it is often easier for a woman rather than a man to find employment, particularly in temporary, unskilled jobs, in which the Ethiopian Jews, despite the numerous vocational courses offered to the community, tend to congregate (Weil 1991). According to research conducted by Phillips Davids, early marriage and childbearing are being replaced by later marriage and first birth, which will eventually have a profound effect on life-time fertility (1999). For the first time, rural Beta Israel are handling money and have bank accounts; a womans salary may be paid straight into her bank account; or she may be earning more than her husband. Quarrels tend to break out between the marriage partners over genzeb (Amharic: money). The Israel rabbinate has established a special department dealing with Ethiopian divorces. One-third of all Ethiopian Jewish families in Israel are one-parent families; the other two-thirds are largely made up of complex families constructed from two or more one-parent families, which are intrinsically unstable (Weil, 1991). The divorce rate among Ethiopian Jews in Israel is far higher thanthat among the general population (Weil 1991). The single main reason for this is the demasculinisation experienced by Ethiopian Jewish men. Males no longer reign supreme; Israeli women answer back. If women are beaten, as was the practice in Ethiopia, they can turn to the police and file a complaint against their husbandsand many do. Ethiopian women in Israel look with curiosity and also envy at their Israeli counterparts, and selectively imbibe Israelis lip-service to egalitarianism between the sexes. Between 19051934, Dr. Faitlovitch selected twenty-five Beta Israel from Ethiopia to educate in Palestine and Europe, where he planted them in orthodox Jewish communitiesin London, Paris, Florence, and Frankfurt. The idea was that they would return to their villages in Ethiopia and teach their brethren. This dream was not fully realized, but some students pursued a career in education (Trevisan Semi 1994). Not a single female was selected to study in Europe, since it was considered too dangerous a voyage, but there were one or two female pupils at Dr. Faitlovitchs school in Addis Abeba, founded in 1923. In the 1950s, two groups of young Beta Israel students came to Israel in order to study; most returned home at the request of the Emperor Haile Selassie to take up governmental and teaching posts in Ethiopia. The groups were mixedmale and female and two women stayed on in Israel after marrying Israeli men. Since their immigration to Israel, both boys and girls study at educational establishments. In a survey carried out in 1996 of 120 Ethiopian high school graduates of the Israeli educational system who studied in schools during the years 19871989, ninety-eight percent of the respondents, who were now in their 20s and 30s and setting up their own families, answered that they favored egalitarian education for both sexes (Weil 1997b:102). Girls educational achievements were similar to those of boys. Whereas in 19871989, nearly ten percent of girls of Ethiopian origin of high-school age were not studying at any educational institution, probably because they were already mothers (Weil 1997b), today nearly every female adolescent is enrolled in school. However, some young Ethiopian female adolescents are joining their male counterparts, albeit at a slower rate, in dropping out of school without completing twelve grades. Recently, there is an increase in the number of Ethiopian females who are referred or turn to institutions for girls in distress. At the other extreme, women are among the forerunners of those receiving higher education in Israel. Yardena Fanta holds a doctorate in education from Tel Aviv University. Other women have completed their MAs or are making successful careers in law, social work, social sciences or physiotherapy. In the Hebrew University Program for Excellence in Education among Ethiopian Jews, which trains young Ethiopian Jews as teachers, just over half the students are female. Approximately one-third of Ethiopian women in Israel are employed, as distinct from more than one half of Jewish women from other origins (Swirsky et al. 2002). The Ethiopian women are largely concentrated in unskilled occupations, although some are employed in white collar occupations, as social workers, clerks, dental assistants and so on. According to an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) source in February 2003, forty-eight percent of Ethiopian women serve in the IDF. Approximately half of those who do not, volunteer for National Service. Several exceptional women have taken up key positions of leadership in the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. The changing of the guard is not only with respect to a new, young, secular leadership in Israel, as opposed to an old, religious guard (Weil 1997c); today, women have also taken the reins. While Ethiopian Jews in Israel are afforded equal privileges and responsibilities in practically every sphere of life, in practice they are socially and spatially segregated, which sometimes gives rise to feelings of deprivation (Weil 1999). Shula Mola, as the director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, tries to battle this. Negest Mengashe has recently been appointed the administrative director of the National Project for Ethiopian Jews, aimed at raising vast governmental and outside funds to ameliorate the condition of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. She can also be credited with being the first Ethiopian woman in Israel to run (unsuccessfully) on the list of a womens political party to the Knesset (Israel Parliament). Truwork Mulat directs the Steering Committee for Ethiopian Jews attached to the Ministry of Education. Simha Getahun is the coordinator of multicultural programs in Elem, an organization for disattached youth. Tsega Melaku is deputy-director of the Amharic Radio of Kol Israel. Meski Shibru is Israels most famous Ethiopian Jewish model and singer. Ethiopian Jewish women have made dramatic changes in their move from Ethiopia to Israel. In different periods in Beta Israel history, women were attributed great power, and sometimes reified, as in the case of Queen Judith. In other periods, and particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries prior to immigration, Beta Israel women were inactive in public and were in charge of the domestic sphere. In the Ethiopian villages, women looked after the young children, drew water from the stream and cooked for them and their menfolk. Some women were educated, but since the age of marriage was so low, very few terminated school. Womens purity was central to both women and men, and women were isolated in a special hut during menstruation and after childbirth. Immigration to Israel changed Ethiopian Jewish family life in a dramatic manner. In Israel, girls are not allowed to marry at first menstruation and women are encouraged to go out to work. Some young women have been referred to welfare institutions; some live beneath the poverty line. One third of Ethiopian families in Israel are one-parent families. At the same time, some young women have become community leaders; others are acquiring a higher education. As the apparent gap between migrant Ethiopian women and men continues to grow, new forms of family structure and adjustments will no doubt emerge.

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NACOEJ – Our Mission

In Ethiopia, the Jewish community struggled just to survive. During the 1980s, with famine and disease rampant in Ethiopia, NACOEJ sent 18 missions to Jewish villages, bringing in doctors, medicine, clothing, and school supplies. NACOEJ played a key role in the quiet rescue of Ethiopian Jews before and between Operations Moses and Solomon. Following Operation Solomon, NACOEJ provided food, education, employment, and religious facilities to Ethiopian Jews waiting to make aliyah. Programs included a Jewish day school, daily School Lunch Program, Feeding Center for Children Under Age 6 & Pregnant and Nursing Mothers, adult education, and employment help for adults. NACOEJ also continued to play a significant role in enabling Ethiopian Jews make the journey to Israel. In Israel today, the Ethiopian-Jewish community is an important part of society. However, their struggles are not yet over. Many Ethiopian-Israeli families live below the poverty line and cannot give their children the tools they need to do well in school. They strive to build a future, despite the obstacles. NACOEJ programs in Israel help Ethiopian students build a bright future by providing them with educational and financial support. NACOEJ believes that a strong education today opens the door to success tomorrow. NACOEJ programs include the Limudiah Intensive After-School Education Program, which provides assistance for Ethiopian elementary school children, the NACOEJ/Edward G. Victor High School Sponsorship Program to help Ethiopian-Israeli teens attain quality high school education, and the NACOEJ/Barney & Rachel Landau Gottstein Adopt-A-Student College Sponsorship Program that enables Ethiopian-Israeli college students pursue higher degrees.

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Evidence mounts of ancient Jewish roots of Beta Israel …

