Ethiopian Jews, rich past, rich future

Date: 
Sun, 1769-09-24