A Genetic Perspective on the Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews While Ethiopian Jews, historically known as the Beta Israel (or derogatorily as Falashas), constitute an inseparable component of todays Israeli society, the question as to how and what makes them different from non-Jewish Ethiopians remains a prominent subject of discussion. As I discuss in a prior article (Omer, 2013), scholarly circles today remain overwhelmingly attracted to the hypothesisalso known as the traditional theorythat attributes the origins of the Beta Israel to medieval theological transformations within Christianity (e.g. Quirin, 2010; Kaplan, 1995), rather than to Jewish origins. By this theory, the relationship between the Beta Israel and the native populations is defined as socially constructed, with no ancestral or genetic connection to the ancient Hebrews. My argument draws on evidence that the group is of ancient Jewish descent. Beside the abundant historical evidence, I base my argument on the recent genetic researchsummarize by Jon Entine in Abrahams Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen Peoplewhich shows that the Beta Israel were established since the mid-first millennium CE period. Genetic research suggests that some shared ancestry from the latter time period is preserved within the group (p. 149; 2007; Saey, 2010, p. 13; Ostrer, 2012); that is through maintaining kinship ties and obviously through restricting intermarriages with outsiders. I also argue that the intermixture of the Beta Israel with neighboring populations was an inconsistent process that occurred gradually over extended periods of time. Outsiders were integrated into the group through spontaneous interaction and assimilation. One point I emphasize is that the historical, geographical and probably genealogical connections between the Beta Israel and Northern Sudan, which no scholar has practically examined in depth, is essential to understanding the groups origins. Benjamin Netanyahu (Prime Minister) with various leaders of the Ethiopian community celebrating Jerusalem Day. Click image for larger version. Background Although the majority of the Beta Israel, known in the local Geez-Semitic as Falasha, which translates to mean strangers, were settled in Israel since the 1980s, they have historically inhabited the northwestern areas of the Ethiopian highlands. Their settlements were distributed around Lake Tana, the Semien mountains, as well as western areas in what is today Northern Sudan (Tegegne & Pinchuk, 2008, p. 43-4; Jacobovici, 2004). Historically prohibited by the Abyssinian law from owning land, the Beta Israel primarily worked as tenant farmers and artisans. Traditionally, they also practiced blacksmithery and pottery. Back in time, they spoke a range of Geez dialects, though in the twentieth century Tigrinya and Amharic were already the dominant languages of the group. Accordingly, they have been generally viewed as part of the Amhara and Tigray-Tigrinya people, also known as Habashor Abyssinians. While preserving a restricted level of interaction with outsiderswith intermarriage strongly prohibitedthe Beta Israel remained an isolated and a distinct ethno-religious entity. Methodology Non science scholars today excessively rely on the existing religious texts of the Beta Israel to analyze their Jewish heritage and distinctive traits that are not shared with the Abyssinian Christian society. Researches, however, suggest that the sum of authentic Jewish material within the religious texts of the group is small (Devens, 1995, p. ix). Rather, the texts are shown to contain significant borrowings from Christian sources. These conclusions are widely accepted by scholars as supporting evidence to the argument of the traditional theory that the Beta Israel people were originally non-Jewish (Quirin, 2010, p. 5-6). These scholars, however, fail to consider how the various human and environmental calamities experienced by the Beta Israel could have contributed to the loss of significant religious texts. Moreover, the groups long history of isolation in the remote Semien and Tana regions would have resulted in total, or almost total, illiteracy. Hence, it is viable to speculate whether the groups textual heritage was much expanded at some point in time; that is when illiteracy was not as prevalent as it has been in recent times. On this, Leslau (1951, p. xlii) elaborates: First of all, the isolation from the Jewish world on one hand and the more or less close contact with the Ethiopian population on the other led to the abandonment of many traditional customs and the introduction of religious elements of non-Jewish origin. Secondly, we must not forget that the observance of some Jewish religious customs requires a more or less high economic standard among the people and that consequently the lack of material resources in the Falasha communities might have led them to give up some of these practices. The role of militant invasions and famines in causing the losses of textual material is well exemplified in the testimony by a Beta Israelite during the 1890s (A Letter as cited in Quirin, 2010, p. 169): Formerly we were very numerous; formerly there were 200 synagogues, now only 30 remain. In the time of the Dervishes [Sudanese-Mahadist invaders] a frightful number of people died from famine. We are in great misery. Our books have been destroyed; the Dervishes burnt them by fire. We have no longer any schools; they are destroyed. Hence, the surviving religious texts of the Beta Israel do not form reliable sources when it comes to understanding their Jewish heritage; they offer only partial and limited indications. Rather historical evidence, genetic research and archeological data must be examined to provide the most ideal material for analysis. Scholarly discussion The traditional theory, as advocated by Quirin (2010) and Kaplan (1995), identify the Beta Israel as the product of a fourteenth-to-sixteenth century separatist movement within Christianity. A problematic trend, expressed by proponents of this theory, involves suppressing the distinctions between the Beta Israel and the non-Jewish Abyssinians. They argue that the distinctive traits of the group were socially invented by and within the Abyssinian society and, therefore, the group had no ancient Jewish roots. Hence, they cite differences between the Beta Israel religious traditions and normative Judaism as supporting evidence. This trend is well exemplified by Daniel Summerfield (2003, p. 133) when he argues that the concept of an Ethiopian Jew is an invented twentieth century phenomenon. Accordingly, he seems to claim that Judaism was adopted by the Beta Israel for the purpose of relating to the world Jewry. As evidence for his argument, Summerfield cites examples of religious elements recently adopted by the group from normative Judaism; that is during the nineteenth and twentieth centuriessuch as the Jewish star, prayer shawls, and use of Hebrew in services (p. 131-2). There are four major problems come with this view. First, Summerfield, like other proponents of the traditional theory, ignores the larger picture; that is the religion of the Beta Israel seemed to have broad equivalences with practices of the wider Jewish world, except they did not know Hebrew or the Talmud or follow post biblical practices such as the Chanukah as Quirin (2010, p. 5) admits. Second, the adoption of some normative Jewish practices does not contradict the evidence for the ancient Jewish origins of the group; nor does it support the idea that the concept of an Ethiopian Jew (Summerfield, 2003, p. 133) is invented. As Teferi (2005, p. 176) states Indeed, one can write a lot on the differences of practice with normative Judaism but that, by no means, implies that the Ethiopian Jews have a different religion Summerfield seems to ignore that the essential Jewish beliefs of the Beta Israel in the Orit (Torah), the coming of the Messiah (Kessler, 2012), and the pre-rabbinical principles, all pre-date the groups introduction to normative Judaism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Third, his argument begs two basic questions: First, why would the Beta Israel adopt normative Jewish traits if they were not Jewish in the first place? And second, why did they identify themselves, and were identified by others, in the Israelite-Jewish context prior to their exposure to normative Judaism? While references to Israelite presence in Kush are well founded in Biblical literature (e.g. Psalm 87:4, Isaiah 11:11, and Zephaniah 3:10), a wide spectrum of medieval and contemporary sources refers to Jews in the areas of the Semien and Tana (Ashkenazi, 1987, p. 10). And if Summerfields hypothesis is based on the assumption that normative Judaism was adopted by the Beta Israel as a more civilized and foreignperhaps Europeaninfluence, then his argument also fails. For such an assumption would contradict the Beta Israels overwhelming rejection of Europes Christian missionaries. According to one statistic, missionaries converted only about 1% of the poor Beta Israel population within a fifty year period (Hamilton, 2007, p. 143). And even those who converted during this period have predominantly returned to Judaism (Seeman, 2010, p. 63). Fourth, Summerfield fails to consider the gap between the religious material of the Beta Israel and normative Judaism as a natural outcome of the groups geographical isolation, social marginalization and various levels of deprivations. Identity The Beta Israel have traditionally attributed their descent to the Israelite tribe of Dan. On the other hand, they were commonly identified by the Abyssinians with prejudice, as strangers (Falasha) and as being inferior. The Israelite Jewish identity of the group is historically well established across a vast spectrum of sources. Notable of these was the ninth-century Jewish scholar Eldad Ha-Dani, whose very name translates to Eldad the Danite, and who identifies himself as the citizen of a Jewish state beyond the rivers of Cush [Kush] (Halper, 2009, p. 49). Eldad was precise about the unique Israelite identity of his people from the tribe of Dan. Others include the twelfth century traveler Benjamin of Tudela (as cited in Kaplan, 1995, p. 50) who refers to Israelites in the mountains proximate to Nubia i.e. the medieval name of the Nile Valley area of Kush in Northern Sudan. Also worth mentioning is the Chief Rabbi of Egypt who wrote in the sixteenth century confirming the origin of the Beta Israel as Jews from the tribe of Dan (as cited in Bleich, 1977, p. 302). However, the perception of the traditional theory, given its trend in suppressing the distinctions of the Beta Israel from the Christian society, has distorted the historical reality of the groups identity. Kaplan, for example, identifies ayhud, which is the Agaw word for Jews, as a vague term that includes vilified Christians. He cites cases in which medieval authors, starting from the fourteenth century, pejoratively referred to antagonized Christian groups as ayhud. The word Falasha, on the other hand, was not used in pre-sixteenth century sources (Kaplan, 1995, p. 60). Hence, Kaplan seems to conclude that the ayhud were somehow different from the Falasha. He identifies the ayhud as the product of influences from groups both within and outside the Ethiopian Orthodox Church(p. 77). I argue to the contrary; the pejorative use of ayhudto label Christian adversariesis best explained within the context of a pre-existing Jewish community of which the Abyssinians are socially aware. Additionally, ayhud was not the only term that was historically used to refer to the Beta Israel. In fact, the group was dubbed with different terms at different times and with varying degrees of regional interchangeability (Quirin, 2010, p.13). A term that was viewed as pejorative by some Beta-Israel in one area was accepted by members of the same group in another area (Ezer, 2002; Aescoly, 1943). Kayla, Tabib, and Bejrond, are examples of other names used to dub the group. (For more on Bejrond see Quirin, 2010, p. 137-8). (The origin of the term Kayla is unknown; Tabib seems to translate to healer possibly due to a perception that associated the group with superstition; and Bejrond developed as the result of nineteenth century stereotypes associated with artisan and labor occupations.) Hence, the term ayhud was not an exclusive reference to the Beta Israel, beside Falasha. And although the term was at times derogatorily manipulated to refer to ostracized Christians, it was fundamentally conceived in context of its literal translation, simply meaning Jewsand has accordingly referred to the Beta Israel. Even Kaplan acknowledges, in contradiction to his own line of argument, that geography, historiography, and religion all seem to link the two groups [the ayhud and Falasha of later periods] (Kaplan, 1995, p. 63). Early Jews of Aksum Aksum was established as a recognizable civilization no earlier than the first century CE. Situated between the Kushite kingdom along Sudans Nile Valley to the west and the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea to the east, Aksum was a crossroad of major trade routes. Local Agaw, Northern Sudanese-Kushite, and South Arabian elements blended together in Aksum (Dumper & Stanley, 2007, p.17). Studies have already established that Judaism had entered Aksum prior to the establishment of Church; that is sometime between the first and fourth centuries CE (Kaplan, 1995, p. 19). There is no doubt that Jews participated in the establishment of Christianity in Aksum, as well known through the Hebraic influences found in the early Christian texts of the Ethiopian Church. A popular misconception among scholars today is that a Jewish migration from the Mediterranean through Northern Sudan would have been nebulous (Quirin, 2010, p. 10). Thus, a majority of scholars suggest South Arabia as the likeliest source of Aksums Jewish influence. Yet, the wide range of historical, archeological, and linguistic evidenceincluding the institutionalization of Greek during the fourth century CEsignify that contacts between Aksum and the Mediterranean were strong and direct. In fact, Aksums economic prosperity is inseparable from its reputation as a master of the Indian Ocean-Mediterranean trade routes (Adler & Pouwels, 2014, p. 229). Ceramics and funerary evidence from what is today northern Ethiopia, show Kushite cultural influences all through the second half of the first millennium BCE (see: Hatke, 2013, p. 32; Fattovich, 1994, p. 14-8; Lobban, 2004, p. 58). Besides being an important trade partner, Kush, which predates Aksum by more than fifteen hundred years (Omer, 2013), offered the direct and relatively easy land routes through which Aksum accessed the Mediterranean world (Phillipson, 1998, p. 24). In fact, in the second century CE, Greco-Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy wrote about the Aksumites as a nation of Ethiopia (Mokhtar, 1990, p. 381). Here, it should be noted that the name Ethiopia in ancient times referred to the civilization of Kush in northern Sudan, not to Aksum in todays Ethiopia. (This complexity in usage led to great confusion among scholars in the past [i.e. Omer, 2013].) Hence, Claudius reference to the Aksumites, in the context of Ethiopia, may indicate that the Aksum area was in a subsidiary relationship to Kush. And although Claudius refers to the cities of Meroe and Adulis, he makes no mention of Aksumneither as a city nor a kingdom. Thus, in context of the historical, archeological, and geographical indications, it is reasonable to suggest that the first Jewish elements within Aksum trace to Kush. A number of accounts, including those provided in Beta Israel traditions suggest that the ancestors of the group arrived through the Nile Valley (Quirin, 2010, p. 23). As mentioned, Biblical passages, in addition to a number of extra-Biblical traditions, suggest an Israelite presence in Kush, particularly in Zephaniah 3:10 From beyond the rivers of Cush [Kush] my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings (New International Version). In addition to Eldad Ha-Dani, Obadiah of Bertinoro during the fifteenth century suggests that the spices sold by the Kushites come from (Abrahams & Montefiore, 1889) the Beta Israel, and Chief Rabbi David ibn Zimra of Egypt in the sixteenth century identifies the Beta Israel as the Jews from the Land of Cush (as cited in Bleich, 1977, p. 302). After tedious research, Kessler (2012, p. 60) analyzes: Scholars agree that the Jewish religion had a considerable following in the Axumite state before the time of King Ezana and as it is probable that there was a Jewish presence in the neighboring kingdom of Mero with which Axum was in communication Jewish influences could have followed the well-worn routes across the border by way of the Blue Nile and Atbara rivers, while similar, though somewhat different, influences could also have penetrated from south Arabia and subsequently disappeared. Thus, Jewish presence in Kush appears to predate the entry of the Jews in Aksum. By the time of their migration to Aksum, these Jews would have already exhibited the phenotypes of Northern Sudanese populations. This would explain the physical affinity between the Beta Israel today and the people of Northern Sudan, which will be discussed below. Contacts with surrounding populations The date for the departure of Jews from the Aksum area and their subsequent clustering in the Semien region is widely estimated to the early sixth century (Kaplan, 1995, p. 39). This date correlates with the reign of the fervent Christian king of Aksum Kaleb. Known for conducting wide scale conversions, church building, and anti-pagan campaigns, Kalebs relationship with Aksums Jewish population was probably restless. In 520, he waged a war against a Jewish king in South Arabia and overthrew him in favor of a Christian one. Dating to his reign, Cosmas writes (as cited in McCrindle, 1897, Book II): As for the Semenai, where he says there are snows and ice, it is to that country the King of the Axmites expatriates any one whom he has sentenced to be banished. Kaplan (p. 39) speculates whether those sentenced to be banished were the Jews of Aksum. As mentioned, genetic research points to the establishment of the group in the mid-first millennium CE (Entine, 2013, p. 149; 2007; Saey, 2010, p. 13; Ostrer, 2012). Hence, at this point we have enough historical evidence, and correlative genetic indications, to suggest that the ancestral establishment of the contemporary Beta Israel goes back to the amalgamation of Jewish communities in the Semien and Tana regions sometime between fourth and sixth centuries CE (Omer, 2013). Thus, starting from the latter period, the banished Jews were transformed from scattered and fragmented Aksumite Jews into an ethnically, socially, and culturally integrated, yet fairly isolated, Beta Israel population. The Semien areas of the Beta Israel may have been autonomous since the late sixth century; that is when the Aksumite kingdom lost its grip over its northern and western territories (see: Kobishchanov & Michels, 1979). Despite the attempts of the Beta Israel at restricting contacts with outsiders, intermarriage with surrounding pagan populations, in the western highlands, have probably occurred. According to some reports, the majority of western Agaw populations remained pagan until the sixteenth century (Abir, 1980, p. 161). Underdeveloped and decentralized, the pagans would have rarely intimidated the Beta Israel. Unlike the Christians who commonly perceived the Beta Israel as the crucifiers of Christ (Journal, 1994), pagan societies probably held no relevant perspective. In fact, there appear to have been a tendency among the church and royal authorities, during medieval times, to view the Beta Israel and pagans under one umbrella of heresy (Quirin, 1988; Kaplan, 1995, p. 61). The pagan Agaw, in particular, appear to have shared a close historical relationship with the Beta Israel. This relationship is best exemplified in the Zagwe dynasty who replaced the Aksumite kingdom at an unknown date. While the Zagwe were prosperous in the early twelfth century, they were absorbed by the Abyssinian dynasty in about 1270. Nonetheless, the history of the Zagwe is hard to construct for it is plagued by political instability and internal strife. Although the Zagwe were Christians for most of their known history, traditions suggest that the dynasty was initiated by Beta IsraelJews. In fact, the Zagwe rulers not only claimed Hebraic roots, but alleged to have descended from Moses and Zipporah (Burton, 2007, p. 188). The infamous Jewish Queen Judith (Jeffrey, 2007, p. 155), who was documented as invading the Aksum area from the west (Trimingham, 1952, p. 52) in the late ninth or tenth century, is suggested to have been an early ruler of the Zagwe (Burton, 2007, p. 187-8). In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, rulers of the dynasty controlled important Beta Israel regions, with Lasta being a core area. It was this historical relationship, between the Beta Israel and the Agaw, that inspired scholars to exaggerate and argue that the Beta Israel have descended from Agaw converts to Judaism (Ezer, 2003, p. 27; Ullendorff, 1968). The problem with this argument, however, is that there is neither evidence, nor tangible justification, for the happening of such an Agaw conversion to Judaism. The Qemant were another small native population who might have partially integrated with the Beta Israel. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both the Beta Israel and the Qemant in Gondar were popularly identified with labor occupations (Quirin, 2010, p. 89-101). In fact, some identified the Qemant as a Hebraic group (Blady & Kaplan, 2000, p. 355). A cooperative relationship between the two groups may have, thus, developed as some Qement are said to have viewed the Beta Israel as a natural barrier against the Amhara (Semi, 2005, p. 42). That said, we ought to take great caution not to exaggerate the level of integration between the Beta Israel and such pagan populations. Religious beliefs and ethnic affiliations would have formed a wide social gap between the groups so that intermarriage would not have commonly occurred. Not to mention, there are no notable evidence that suggests the occurrence of a significant intermixture. Conversions to Christianity In the fifteenth century, the Abyssinian monarchs sought to expand their territories to the western area of the highlands so as to exploit the economic resources of the regions inhabited by the Beta Israel (Ashkenazi, 1987, p. 11), particularly those of northern Tana. Correlating with these royal infiltrations was the growth of missionary activities and monastic movements in the regions. One of the early documented missionaries was that of Gabra-Iyyasus, during the second half of the fourteenth century, who converted a leading figure amongst the Beta Israel, Zana Gabo (Quirin, 2010, p. 50; Ramos & Gamada, 2000, p. 176). His conversion was followed by the baptism of his fellow relatives. The king himself is said to have fallen in love and married Zana Gabos daughter. Their children later formed the clergy of the monastery of Debra San whose prestigious Beta Israel background was well recognized (Rossini, 1938, p. 409-52; Quirin, 2010, p. 50). Through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries missionary activities impacted the different settlements of the Beta Israel. Regional Christian communities of Beta Israel descent were developed in different areas. In the fifteenth century churches sprang in Shawa for the Beta Israel converts. At one point a Beta Israel convert was awarded the priestly authority over four churches (Quirin, 2010, p. 48; Tamrat, 1972). Evidence suggests that the Christians held prejudiced feelings even towards the Beta Israel who converted to Christianity, which accords with the groups separate ethnic status within the Abyssinian society. This is evident through the account surrounding the conversion of a Beta Israel once messianic figure Yessahalo (Kaplan, 1995, p. 59; Rossini, 1910, p. 103-9). Even though Yessahalo became a Christian, he experienced prejudice first hand when he was prevented from entering the church by the clergy who claimed to have doubted his faith. Another illustrative account involves the succession to the throne of Sarsa Dangal (1563-97) by his son Yaqob from a Beta Israel mistress. Being a Christian like his deceased father, Yaqob was crowned as the new heir to the throne in 1597. His mother, due to her Beta Israel ethnicity, was distanced from the royal body. Due to being half Beta Israel, Yaqob was so alienated from the nobility and military leadership that he was easily overthrown by a contestant a few years later. Fearing for his own safety, Yaqob attempted to escape to his uncle in the Semien who happened to be the infamous Beta Israel leader Gedewon. He was, however, caught and convicted by the court for encroachment of power, paganism and sexual perversion (Kaplan, 1995, p. 89). Further, it was claimed that he was not the son of Sarsa Dangal (Quirin, 2010, p. 82). As one author puts it, Yaqob was evidently guilty of nothing other than of having tried to be king (Berry, 1976). After a period of exile, Yaqob was persuaded by dishonest military leaders to attempt to reclaim the throne. Lacking in support, Yacob was killed by another claimant in 1607 (Kaplan, 1995, p. 90; Perruchon, 1896). Such and other historical circumstances elucidate the prejudiced perspective that the Abyssinian Christians held towards the Beta Israel as an ethnic group regardless of religious affiliation. The Beta Israel were exposed to Christian missionaries during the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century. Since the dire defeat of the Beta Israel militant movement by the royal armies in 1626, their overall condition was in a downward spiral. Widespread social tension and political instability, caused in part by the increased sovereignty of the nobility in the Gondar area and accompanied by plundering activities and raids by the royal troops ravaged the country side. Sudanese-Mahadist invasions from the west devastated the region, notably in 1885 and 1888. The Great Famine (1888-92) is claimed by some to have killed one-third of the countrys population (Gilbert, 2005, p. 89). Missionaries of the London Society claimed to have converted 1,470 Beta Israel, between 1868 and 1894, out of a total of 10,000 to 50,000 (Seeman, 2010, p. 63). The percentage is evidently small when viewed in context of the great efforts of the missionaries. The result was an unassimilated Beta Israel/Falasha Christians, or Falash-Mura, a majority of whom have returned to Judaism. Just as in medieval times, testimonies suggest that the Beta Israel converts were not readily accepted by the Christians and experienced prejudices. Until the 1960s, there was a popular belief that the Beta Israel converted to Christianity just to own land (Messing, 1982, p. 97). (i.e. King Yeshaq [141330] issued the first known decree that prohibited the Jews from owning land when he declared: He who is baptized in the Christian religion may inherit the land of his father. Otherwise let him be a Falasha! [Parfitt, 1987, p. 125]) The fact that leaders of the Beta Israel were rarely interested in pursuing theological discussions with the Christian missionaries, further affirms that the group was established on an ethnic rather than a religious foundation. Historically, arguments raised by the Beta Israel, in response to the preaching of missionaries, typically emphasized the sacredness of preserving the unity of the group. In the late nineteenth century, one Beta Israel priest expressed (Quirin, 2010, p. 189) in protest of the missionaries, We are, and remain, and will die Falashas, with the words on our lips: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord. When challenged about their practice of sacrifice, another Beta Israel Priest is documented stating (p. 189): My children, our faith is the true faith, and our bloody sacrifices have been ordered to us by Moses. We will remain what we are. Returning to Judaism The return of a Beta Israel population to Judaism following a forcedusually superficialconversion to Christianity, is a pattern that variably reoccurs through the history of the group. King Amda Seyon (1314-44) is documented to have sent military campaigns to subdue insubordinate Beta Israel who were formerly defeated in the Semien and other neighboring sites. According to the report (p. 49) Formerly, these people were Christians, but now they have denied Christ like the Jews, [] Of great importance here is the indication that they were Christians, which as Quirin (p. 49-50) admits, may reflect earlier evangelization efforts, as far back as Aksumite and Zagwe times, when some ayhud underwent nominal conversion and had since lapsed as royal authority in the area waned. During the fifteenth century a Beta Israel is documented (as cited in Kaplan, 1995, p. 59) as telling a Christian missionary: We are Christians [but] not from our hearts but [because] we feared the command of the king and governors. Baptize us. Hence, there is no reason to interpret such a situation as a phenomenon of Christians joining an ayhud community as Quirin (2010, p. 67), later concludes. Such a phenomenon may also be detected through the tale of the monk Abba Sabra. According to the story, the monk was converted by the Beta Israel to Judaism while he was trying to convert them to Christianity. The monk ended up writing, or rewriting, religious books for the Beta Israel and taught the Orit. If we assume that Abba Sabra was not fictional, then we may speculate on whether he was of a Beta Israel descentas in the case of the aforementioned Debra San clergy. In any case, such a monk would have mostly likely gained his importance amongst the Beta Israel out of his literacy skills. As discussed earlier, the geographical isolation of the Beta Israel would have contributed to the prevalence of illiteracy. Thus, the Beta Israel would have welcomed the coming of such a compliant and literate monk with great delight. This is also well exemplified through the account of a monk named Qozmos who joined the Beta Israel after he abandoned his monastery due to theological disagreements with the clergy (Ashkenazi, 1987, p. 13). Qozmoss union with Beta Israel began after an accidental encounter when he met some Beta Israel while wandering in hunger. When he asked them for food, they accepted but with the implied condition that he write the Orit for them. The proposal raised by Quirin (2010, p. 66) and proponents of the traditional theory that Abba Sabra has instituted the Beta Israel-Falasha religion is, hence, an exaggeration to say the least. In addition, Quirins skepticism that the monk might have introduced monasticism is unlikely. Monastic practices, as suggested in the writings of Abul-Mocali, most likely predate the time of Abba Sabra (see: Teferi, 2005, p. 185; Shelemay, 1994, p. 145). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this phenomenon is no less notable. In addition to the mentioned 1,470 Beta Israel who were claimed to have converted to Christianity between 1868 and 1894, but who have mostly returned to Judaism, studies identified 50,000 Beta Israel in the 1960s who identified as Christians, but who continued to practice Jewish traditions (Messing, 1982, p. 93-9; Quirin, 2010, p. 188). Genetics As mentioned, genetic evidenceas best introduced by Entine in Abrahams Children (2007) has already demonstrated that the group maintains an ancient descent that traces all the way back to the mid-first millennium CE (Entine, 2013; Saey, 2010; Ostrer, 2012). As someone who is of East African descent, I argue that the African ethnicity of the Beta Israel appears to be more complex than just Ethiopian. The observed phenotypes of the Beta Israel-Ethiopian Jews today strongly reflect the features of the riverine Northern Sudanese populations. To a lesser proportion, they reflect the phenotypes commonly found among the mainstream Habash-Abyssinian populations of what is today northern Ethiopia. Contrary to the argument that propose the Beta Israel to have originated from Agaw converts (Ezer, 2003, p. 27; Ullendorff, 1968), only a minority of the population today displays distinguishable Agaw featuresi.e. large and deep-set eyes, notably thin eye-brows, and the usual dark complexion but with a unique smooth-yellowish tone. This may indicate that intermarriage with the Agaw was limited. A small minority displays clear Somali features with longer faces and darker than average complexion. A much smaller minority of the group shows clear West/Central African features attributed to the Barya populations who were noted in the fourth century CE inscription of Ezana (Zarroug, 1991, p. 8). The Barya were historically subjugated by the Abyssinians and forced into farm work as late as the mid-twentieth century. Hence, phenotypes indicate a fair degree of African diversity with the Beta Israel. That being said, understanding the potential contributions of Northern Sudan is significantly important to better understand the development of the Beta Israel, particularly as it pertains to their historical and ethnic roots. Conclusion In conclusion, historical indications overwhelmingly suggest that the intermixture of the Beta Israel with surrounding populations was spontaneous, inconsistent and infrequent. Evidence suggests that the traditional theory, which attributes the origin of the Beta Israel to Abyssinias Christian society, is unreliable. Evidence also suggests that the Beta Israel originated from Jews who migrated from Kush to Aksum sometime between the first and fourth century CE. It was this Jewish community that was exiled from Aksum to the Semien and Tana areas in the sixth century by King Kaleb that ultimately produced the Beta Israel society. Accordingly, the groups identity has historically conformed to an ethno-religious Israelite-Jewish-ayhud context in the simplest and most direct manner. The prejudices that the Beta Israel Christian converts have experienced within the Abyssinian Christian society, as well as the tendency of the converts to return to Judaism, further points to the ethnic character of the group. And as elaborated, a Northern Sudanese element is evident through the current phenotypes of the Beta Israel, which may suggest that the ancestors of the group arrived from Kush. On the other hand, the peripheral nature of the groups traditional regions, which marginally stretched into Northern Sudan, may also be considered as a factor in an intermixture with Northern Sudanese populations. More genetic research on the Beta Israel is needed in order to free the course of exploration, on their origins and development, from the biases of the traditional theory. Such research may introduce us to new approaches that may help expand our perception on the formation and influence of Jewish cultures in Africa. It may also shed light on the reliability of the Biblical narrative, particularly with regards to the existence of an Israelite community in the land of Kush as represented by the Beta Israel. References: A Letter from Falashas. (1905, October 13). The Jewish Chronicle. Abir, M. (1980). Ethiopia and the Red Sea: The rise and decline of the Solomonic dynasty and Muslim-European rivalry in the region. New York: F. Cass. Abrahams, I., & Montefiore, C. (1889). The Jewish Quarterly Review. (Vol. 1). Macmillan. Adler, P., & Pouwels, R. (2014). World Civilizations: Volume I: To 1700. Stamford, Ct. Aescoly, A. (1943). The Book of the Falasha. Tel Aviv, Israel Ashkenazi, M. (1987). Ethiopian Jews and Israel. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books. Berry, L. (1976). The Solomonic Monarchy at Gonder, 1630-1755: an institutional analysis of kingship in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia. Ph.D. dissertation. Boston University. Blady, K., & Kaplan, S. (2000). Jewish Communities in Exotic Places. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson. Bleich, J. (1977). Contemporary Halakhic Problems, 1. Jersey City, N.J. Burton, K. (2007). The Blessing of Africa: The Bible and African Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill. Devens, M. (1995). The Liturgy of the Seventh Sabbath: A Bet Israel (Falasha) Text. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. Dumper, M., & Stanley, B. (2007). Cities of the Middle East and North Africa: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Ca: ABC-CLIO. Entine, J. (2007). Abrahams Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People. Grand Central Publishing (2013, July 7). Interview by I. Omer. Questions about Ethiopian Jewish genetics. Ezer, G. (2003). The Ethiopian Jewish Exodus: Narratives of the journey. London: Routledge. Fattovich, R. (1994, December). Gash Delta Archeological Project: 1991, 1992-93, 1993-94 Field Seasons. Nyame Akuma, no. 42, 14-8. Gilbert, G. (2005). World Population: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Ca: ABC-CLIO. Halper, B. (Ed. & Trans.). (2009). Post-Biblical Hebrew Literature: An Anthology. Philadelphia, Pa.: BiblioLife. Hamilton, R. (2007). Routes of Passage: Rethinking the African Diaspora. East Lansing, Mi: Michigan State University Press. Hatke, G. (2013). Aksum and Nubia: warfare, commerce, and political fictions in ancient Northeast Africa. New York: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Jacobovici, S. (Director). (2004). Falasha [DVD]. Wellspring Media. Jeffrey, G. (2007). The New Temple and the Second Coming: The prophecy that points to Christs return in your generation. Colorado Springs, Co.: WaterBrook Press. Journal of Religion in Africa: Religion en Afrique, 24-25. (1994). Kaplan, S. (1995). The Beta Israel: Falasha in Ethiopia From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century. New York: New York University Press. Kessler, D. (2012). The Falashas: A Short History of the Ethiopian Jews [E-reader Kindle Edition]. Taylor and Francis (Parent company of Routledge). Kobishchanov, I., & Michels, J. (1979). Axum. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. Leslau, W. (1951). Falasha Anthology. New Haven, Ct: Yale University Press. Lobban, R. (2004). Historical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Nubia. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press. McCrindle, J. (1897). Christian Topography of Cosmas, an Egyptian Monk. London: Hakluyt.

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July 7, 2016   Posted in: Ethiopian Jews  Comments Closed

The History of Ethiopian Jewry – My Jewish Learning

Piecing together legends and stories. By Atira Winchester A Jewish community in Ethiopiathe Beta Israel (House of Israel)has existed for at least 15 centuries. Because of low literacy levels, a tendency to rely on oral traditions, and nomadic lifestyles among most Ethiopians prior to the 20th century, historic material about this community is scant and unreliable. However, a tentative story can be pieced together from written records of Ethiopian rulers as well as testimony from the Beta Israel themselves. Most likely, the Beta Israel arrived in Ethiopia between the first and sixth centuries, coming as merchants or artisans from various countries in the region. An Ethiopian Jewish family shortly after arriving in Israel in 2009. (Jewish Agency for Israel/Flickr) Scholars once believed that during the Middle Ages the Beta Israel were a homogeneous group living under unified, autonomous Jewish rule. Yet new discoveries have shown that the truth is far more complex. It seems the Ethiopian Jewish community was for the most part fragmented both physically and religiously, with each Beta Israel village appointing its own spiritual and secular leaders. There was little contact between Beta Israel communities, and usually no overarching leadership uniting them. Sometimes the Beta Israel were treated well by the Ethiopian monarchy, but at other times they suffered persecution. Many fellow Ethiopians refer to the Beta Israel as falasha (a derogatory term meaning outsider), In 1624, the ruling kings army captured many Ethiopian Jews, forced them to be baptized, and denied them the right to own land. According to local legend, some members of the Beta Israel chose suicide over conversion. Since the Beta Israel community existed in isolation from other Jewish communities around the world, they developed a unique set of religious practices in some ways quite different from what is typically considered Jewish. For example, an order of Ethiopian Jewish monks was founded in the 15th century to strengthen the communitys religious identity and resist Christian influence. This monastic movement introduced an organized approach to religious practice, creating new religious literature and prayers, and adopting laws of ritual purity. Historians learned about the communitys religious life in the 19th century from the writings of Joseph Halevy, a French Jew who visited the area in 1867. He provided the first eyewitness account of Beta Israel life from a European Jewish perspective. Halevy described a community that followed legal sections in the Hebrew Bible and observed laws of purity surrounding menstruation, birth, and death. They observed Shabbat and believed in values such as respecting elders, receiving guests, and visiting mourners. They referred to the Torah as Orit (possibly from the Aramaic term for the Torah, Oraita), and kept their Torah scrolls covered in colorful cloths in houses of prayer or in the homes of one of the kessim (priests). Ethiopian rabbis (Kessim) at the ceremony of a new spiritual leader in Ashkelon, Israel, in 2012. (Wikimedia Commons) Like today in Israel, Ethiopian Jews celebrated Sigd, a festival which commemorates the giving of the Torah. On this holiday, community members would fast, climb the highest mountain in the area, and listen to the kessim chant passages of the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Nehemiah. In the afternoon they would descend, break their fast, and rejoice in their renewed acceptance of the Orit. At the time of Halevys report, one of the biggest challenges facing the Ethiopian Jewish community was European missionary activity. Though the community had frequently been pressured to convert by Ethiopian authorities, missionaries from abroad with large-scale, organized missions presented an even stronger threat. European missionaries, well-versed in the Hebrew Bible, were educated and skilled in debate. The Beta Israels clergy could not compete. By providing schools and Bibles written in the local language, Amharic, the missionaries challenged the communitys practice and faith. On a number of occasions the Beta Israels monastic clergy tried to escape the missionaries influence by leading their communities to the Promised Land (Israel). By and large, these journeys were disastrous. One particular attempt in 1862 ended in large-scale starvation and death. Between 1882 and 1892 the regions of Ethiopia where the Beta Israel lived suffered from a famine that killed an estimated one third to one half of the Beta Israel. Ethiopian Jewish women pray during a Sigd celebration in Jerusalem in 2014. (Wikimedia Commons) Halevys student, Jaques Faitlovitch, was the first Jewish foreigner to work in earnest on improving conditions for the Ethiopian Jewish community. Arriving for his first visit in 1904 and returning several times in subsequent years, Faitlovitch created tiny schools in Addis Ababa for Beta Israel members, hand-picked 25 young leaders for education abroad, and acted as an emissary on behalf of the world Jewish community. Faitlovich secured two letters from rabbis abroad acknowledging the Beta Israel as fellow Jews. The first letter, written in 1906, called the Beta Israel our brethren, sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who dwell in Abyssinia and our flesh and blood. The letter, which promised to help the community in its religious education, was signed by 44 world Jewish leaders including the chief rabbis of London and Vienna and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. The second letter, from 1921, was written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the revered Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Palestine. He called on the Jewish people worldwide to save the Beta Israel 50,000 holy souls of the house of Israel from extinction and contamination. Faitlovichs work on behalf of the Beta Israel community came to a dramatic halt with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-6. Under fascist rule, it became forbidden to practice Judaism in Ethiopia. Some of Faitlovitchs work was undeniably controversial he created a schism dividing the young, westernized leaders he chose from the elders of the rural communities. But, until the 1960s, no one but Faitlovitch took such a dedicated interest in the community, invested in it financially and educationally, and visited with such regularity. Moreover, it was the letters that Faitlovitch brought to Ethiopia from Kook and other contemporary Jewish leaders that allowed the Beta Israel to cling to their hopes of returning to the Promised Land, and, decades later, for world Jewry to readily accept them. Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization. Please consider making a donation today. Atira Winchester is a journalist who worked for many years as an editor for The Jerusalem Post. She currently lives in London, England where she works as a freelance writer, specializing in arts, culture and contemporary Israeli life. A Jewish community in Ethiopiathe Beta Israel (House of Israel)has existed for at least 15 centuries. Because of low literacy levels, a tendency to rely on oral traditions, and nomadic lifestyles among most Ethiopians prior to the 20th century, historic material about this community is scant and unreliable. However, a tentative story can be pieced together from written records of Ethiopian rulers as well as testimony from the Beta Israel themselves. Most likely, the Beta Israel arrived in Ethiopia between the first and sixth centuries, coming as merchants or artisans from various countries in the region. An Ethiopian Jewish family shortly after arriving in Israel in 2009. (Jewish Agency for Israel/Flickr) Scholars once believed that during the Middle Ages the Beta Israel were a homogeneous group living under unified, autonomous Jewish rule. Yet new discoveries have shown that the truth is far more complex. It seems the Ethiopian Jewish community was for the most part fragmented both physically and religiously, with each Beta Israel village appointing its own spiritual and secular leaders. There was little contact between Beta Israel communities, and usually no overarching leadership uniting them. Sometimes the Beta Israel were treated well by the Ethiopian monarchy, but at other times they suffered persecution. Many fellow Ethiopians refer to the Beta Israel as falasha (a derogatory term meaning outsider), In 1624, the ruling kings army captured many Ethiopian Jews, forced them to be baptized, and denied them the right to own land. According to local legend, some members of the Beta Israel chose suicide over conversion. Since the Beta Israel community existed in isolation from other Jewish communities around the world, they developed a unique set of religious practices in some ways quite different from what is typically considered Jewish. For example, an order of Ethiopian Jewish monks was founded in the 15th century to strengthen the communitys religious identity and resist Christian influence. This monastic movement introduced an organized approach to religious practice, creating new religious literature and prayers, and adopting laws of ritual purity. Historians learned about the communitys religious life in the 19th century from the writings of Joseph Halevy, a French Jew who visited the area in 1867. He provided the first eyewitness account of Beta Israel life from a European Jewish perspective. Halevy described a community that followed legal sections in the Hebrew Bible and observed laws of purity surrounding menstruation, birth, and death. They observed Shabbat and believed in values such as respecting elders, receiving guests, and visiting mourners. They referred to the Torah as Orit (possibly from the Aramaic term for the Torah, Oraita), and kept their Torah scrolls covered in colorful cloths in houses of prayer or in the homes of one of the kessim (priests). Ethiopian rabbis (Kessim) at the ceremony of a new spiritual leader in Ashkelon, Israel, in 2012. (Wikimedia Commons) Like today in Israel, Ethiopian Jews celebrated Sigd, a festival which commemorates the giving of the Torah. On this holiday, community members would fast, climb the highest mountain in the area, and listen to the kessim chant passages of the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Nehemiah. In the afternoon they would descend, break their fast, and rejoice in their renewed acceptance of the Orit. At the time of Halevys report, one of the biggest challenges facing the Ethiopian Jewish community was European missionary activity. Though the community had frequently been pressured to convert by Ethiopian authorities, missionaries from abroad with large-scale, organized missions presented an even stronger threat. European missionaries, well-versed in the Hebrew Bible, were educated and skilled in debate. The Beta Israels clergy could not compete. By providing schools and Bibles written in the local language, Amharic, the missionaries challenged the communitys practice and faith. On a number of occasions the Beta Israels monastic clergy tried to escape the missionaries influence by leading their communities to the Promised Land (Israel). By and large, these journeys were disastrous. One particular attempt in 1862 ended in large-scale starvation and death. Between 1882 and 1892 the regions of Ethiopia where the Beta Israel lived suffered from a famine that killed an estimated one third to one half of the Beta Israel. Ethiopian Jewish women pray during a Sigd celebration in Jerusalem in 2014. (Wikimedia Commons) Halevys student, Jaques Faitlovitch, was the first Jewish foreigner to work in earnest on improving conditions for the Ethiopian Jewish community. Arriving for his first visit in 1904 and returning several times in subsequent years, Faitlovitch created tiny schools in Addis Ababa for Beta Israel members, hand-picked 25 young leaders for education abroad, and acted as an emissary on behalf of the world Jewish community. Faitlovich secured two letters from rabbis abroad acknowledging the Beta Israel as fellow Jews. The first letter, written in 1906, called the Beta Israel our brethren, sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who dwell in Abyssinia and our flesh and blood. The letter, which promised to help the community in its religious education, was signed by 44 world Jewish leaders including the chief rabbis of London and Vienna and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. The second letter, from 1921, was written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the revered Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Palestine. He called on the Jewish people worldwide to save the Beta Israel 50,000 holy souls of the house of Israel from extinction and contamination. Faitlovichs work on behalf of the Beta Israel community came to a dramatic halt with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-6. Under fascist rule, it became forbidden to practice Judaism in Ethiopia. Some of Faitlovitchs work was undeniably controversial he created a schism dividing the young, westernized leaders he chose from the elders of the rural communities. But, until the 1960s, no one but Faitlovitch took such a dedicated interest in the community, invested in it financially and educationally, and visited with such regularity. Moreover, it was the letters that Faitlovitch brought to Ethiopia from Kook and other contemporary Jewish leaders that allowed the Beta Israel to cling to their hopes of returning to the Promised Land, and, decades later, for world Jewry to readily accept them.

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July 4, 2016   Posted in: Ethiopian Jews  Comments Closed

Ethiopian Chapter – Black Jews

A Historical Analysis by Rabbi S.B. Levy 2002 At first glance one might incorrectly assume that the only thing Ethiopian Jews, who call themselves Beta Yisrael (The House of Israel), have in common with black Jews in other parts of the world is that their ancestors once lived on the same continent. While not entire true, this small fact is significant because Africawhether we acknowledge it or notis a crucial link that historically unites all Jews. Those whose African connection is more obvious because of race share this, too, as a bond for better or worse. Actually, our similarities are more than skin deep. The direct connections between the Beta Israel and my community of black Jews in the United States antedates the recent public fascination with the African tribe by at least sixty years. The existence of all of our communities raise important questions about the ancient history, current composition, and future of Judaism. This essay covers the ancient history, culture and tradition of the Beta Yisrael. My analysis of their current status in Israel is covered on a separate page devoted to black Jews in Israel today. The Beta Yisrael are perhaps the best known black Jewish sect in the world. Despite their ancient and well-documented history, they, like all black communities, have had their historical connections to Judaism challenged, the validity of their religious practice scrutinized, and their acceptance within the white Jewish world hindered. When the Ethiopians left the cultural isolation of their remote villages, they entered a world prefigured by race. They soon learned that their Jewish heritage was not the only thing that made them Falasha, (outsiders). For the black Jews of America, the existence of Ethiopian Jews was living proof that black people have a connection to Judaism that is as old as any claimed by Europeans. They called themselves Beta Yisrael because for centuries they believed that they were the last remnant of the ancient Israelites. In fact, in the nineteenth century when a French linguist named Joseph Halevy reached one of their villages on a mission from the Alliance Israelite Universelle, they did not believe that he, the European, could be a Jew. As Halevy described it, the Ethiopians said What!You a Falahsa! A white Falasha! You are laughing at us. Are there any white Falashas?[1] Imagine the irony of that moment: black Jews questioning the Jewishness of white Jews; and the white Jew trying to convince them of his authenticity. The levity of that scene is surpassed by a far more serious point: when different Jewish communities come together, one will usually occupy the superior position; the one of dominance, authority, and control. Not surprisingly, the dominant group is in a position to judge the subordinate. That is an exercise of power, and power underlies all of these relationships. Dominance or power in this context is established by a combination of any or all of these factors: (1) numeric superiority, (2) access to wealth, (3) primo-occupancy; i.e. the act of being there first, (4) higher social status (this could be based on a privilege afforded one Jewish group by a Christian or Muslim authority that is more power than either Jewish group (5) racial or ethnic superiority (this would be true in racialized societies of the West and was evident in the interaction of Ashkenazim and Sephardim in Europe and Israel). The Beta Israel maintain that their ancestors were descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. That union produced a child called Menileck (in Hebrew Mem Meleck literally means from king). This child was then trained by the wise men of Solomons court. They further assert that when Menileck left Jerusalem with a large retinue of Israelite nobles for Ethiopia they took with them the Ark of the Covenant that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Ethiopian claim is based on oral history that has been passed down from generation to generation by their elders, scholars called Dabtaras, and their priests, called Kahens (an Amharic word linguistically similar to the Hebrew word for priest, Kohen).[2] The written account of ancient Ethiopian history is known as the Kebra Nagast and it corroborates in even greater detail what the Beta Israel have always affirmed. Moreover, the Biblical record tends to substantiate their claim. It vividly describes the Queen of Sheba arriving in Jerusalem with a large entourage shortly after the completion of the temple. She is granted an audience with the king, they engage in a colloquy in which the queen is impressed with his Solomonic wisdom to the point where there was no more spirit left in her.And King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired, whatever she asked, in addition to all that he gave her of his royal bounty.[3] Meeting of Solomon and Sheba Piero della Francesca, c. 1452 King Solomon and the Queen of Sheaba Illustrated by Avi Katz Notice how the 15th century painter whose work is shown of the left depicted King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as being white, archetypal Europeans. The Israeli artist whose work is shown on the right presents a more realistic depiction showing Makeda as the African queen that she was. These conflicting images reflect the old presumption of whiteness that was traditionally applied to all Biblical characters and the new multicultural realism that acknowledges the Eastern and African origins of Biblical figures respectively. Such realism is to be embraced and celebrated rather than denied and discouraged. Rudolph R. Windsor examined the validity of this claim in his book From Babylon to Timbuktu. There he argued that the queen who visited King Solomon in 1012 B.C. was indeed an Ethiopian queen known variously as Makeda or Bilkis. Her dominion at that time included a province on the Arabian peninsula called Sheba; hence the title Queen of Sheba. That area would be in the region of Yemen today. Geographically, the Arabian peninsula is a peninsula of the African continent.[4] Yemen and the ancient boundaries of Ethiopia are adjacent points, separated only by a very thin isthmus. Further, the renowned Jewish historian Flavius Josephus identified the ruler of Sheba as a queen of Egypt and Ethiopia.[5] Not only does this comport with the view that Sheba was a vassal state of Ethiopia, but as Windsor contends, lends credence to the view that the people of this region were blacksince Upper Egypt, the area once ruled by Ethiopia, is today called the Sudan and the indigenous people there are very dark. [6] If the Beta Israel are the product of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, then they have been in Ethiopia since the 10th Century B.C. That is twelve centuries before the writing of the Mishnah and sixteen centuries before the codification of the Talmud. The first European traveler did not stumble into their village until the 9th Century A.D. His name was Eldad Ha-Dani (which in Hebrew means Eldad of the tribe of Dan). He reported that he discovered Jews in the mountains of northern Abyssinia. Moreover, he believed that these Jews were also of the tribe of Dan.[7] He saw that they were Jews and assumed that they had to be of the tribe of Dan, like him, because of the tradition among Sephardic Jews that members of that tribe had emigrated when the Kingdom of Solomon split after his death, and they did not want to be ruled by Jerobaom in the northern sector known as Israel.[8] Other travlers such as Benjamin of Tudela, Solomon of Vienna (the first Ashkenazi Jew to reach them in 1626), and the apostate James Bruce in the 18th Century. Their intermittent logs created the lore about black Jews in Ethiopia that the aforementioned Joseph Ha Levy came to investigate. And when the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the Name of the Lord, she came to prove him with hard questions. She communed with him of all that was in her heart. And Solomon answered her all her questions: there was not any thing hid from the King, which he told her not. I Kings 10:1-3 How Jewish were the Beta Israel? Dr. Wolf Leslau spent ten months in 1947 living among the Beta Israel. He primarily studied the most urban of their isolated villages in Gondar, which is near Lake Tana and the Blue Nile. The influential book he published from his journals, Falasha Anthology, has become the source of much of the secondary literature on this subject. He observed that every Friday all work in the village stopped early in the afternoon so that the cooking, cleaning, and baking needed for the Sabbath could be completed before sunset. Their synagogues were humble, austere structures having at best a Star of David on display. Inside, the rooms were divided into two sections: the outer chamber for laymen who faced east toward Jerusalem while saying their prayers and the inner chamberrepresenting the holy of holies of the Mosaic Tabernacleinto which only the priests could enter.[9] Priests of the Beta Israel pray seven time a day. Like the Levitical Priest of old, they sacrificed kosher animals on small alters built in front of their synagogues. Unlike the Levites, however, their positions were not hereditary; aspiring clerics had to study, apprentice, and live exemplary lives in order to be selected for the office. Once initiated, the priests wore a white cotton headdress that distinguished them from other Ethiopians. Their Torah, written in the Geez language on parchment, contained all the books of the Old Testament and some from the Apocrypha, but none of the New Testament and no references to Jesus at all. Some devotees have attempted to lead lives of solitude and quiet contemplation as nuns and monks.[10] Judaism for them was not just an act of faith, it was a way of life governing almost every activity. All marriages were arranged by parents and elders. Individuals who married outside the group and women who were not virgins at the time of marriage could be banished. Their diet prohibited the eating of foods deemed uncleanincluding beef slaughtered by non-Jews or beef that has not had the sinew removed. They used a solar calendar for secular activities and a lunar calendar to calculate all Biblical festivals such as Passover, Shavuot, and the Day of Atonement. For example, the Feast of Tabernacle was celebrated in the seventh month with palm branches and weeping willows.[11] Circumcision was performed on male children eight days after birth as the Torah proscribed. However, some have adopted the practice of female circumcision from their neighbors.[12] Burials were performed on the same day of death, if possible. Special blessings were said before and after eating and performing other rituals. In fact, the Beta Israel went to such great lengths to avoid spiritual defilement that locale gentiles referred to them as the people who smell of water because of their frequent baths and the touch-me-nots because of their aversion to physical contact with non-Jews.[13] In his book, Acts of Faith: A Journey to the Fringes of Jewish Identity, Dan Ross described how the Beta Israel literally applied purity laws by building blood huts as temporary housing for women during menstruation:[14] Like Samaritans, Falashas do not touch women during menstruation or after childbirth. But unlike Samaritans, Falasha women spend their menstrual periods in separate huts. Circles of stones mark a perimeter around those tukuls beyond which men may not pass. Additional huts are built for women to live in during their forty or eighty days of impurity after childbirth; these are burned afterwards.[15] Dr. Leslau described the Judaism of the Beta Israel as being primitive because these people were not aware of all the rabbinic changes that have taken place since the redaction of the Talmud in the sixth century. From his perspective in the twentieth century, the menstrual huts and animal sacrifices must seem barbaric and a sure sign of ignorance. What he fails to recognizeor perhaps is ashamed to acknowledgeis that the customs of the Beta Israel today are a reflection of what the ancient Israelite must have looked like when they offered burnt offerings, incense, and libation to the same God that we as Jews worship today. Perhaps on some level this is unsettling. It is not often that a people can be confronted with their past in the present. Or, because Judaism outside of Ethiopia has changed so much over the centuries, those without the proper historical reference may not recognize their roots when the see them. Primitive, after all, is something associated with those uncivilized black tribes of Africa. Well, if that is true, then that is who, where, and how our Judaism evolved. I argue that rather than accept these possibilities, many scholars have blinded their eyes to these implications and have attempted to distance and disassociate themselves from the Beta Israel by discrediting their culture. Despite all the evidence that has been adduced about the history and origins of the Beta Israel, there has been a profound, and often irrational, reluctance to accept that their claim is plausible. Scholars who are quite adept at understanding that the Bible may not always state the literal and unbiased truth of events, may yet remain an important tool in understanding how a people explained and preserved their culture. Nonetheless, many of these scholars seem incapable or unwilling to apply the same standards to their examination of the Beta Israel. Dr. Leslau in particular, seemed intent on dismissing the very evidence he presented. For example, he asserted that from all historical evidence it would seem that the Falasha never have been a Hebrew-speaking people.[16] Yet, before his eyes and throughout his text Hebrew words and names of months frequently appear. The fact that only a few Hebrew words have survived over the millennia does not mean they never had a working knowledge of the language. After all, Hebrew had ceased to be the lingua franqua of Israel long before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Would a traveler in the Holy Land at that time be correct in assuming that those Greek-speaking Jews never spoke Hebrew? Subsequent scholars have looked at words such as masia (messiah), mizvat (charity). Sanbat (Sabbath), Saitan (Satan), which bear remarkable similarity to Hebrew words but could derived from Amharic, another semetic language and the offical language of Ethiopia. However, the following words only appear in Falasha texts: safur (shofar), gadol (great), El Shaddai (Almighty God), goyyim (gentile) and Torah.[17] It seems perfectly logical that if one finds Hebrew words among people who claim to be descended from Hebrews, then the Hebrews are a likely source for how the words got there. It also does not require a great leap of faith to assume that if they know these words now, then they probably knew more words in the pastsince the tendency is for words to be lost over generations. In the following passage, Dr. Leslau not only states his candid opinion of the Beta Israel, but he shares his insights into what many of his colleagues in the historical profession believe as well: Very few of the western scholars who have dealt with the problem of the Falashas are of the opinion that they are ethnically Jews. Most of them think that they are a segment of the indigenous Agau population which was converted to Judaism. How and when they were converted is a problem for which historical evidence is lacking.[18] It is extremely instructive for scholars looking anew at the Beta Israel to comprehend what Dr. Leslau admitted. Despite all the information he had in his possession, in the end, the Beta Israel did not look ethnically Jewish and because of that he and his colleagues were never able to overcome their doubt. Therefore, they concluded that the Beta Israel must have been convertedeven though historical evidence is lacking to support such a position. What effrontery. To dismiss a body of evidence that points in one direction in favor of another position for which there is no evidence. Dr. Yosef Ben-Jocannan took issue with Dr. Leslau dubious reference to ethnic Jews. For Professor Leslau to have reached the conclusion that the Falashas are not ethnically Jews, he must have produced for public scrutiny at least one of his own Ethnic Jews from any part of the European and European-American communities where they still allegedly exist. But he must have started with the theory that there are such persons of Ethnic Jewish Origin dating back to the allegorical and mythical Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to validate his classification. [19] What exactly is an ethnic Jew? This is the question that Dr. Ben-Jochannan and others have raised. Those who use this term assume that we know what it is. They can spot one when they see one and they know who looks Jewish and who does not. However, we need to examine more closely what is meant by these terms and how they are used. Naomi Zack defined and clarified terms such as this in her recent book, Thinking About Race. She argues that race and ethnicity are nebulous concepts into which and out of which a host of meanings can be put in order to socially construct an identity. As such, neither of these constitutes a fixed, universal, or objective reality; i.e. they mean whatever the society that uses them wants them to mean at the time. She points out that what masquerades today as the building blocks of ethnic identity (language, common origin, shared culture, etc.) are the same things that social scientist used prior to about 1920 when Jews, Poles, Italians, Germans, and others were classified as races.[20] What has changed since that timeparticularly in this era of political correctnessis that the word ethnicity is often used as a euphemism for race when speakers want to refer to race without causing offense to diverse listeners or readers.[21] Hence, all the groups previously mentioned have been transformed into ethnic groups, while people of African descent remain a race. This is not because physical characteristics are not a part of ethnicity; they often are, instead it seems that whiteness helps to make one ethnic. Karen Brodkin has chronicled this process in her book, How Jews Became White Folks. Although she focused on explaining this phenomenon within the United States, I argue that how one defines American Jews, who are essentially European Jews transplanted, is to a large extent the standard against which all other Jews will be judgedsince Americans Jews are the largest, wealthiest, and most influential group of Jews in the world. And these American Jews have, despite rigorous resistance, become white folks.[22] Like Dr. Zack, Dr. Brodkin recognizes this racial dimension to how Jews are perceived and how they often perceive themselves. She actually prefers the term ethnoracial, but uses it inconsistently.[23] Nonetheless, their works help us to decode the hidden racial messages embedded in terms like ethnicity. There are many who would argue that Jewishness does not conform to the ethnoracial paradigm that defines other groups. They might argue that Judaism is a religion that people of all ethnoracial backgrounds can and do practice. Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin have tried to carve out just such an exception. Their tact is a very interesting one. Rather than simply positing that Judaism is a religion of peace and love for all peoplewhich it is for manythey concede that there are popular conceptions of Judaism that promulgate racist or quasi-racist notions of Jewishness.[24] They further concede that the belief in a distinct Jewish genealogy and the belief that there is something indefinable and found only in Jewish women (not Jewish men) that make their children Jewish, strongly implies that there is a biological component to being Jewish. All the forgoing not withstanding, they argue that conversion to Judaism not only changes ones religion, it miraculously changes ones genealogy as well. In the case of male converts, circumcision alters them physically so that they now look like other Jews. In other words, by this process a convert is not someone of another ethnoracial group who has chosen to practice Judaism, he is in fact and genealogy as Jew. [The implied difference between practicing Judaism and being Jewish will become important to our discussion later.] More revealingly, however, the convert’s name is changed to ‘ben Avraham” or “bas Avraham,” son or daughter of Abraham. The convert is adopted into the family and assigned a new “genealogical” identity, but because Abraham is the first convert in Jewish tradition, converts are his descendants in that sense as well. There is thus a sense in which the convert becomes the ideal type of the Jew.[25] The denouement of the Boyarin theory is not that Judaism can never be thought of as a kind of race, but that anyone who joins the religion simultaneously becomes a member of the same race. Well, that certainly would make being Jewish different from being black, white, or Asianif it were true. However, if the Boyarins mean that all Jews are members of the same Jewish race in the eyes of God, then it would not help us to see how Jews view each otherparticularly those who started out as members of other races. In the 1930s, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan advocated another way of thinking about Judaism. His movement led to a new denomination of Judaism in the United States called Reconstructionist Jews. One basic tenet of Reconstructionism is that Judaism is not necessarily a race, religion, or an ethnic group, but can be experienced as part of a civilization. Here the emphasis is on Jewish culture rather than any particular Jewish practices or beliefs.[26] If Judaism is a culture, as Reconstructionist hold, does that culture have any bearing on race? Walter Benn Michaels has studied the relationship between cultural groups and race. He began by looking at how social critics and historians such as Mellville J. Herskovits attempted to define black people in America in purely cultural terms. Herskovits was interested in understanding what role, if any, African cultures and American culture had on the development of what might be called African-American culture. This included such things as art, music, literature, speechanything except race. Michaels, who deplores racial classifications or distinctions, found that most groups that define themselves as a culture rely on things that are inherently racial in nature for defining membership in their culture. Therefore, the term culture may sound race neutral, but often it is not. In the case of African-Americans, it was fairly easy to prove, at least rhetorically, that most of the cultural connections that were being made between people in one place and people in other place were based on the premise that both peoples were of the same race; i.e. black. Michaels noticed that the racial underpinnings of group cultures were not always as obvious as the example, but they were usually present. As he explained: It is only the appeal to race that makes culture an object of affect and that gives notions like losing our culture, preserving it, stealing someone elses culture, restoring people’s culture to them, and so on, their pathos. Our race identifies the culture to which we have a right, a right that may be violated or defended, repudiated or recovered. Race transforms people who learn to do what we do into thieves of our culture and people who teach us to do what they do into the destroyers of our culture; it makes assimilation into a kind of betrayal and the refusal to assimilate into a form of heroism. Without race, losing our culture can mean no more than doing things differently from the way we now do them–the melodrama of assimilation disappears.[27] Michaels thesis is directly on point. His argument is not about what constitutes a culture, he is concerned about what constitutes the our in our culture, or the their in their culture. That is where the racial element is to be found if it exists. When people refer to Jewish culture or Jewish civilization the things they point to may be racially innocuous; e.g. cooking or music, but, when pressed to explain what is Jewish about it or what connects them to it and each other, and the user of the cultural term soon finds himself in a morass of racial euphemisms. The racial elements are what usually allow members of the group to explain why this is mine and that is yours. If we are all participants in something then that thing is de facto a part of our shared culture. We are what we do. Race allows us to claim or deny connections based on who we are, not what we do. Like African-American culture, Jewish culture implies that this Jew and that Jew have something in common that goes much deeper than the matzo balls. The question which culture we belong to is relevant only if culture is anchored in race.[28] To be ethnically Jewish is to be Jewish according to white European or American standards. It was obvious and undeniable that the Beta Israel were doing Jewish things. By Michaels non-racial standards, people who do the same things share the shame culture unless a racial claim in made; ergo Beta Israel are part of Jewish culture unless white folk say there not. However, we recall that the Boyarins asserted that Jews are people who are Jewish by birth or conversion and who do Jewish things. Therefore, by the latter racialized definition, people who are not recognized as being Jewish first, can do all the Jewish things they want for as long as they can and it will not make them Jewishit can only make them persistent, exhausted, and ultimately frustrated Jewish imitators. Beta Israel, and black Jews in other areas, are discovering that neither who they are nor what they do guarantees their membership or acceptance within a racial context. In 1904, Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch (1880-1955) was given a grant by Baron Edmond de Rothschild and the blessings of the Chief Rabbi of Paris, Zadok Kahn, to go to Africa and investigate persistent rumors of there being black Jews in Ethiopia. He returned to France the following year to report that the people he saw are really Jews. By 1906, Dr. Faitlovitch was trying to convince the rabbis of Europe that the black Jews of Ethiopia were our flesh and blood.[29] This announcement by a prominent Jewish scholar was soon followed by photographs, articles, and speaking engagements. Unlike his predecessors, Dr. Faitlovitch was steadfastly committed to winning recognition for the Beta Israel. For the rest of his life he worked tirelessly on three continents and through two world wars to remedy the plight of black Jews in Ethiopia. Although his methods and actions are open to scrutiny, his sincerity and dedication are not. The first major victory that Faitlovitch won for the Beta Israel came in 1906. He persuaded forty-four eminent rabbis to sign a letter addressed to the Beta Israel that referred to them as our brethren, sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacobour flesh and blood. The signers included: Herman Adler (Chief Rabbi of London), Raphael Meir Panigel (Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jersusalem / Palestine) and Jacob Reines of Russia (head of the Mizrachi movement) and others.[30] For a moment, it looked as if the world Jewish community was going to come to the immediate and unconditional aide of their fellow Jews in Ethiopia. But, the following year a Turkish rabbi named Haim Nahoum made his own journey to Ethiopia and upon his return he reported that It does not seem to me desirable that anything should be done.[31] Thus would begin a cruel pattern of expressions of enthusiastic support and solidarity followed by long periods of inactivity and indifference. Because the Beta Israel were frequently forgotten, they have been repeatedly rediscoveredmost recently again during the dramatic airlift of fifty thousand Ethiopians to Israel in the 1980s. However, individuals like Faitlovitch consistently tried to keep the Ethiopian issue on the agendas of major Jewish organizations. In March of 1914, just prior to the outbreak of World War One, Faitlovitch established the Pro-Falasha Committee as a lobbying group solely dedicated to this cause. They had officers in several European countries and one in New York City.[32] The Alliance Israelite Universelle, which had been an early sponsor, thought the best way to help the Ethiopians was through vocational training. Faitlovitch favored classical academic training. In many ways, their disagreement over the best way to help the Ethiopians parallels the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois over the best way to help black people in the United StatesWashington favoring vocational and DuBois, liberal artsthough in both cases the differences should not be exaggerated. Where they are similar, however, is that vocational training is an approach usually applied to the masses, while university training is usually directed at an educated elite. Here we begin to see a troubling side to Dr. Faitlovitchs advocacy of the Beta Israel. Dr. Simon Messing, who knew and interviewed Dr. Faitlovitch, explained that many people of that period believed that Africans lacked the intellect to acquire a classical education. So, Faitlovitch demonstrated Falasha mental capacity by a test that was accepted in the ethnocentric Europe of the time: One of his students had been brought to Switzerland where he had learned to speak fluent German![33] After this student, Faitlovitch created about six Ethiopian protgs who often accompanied him on speaking and fund raising tours. He arranged for their educations, attempted to direct their careers, reshaped their religious views, and tried to control their political activities. Dr. Faitlovitch fervently fought for the advancement of Ethiopian Jews, but he defined progress by his ability to make Ethiopian Jews more like European Jews. Tragically, his program began to resemble a Jewish version of the White Mans Burden; i.e. it was the moral duty of European Jews to save and civilize the Jews of Africa. He was determined to rescue the Falashas and to bring them into rabbinic Judaism, the pattern known in Western Europe as Torah im Derkh-Eretz (lit. Bible together with the Way of the Land), which signified strict religious Orthodoxy together with modern behavior in manner, clothing, shelter, fine arts and careers.[34] When the first of Faitlovitchs students, Getye Jeremias, returned to his Ethiopian village dressed in a European jacket and high leather riding boots, he was an envied model of what others should become. He next student, who would become the well-known Professor Taamrat Emmanuel and have an important interaction with the black Jews of Harlem, was literally rescued from a Chrisitan mission that had already converted his parents. Faitlovitch was greatly impressed with the young man who was fluent in Italian, Tigrinya (a local dialect), and his native Amharic. Faitlovitch took him to Paris where he learned French, then to Italy where he studied at the Collegio Rabbinico, and finally to Jerusalem where he was entrusted to the supervision of Herr Goldschmidt. Like Getye before him, Taamrat was installed as the headmaster of one of the village Hebrew schools that Faitlovitch had created back in Ethiopia. Faitlovitch understood that he was making leaders; his students were being trained to lead their people out of darkness.[35] However, Taamrat and some of his peers had their own ideas on how best to use their talents. They had also come to the attention of the Emperor Menilek and his Regent in Addis Ababa, Ras Tafari Makonnenwho would later himself become the Emperor Haile Selassie I.[36] What Faitlovitch did not realize at first and then later strongly discouraged, was that his prized students were not only black Jews, but black Ethiopians as well. As they traveled and read they became aware of how the Western world viewed them and how their own leaders treated them. Faitlovitch opposed the development of any race consciousness or nationalist sentiments other than his brand of religious Zionism. When Taamrat, Yonah Boggale, and Mequria Segay temporarily left their posts in the village Hebrew schools for government positions in Haile Selassies administration, Faitlovitch saw this as a personal betrayal and an abandonment of the missions for which they were trained. They were expected to shed their black identity and their Ethiopian identity; they were to master and emulate what they were taught; and, when enough of them had done this successfully, they would be accepted back into the Jewish fold. By taking these jobs his students were not merely motivated by a personal desire for greater wealth and statusalthough those were, no doubt, factorsbut, more importantly they were also sincere idealists who were swept up in the hope and optimism of creating a new Ethiopia and a new Africa. The significance of Haile Selassies rise to power in 1930 and the struggle for Ethiopian independence against Italian aggression, profoundly affected black people all over the worldparticularly black people in America and the Caribbean. Faitlovitch was less sanguine about these events. He returned to Ethiopia after WWII from Israel, his new home, and in his forceful manner cajoled Yonah to leave his postwhich was dangerous since the Emperor had not agreed to release him. Taamrat retired from his position as Cultural Attach at the Ethiopian Embassy in Paris in 1952, disillusioned by the slow rate of democratization and land reform. He, too, immigrated to Israel but continued to march to the beat of his own drum until his death in 1968. In many ways, Taamrats journey literally and symbolically adumbrated the physical, political, intellectual, and emotional journey of the thousands of black Jews who would follow him. As a poltical activist, Taamrat regarded Faitlovitch as an antiquarian who was stern in his condemnation of Falasha wrong practices and insufficiently respectful of Falahsa pride in their long independence. Taamrat viewed the future of the Falashas as largely bound up with the modernization of Ethiopia. Only modern education of the general population could finally free the Falashas from being victimized by accusations of lycanthropy as were-hyenas. Neither did he think that Rabbinic Orthodoxy should be imposed on them to qualify them as Jews.[37] Taamrat Emmanuels struggle to find a balance between preserving a healthy respect for the traditions of the Beta Israel, while at the same time trying to forge a meaningful relationship with European Jewry, proved to be illusory. Though well intentioned, Faitlovitch and those that followed him made what has become a classic liberal mistake: they setout to remake those they helped in their own image. This often has the consequence of saving the people, but destroying their culture. Complete cultural assimilation unintentionally leads to the cultural annihilation of the dependent group. The Nobel laureate, Chinua Achebe, described in his fictional novel, Things Fall Apart, how the stable social fabric of a pre-colonial Nigerian village began to unravel before the juggernaut of Western conformity. In this context, European Jewry is the juggernaut that black Jewish communities fear, admire, resent, and need. In December of 1930, Taamrat ignored the urging of his handlers at the Pro-Falsha Committee in New York and journeyed uptown to Harlem were he met with Chief Rabbi Matthew and addressed the Commandment Keepers Congregation. Shortly thereafter, dozens of black Jews left the United States to establish a colony in Ethiopia that lasted until the Italian invasion and the death of Rabbi Arnold Ford in 1935.[38] During the years that followed, individuals from both communities would seek each other out whenever possible, but neither has been in a position to significantly help the other. Yet, the cry of Ethiopia continues to loom large in the hearts of black Jews all over the world for we share a common struggle. Emperor Haile Selassie greeting Rabbi Hailu Paris, an Ethiopian-born leader and teacher in our community at a gathering in New York City in which he and Chief Rabbi W. A. Matthew went to meet the Lion of Judah, a direct descendent of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

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July 1, 2016   Posted in: Ethiopian Jews  Comments Closed

Israeli Government Admits to Sterilizing Ethiopian Jews …

February 21, 2012 According to recent Forbes and Haaretz articles, the Israeli government has been pursuing a long term plan of sterilization of immigrant Ethiopian Jews. The Depo-Prevara injections were enforced upon women in transit camps in Ethiopia. One might ask: why? At this point, no absolutely clear answer can be given. There are, of course, speculations about racial motives; that is, with the Israeli ruling class being mainly of Ashkenazi back ground, while the Ethiopian Jews are not. The outrage eventually led to the Israeli government suspending injections unless the women understood the ramifications. The shots have led to a drop in the Ethiopian Jewish birth-rate byabout 20%. According to the UK Independent: The drug in question is thought to be Depo-Provera, which is injected every three months and is considered to be a highly effective, long-lasting contraceptive. as well as noting: Sharona Eliahu Chai, a lawyer for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), said: Findings from investigations into the use of Depo Provera are extremely worrisome, raising concerns of harmful health policies with racist implications in violation of medical ethics. The Ministry of Healths director-general was right to act quickly and put forth new guidelines. The Ethiopian Jewish community of course has its past shrouded in mystery. Different theories abound as to its origins. However, despite dispute about their ability to legally come to Israel, it was decided that those Ethiopian Jews who agreed to undergo a conversion to Orthdoox Talmudic Judaism would be allowed entry. The Ethiopian Jewish community has left in large numbers from Ethiopia, especially since the culture was hostile to them (for example, prior to the over-throw of the old imperial system, they could not own property).

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June 20, 2016   Posted in: Ethiopian Jews  Comments Closed

Ethiopian Jews in Israel – My Jewish Learning

Ancient traditions in a new Jewish State. By Atira Winchester The Jews of Ethiopiaknown as the Beta Israelhave experienced a long history of famine, religious oppression, and civil war. But in the 20th century the community went through some major changes as it was transplanted into Israel. In 1974, following a coup detat, Ethiopia came under the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Under Mariams regime, anti-Semitism rose, and physical conditions worsened for the Beta Israel, with starvation across the country. In May 1977, Israeli President Menachem Begin started selling arms to Mariams government, hoping to secure freedom for Ethiopias Jews. Later that year, Israel took 200 Jews out of Ethiopia on a plane that had emptied its arms cargo for Mariams use. Mariam agreed to the airliftgiven his reliance on Israels arms, he could hardly refuse. Between 1977 and 1984, a total of 8,000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel in a number of small airlifts, all authorized, albeit grudgingly, by the Ethiopian government. Large-scale aliya started in 1984 with Operation Moses, a mission that brought 8,000 Jews to Israel in just a few months. The operation, which began in November, 1984, ended prematurely in January 1985 when news of the airlift reached Ethiopias Arab allies. In March 1985, another 650 Jews were rescued in Operation Joshua, but approximately 15,000 Beta Israel still remained in Ethiopia, many of them elderly, sick, or weak. Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization. Please consider making a donation today. Atira Winchester is a journalist who worked for many years as an editor for The Jerusalem Post. She currently lives in London, England where she works as a freelance writer, specializing in arts, culture and contemporary Israeli life. The Jews of Ethiopiaknown as the Beta Israelhave experienced a long history of famine, religious oppression, and civil war. But in the 20th century the community went through some major changes as it was transplanted into Israel. In 1974, following a coup detat, Ethiopia came under the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Under Mariams regime, anti-Semitism rose, and physical conditions worsened for the Beta Israel, with starvation across the country. In May 1977, Israeli President Menachem Begin started selling arms to Mariams government, hoping to secure freedom for Ethiopias Jews. Later that year, Israel took 200 Jews out of Ethiopia on a plane that had emptied its arms cargo for Mariams use. Mariam agreed to the airliftgiven his reliance on Israels arms, he could hardly refuse. Between 1977 and 1984, a total of 8,000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel in a number of small airlifts, all authorized, albeit grudgingly, by the Ethiopian government. Large-scale aliya started in 1984 with Operation Moses, a mission that brought 8,000 Jews to Israel in just a few months. The operation, which began in November, 1984, ended prematurely in January 1985 when news of the airlift reached Ethiopias Arab allies. In March 1985, another 650 Jews were rescued in Operation Joshua, but approximately 15,000 Beta Israel still remained in Ethiopia, many of them elderly, sick, or weak. The final and most dramatic large-scale operation was Operation Solomon. 14,325 Beta Israel were airlifted to Israel in 36 hours on May 24 -25, 1991 amid political turmoil that forced Mariam to flee the country. By the end of 1991, only a handful of Beta Israel remained in Ethiopia, although many thousands of Falasha Mura, whose Jewish identity has been disputed, still remain today. While the operations that brought about Beta Israels exodus were dramatic and swift, integration into Israeli society has been painstakingly slow. Even today, the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel is still grappling with problems: they are marginalized socially, religiously, geographically, and professionally. When they first arrived, housing was often provided in mobile homes located in Israels peripheral areas. Housing conditions were regularly squalid, inadequately heated in the winter or cooled in the summer. Ethiopians were isolated and disempowered, with children far from decent schools. Life in an industrialized, modern society baffled many of the older community members, and adjusting to simple things like electricity was often difficult. Israelis were not always quick to help make the transition easier. For example, Yehuda Dominitz, then Director General of the Jewish Agencys Department of Immigration and Absorption, declared in 1980 that, [taking] a Falasha out of his village, its like taking a fish out of waterIm not in favor of bringing them [to Israel].

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June 16, 2016   Posted in: Ethiopian Jews  Comments Closed

Ethiopia Virtual Jewish Tour | Jewish Virtual Library

Once they were kings. A half million strong, they matched their faith with fervor and out-matched the Moslem and Christian tribesmen around them to rule the mountain highlands around Lake Tana. They called themselves Beta Israelthe house of Israeland used the Torah to guide their prayers and memories of the heights of Jerusalem as they lived in their thatched huts in Ethiopia. But their neighbors called them Falashasthe alien ones, the invaders. And even three hundred years of rule, even the black features that matched those of all the people around them did not make the Jews of Ethiopia secure governors of their destiny in Africa (Falashas: The Forgotten Jews, Baltimore Jewish Times, 9 November 1979). For centuries, the world Jewish community was not even aware of the existence of the Jewish community of Ethiopia in the northern province of Gondar. The miracle of Operation Solomon is only now being fully understood; an ancient Jewish community has been brought back from the edge of government-imposed exile and starvation. But once they were kings. . . – History – Modern Contact – The Mengistu Threat – Operations Moses & Joshua – Operation Solomon – Authentic Jews – Jewish Apathy & its Defeat – Operation Dove’s Wings – Recent Developments Christianity spread through the Axum dynasty of Ethiopia in the 4th century CE. By the 7th century, however, Islam had surpassed Christianity and had separated Ethiopia from its Christian African neighbors. Prior to this, the Beta Israel had enjoyed relative independence through the Middle Ages. Their reign was threatened in the 13th century CE under the Solomonic Empire, and intermittent fighting continuing for the next three centuries with other tribes. In 1624, the Beta Israel fought what would be their last battle for independent autonomy against Portuguese-backed Ethiopians. A graphic eyewitness account described the battle: 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 prisonerit was a Falasha Masada. [The rebel leaders] burned all of the Falasha’s written history and all of their religious books, it was an attempt to eradicate forever the Judaic memory of Ethiopia (Righteous Jews Honored by Falasha Supporters, AAEJ Press Release, 1981). Those Jews captured alive were sold into slavery, forced to be baptized, and denied the right to own land. The independence of the Beta Israel was torn from them just as it was from their Israeli brethren at Masada centuries before. The first modern contact with the now oppressed community came in 1769, when Scottish explorer James Bruce stumbled upon them while searching for the source of the Nile River. His estimates at the time placed the Beta Israel population at 100,000, already greatly decreased from an estimate from centuries before of a half-million. Little additional contact was made with the community, but in 1935 their stability was greatly threatened as the Italian army marched into Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s ruler, Emperor Haile Selassie fled his country and actually took refuge in Jerusalem for a short time. Selassie returned to power in 1941, but the situation for the Beta Israel improved little. In 1947, Ethiopia abstained on the United Nations Partition Plan for the British Mandate of Palestine, which reestablished the State of Israel. By 1955, the non-governmental Jewish Agency of Israel had already begun construction of schools and a teacher’s seminary for the Beta Israel in Ethiopia. In 1956, Ethiopia and Israel established consular relations, which were improved in 1961 when the two countries established full diplomatic ties. Positive relations between Israel and Ethiopia existed until 1973, when, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Ethiopia (and 28 African nations) broke diplomatic relations with Israel under the threat of an Arab oil embargo. Months later, Emperor Selassie’s regime ended in a coup d’etat. Selassie was replaced by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose Marxist-Leninist dictatorship increased the threat to the Beta Israel. During the weeks surrounding Mariam’s coup, an estimated 2,500 Jews were killed and 7,000 became homeless. Soon Mariam instituted a policy of villagization, relocating millions of peasant farmers onto state-run cooperatives which greatly harmed the Beta Israel by forcing them to share their villagesthough they were denied the right to own the landwith non-Jewish farmers, resulting in increased levels of anti-Semitism throughout the Gondar Province. According to the Ethiopian government, over 30% of the population had been moved from privately owned farms to cooperatives as of 1989. After taking office in 1977, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was eager to facilitate the rescue of Ethiopia’s Jews, and so Israel entered into a period of selling arms to the Mariam government in hopes that Ethiopia would allow Jews to leave for Israel. In 1977, Begin asked President Mengistu to allow 200 Ethiopian Jews to leave for Israel aboard an Israeli military jet that had emptied its military cargo and was returning to Israel. Mariam agreed, and that may have been the precursor to the mass exodus of Operation Moses. In the early 1980’s, Ethiopia forbade the practice of Judaism and the teaching of Hebrew. Numerous members of the Beta Israel were imprisoned on fabricated charges of being Zionist spies, and Jewish religious leaders, Kesim,(sing. Kes) were harassed and monitored by the government. The situation remained exceedingly bleak through the early 1980’s. Forced conscription at age 12 took many Jewish boys away from their parents, some never to be heard from again. Additionally, with the constant threat of war, famine, and horrendous health conditions (Ethiopia has one of the world’s worst infant mortality rates and doctor to patient ratios), the Beta Israel’s position became more precarious as time progressed. The government began to slightly soften its treatment of the Jews, however, during the mid-1980’s when terrible famines wreaked havoc on the economy. Ethiopia was forced to ask Western nations for famine relief, including the United States of America and Israel, allowing them both to exert a modicum of pressure for the release of the Beta Israel. Over 8,000 Beta Israel came to Israel between 1977 and 1984. But these efforts pale in comparison with the modern exodus that took place during 1984’s Operation Moses. Under a news blackout for security reasons, Operation Moses began on November 18, 1984, and ended six weeks later on January 5, 1985. In that time, just over 7,000 Jews were rescued and brought to Israel. But the mission was not without problems. Because of news leaks (blamed primarily on a December 6 article in the Washington Jewish Week and full page advertisements placed by the United Jewish Appeal), the mission ended prematurely as Arab nations pressured the Sudanese government to prevent any more Jews from using Sudan to go to Israel. Almost 15,000 Jews were left behind in Ethiopia. Thus, by the end of Operation Moses in January 1985, almost two-thirds of the Beta Israel remained in Ethiopia. They were comprised almost entirely of women, young children, and the sick, since only the strongest members of the community were encouraged to make the harrowing trek to Sudan where the airlift would actually occur. In addition, many young boys were encouraged to make the dangerous trek to freedom due to the low age of conscription, often as young as age twelve. As Babu Yakov, a Beta Israel leader, summed up, Those who could not flee are elderly, sick, and infants. Those least capable of defending themselves are now facing their enemies alone. In 1985, then Vice President George Bush arranged a CIA-sponsored follow-up mission to Operation Moses. Operation Joshua brought an additional 500 Beta Israel from Sudan to Israel. But in the following five years, a virtual stalemate occurred in the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. All efforts on behalf of the Beta Israel fell on the closed ears of the Mariam dictatorship. Meanwhile, those Jews who did escape during Operation Moses were separated from their loved ones while attempting to adjust to Israeli society. The new arrivals spent between six months and two years in absorption centers learning Hebrew, being retrained for Israel’s industrial society, and learning how to live in a modern society (most Ethiopian villages had no running water or electricity). Suicide, all but unheard of in their tukuls in Ethiopia, even claimed a few of the new arrivals due to the anxiety of separation and departure. Over 1,600 orphans of circumstance lived day to day separated from their families, not knowing the fate of their parents, brothers, sisters, and loved ones. The grim prospect of thousands of Jewish children growing up separated from their parents in Israel almost became a reality. Little could be done to persuade the Mariam government to increase the trickle of Jews leaving Ethiopia in the years between Operations Joshua and Solomon. But in November 1990, Ethiopia and Israel reached an agreement that would allow Ethiopian Jews to move to Israel under the context of family reunification. It soon became clear, however, that Mengistu was willing to allow Ethiopian Jews to leave outside of the guise of reunification. November and December, 1990, showed increased numbers of Ethiopians leaving for Israel. The Ethiopian Jews were finally ready to come home. In early 1991, Eritrean and Tigrean rebels began a concerted attack on Mengistu forces, meeting with surprising success for the first time since the civil war began in 1975. With the rebel armies advancing each day, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam fled his country in early May. Rebels claimed control of the capital Addis Ababa shortly thereafter, and the situation of the Beta Israel took top priority in Israel. The Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir authorized a special permit for the Israeli airline, El Al, to fly on the Jewish Sabbath. On Friday, May 24, and continuing non-stop for 36 hours, a total of 34 El Al jumbo jets and Hercules C-130sseats removed to accommodate the maximum number of Ethiopiansbegan a new chapter in the struggle for the freedom of Ethiopian Jewry. Operation Solomon, named for the king from whom one of the theories suggest that the Beta Israel draw their lineage, ended almost as quickly as it began. Timing was crucial, since any delay by Israel could have allowed the rebels to hold the Jews as bargaining chips with Israel or the United States. A total of 14,324 Ethiopian Jews were rescued and resettled in Israel, a modern exodus of the grandest design. Operation Solomon rescued nearly double the number of Jews as were saved during Operation Moses and Joshua, and it did so in a mere fraction of the time. More than 36,000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel and despite both economic and social hardships, their community has an integral part in Israeli society. In 1999, Avraham Yitzhak became the first Ethiopian immigrant to earn an MD degree from an Israeli medical school. In 2011, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed Rachamim Elazar as Israel’s Ambassador to Ethiopia, making him the first Israeli of Ethiopian descent to ever serve as an ambassador for the State of Israel. There are still many problems within the Ethiopian community in Israel – poverty, lack of education, etc – but large strides are being made every day. Because much of the Beta Israel’s history is passed orally from generation to generation, we may never truly know their origins. Four main theories exist concerning the beginnings of the Beta Israel community: 1) The Beta Israel may be the lost Israelite tribe of Dan. 2) They may be descendants of Menelik I, son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. 3) They may be descendants of Ethiopian Christians and pagans who converted to Judaism centuries ago. 4) They may be descendants of Jews who fled Israel for Egypt after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and settled in Ethiopia. Without regard as to which theory may actually be correct (and each theory has its support), the authenticity of the Jewishness of the community became an issue. As early as the 16th century, Egypt’s Chief Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Avi Zimra (Radbaz) declared that in Halachic (Jewish legal) issues, the Beta Israel were indeed Jews. In 1855, Daniel ben Hamdya, a member of the Beta Israel, was the first Ethiopian Jew to visit Israel, meeting with a council of rabbis in Jerusalem concerning the authenticity of the Beta Israel. By 1864, almost all leading Jewish authorities, most notably Rabbi Azriel Hildsheimer of Eisenstadt, Germany, accepted the Beta Israel as true Jews. In 1908 the chief rabbis of forty-five countries had heeded Rabbi Hildsheimer’s call and officially recognized the Beta Israel as fellow Jews. In reaffirming the Radbaz’s position centuries before, Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, stated in 1972, I have come to the conclusion that Falashas are Jews who must be saved from absorption and assimilation. We are obliged to speed up their immigration to Israel and educate them in the spirit of the holy Torah, making them partners in the building of the Holy Land. In 1975, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren wrote to the Beta Israel telling them, You are our brothers, you are our blood and our flesh. You are true Jews. Later that same year the Israeli Interministerial Commission officially recognized the Beta Israel as Jews under Israel’s Law of Return, a law designed to aid in Jewish immigration to Israel. The Beta Israel were ready to come home. Indeed, the Beta Israel were strictly observant in pre-Talmudic Jewish traditions. The women went to the mikvah, or ritual bath, just as observant Jewish women do to this day, and they continue to carry out ancient festivals, such as Seged, that have been passed down through the generations of Beta Israel. The Kesim, or religious leaders, are as widely revered and respected as the great rabbis in each community, passing the Jewish customs through storytelling and maintaining the few Jewish books and Torahs some communities were fortunate enough to have written in the liturgical language of Ge’ez. The struggle to free the Beta Israel was not fought solely against the Ethiopian government. Much like some timid Jewish leaders during the Holocaust, some recent Jews sought to prevent a shanda fur de goyim (an embarrassment in front of the non-Jews) by not stirring up waves over Ethiopian Jewry. The history of the Beta Israel’s rescue is at times open to debate regarding the heroes of the Ethiopian Jewry movement. As with many struggles to free oppressed Jewry around the world, many advocated and vocalized opposition to those responsible for the lack of action on their behalf. Others, however, argued for a more quiet diplomacy, void of the public demonstrations and arrests that marked the struggle for Soviet Jewry. Though over 8,000 Beta Israel managed to flee to Israel during his tenure, it was an Israeli official in charge of the Ethiopian Jews’ absorption who may best symbolize the insensitivity that an extreme minority of people once held. Yehuda Dominitz who served as Director General of the Jewish Agency’s Department of Immigration and Absorption, declared in 1980 that, [taking] a Falasha (sic) out of his village, it’s like taking a fish out of water…I’m not in favor of bringing them [to Israel]. Dominitz also refused to allow his agency to rent buses so Ethiopian Jews in Israel could travel to Jerusalem to observe their ancient holiday of Seged (Dominitz eventually relented, but had the buses take the Beta Israel to Haifa instead of Jerusalem). Malkah Raymist, a writer for the World Zionist Organization, wrote in 1956 in The Jewish Horizon (of the Hapoel Hamizrachi of America Movement) that, the reasons [for not bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel] are simple and weighty. On one hand, they are well off where they are, while their development and mental outlook is that of children; they could fall an easy prey of exploitation, if brought here without any preparation. On the other hand, being a backward element, they would be and it would take several years before they could be educated towards a minimum of progressive thinking. In an American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) press release, the AAEJ quoted its founder, Dr. Graenum Berger, as criticizing those who sought any delay in the rescue of the Beta Israel. Berger declared, Not when Jews are dying…these revelations show once again that the policy of influencing factions of the government of Israel always have been against the immigration of the Ethiopian Jews. And, the same people who controlled their immigration then are controlling it now. These are the same people who gave instructions to the Israeli Embassy in Ethiopia (1956-1973) not to issue immigration visas to any Jew from Ethiopia. Berger himself came under criticism for his outspoken remarks concerning the Israeli efforts to rescue the Beta Israel, showing that nobody was immune from the rhetoric surrounding the issue. In December 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to bring to the Jewish State the few thousands Jews remaining in the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia. Nicknamed Operation Dove’s Wings, the plan sought to fly a few hundred each month to Israel. The first flight brough 240 new Ethiopian immigrants. In July 2012, the government decided to increase the rate of aliyah from Ethiopia to 160 per month over the proceeding 10 months. In August 2013, the final two flights of Operation Dove’s Wings arrived in Israel with 450 immigrants. In a ceremony held at Ben-Gurion Airport, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said: “We are closing a 3,000-year-old circle.” To mark the occasion, Prime Minister Netanyahu released a statement saying, “I am proud that as Prime Minister, beginning in my first term, I upheld the Zionist and Jewish imperative of bringing to Israel our brothers and sisters from Ethiopia. I see this as a moral obligation.” More than 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, 92,000 of whom have been brought into the country. The Israeli government approved the entry of the last group of Ethiopian Jews in November 2015, aiming to finish what was started by Operation Moses 30 years prior. This announcement comes two years after Israeli government officials claimed that no Jews remained in Ethiopia. There have been several supposedly last groups of Ethiopian Jews that have made aliyah to Israel, with the most recent group of 450 arriving in Israel in 2013. It is estimated that this proposal approved the entry into Israel of approximately 9,100 Ethiopian Jews, most of whom were at the time living in refugee camps in Adis Ababa and Gondar. Sources: Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ). Written by the staff of PRIMER – Promoting Research in the Middle East Region; Israel Hayom (August 29, 2013); Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Israel approves ‘last’ round of Ethiopian immigration, Al Arabiya (November 15, 2015)

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June 10, 2016   Posted in: Ethiopian Jews  Comments Closed

Friends of Ethiopian Jews

Friends of Ethiopian Jews, Inc. (FEJ) supports grassroots Ethiopian-Israeli organizations working to create full integration and successful absorption in Israel for the Ethiopian Jewish community. FEJ was founded in 1998 by members of theAmerican Association for Ethiopian Jews(AAEJ) and other veteran activists dedicated to assisting the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. Through supporting programs and projects led by Ethiopian-Israelis themselves, FEJ strives to empower the community, to help improve opportunities for Ethiopian-Israelis and to help create a just society in Israel overall. FEJ supports organizations that are effective, well-managed grassroots groups, which are achieving measurable, successful results. Today, FEJ helps sixEthiopian-Israeli groups, and welcomes donations on behalf of these outstanding organizations: Friends by Nature Community EmpowermentFriends by Nature (FBN)Community Empowerment is a non-profit Israeli organization that was established in 2005 by a diverse group of Ethiopian-Israelis and veteran Israelis, secular and religious..Read More Olim Beyahad Or Bandelay Woodelay (in Amharic), or Rising Together (in English) integrates members of the Ethiopian Israeli community as a normative and important part of Israeli life in the areas of employment, residence, education, and social life. ..Read More Tech-Career Computer Training for Ethiopian-Israelis For over 25 years, Ethiopian-Israelis have been attempting to break out of the harsh socio-economic reality in which they live and integrate into Israeli society. According to the latest ..Read More Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ) The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ),directed and run by Ethiopians, is a unique advocacy organization and formidable voice for, and defender of, the Ethiopian community in..Read More Tebeka Advocacy for Equality & Justice for Ethiopian-Israeli.TEBEKA, (Amharic for Advocate of Justice), is the legal aid organization serving Israels 120,000-member Ethiopian-Israeli community. It was founded in 2000 by Itzik Dessie, the first ..Read More

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June 10, 2016   Posted in: Ethiopian Jews  Comments Closed


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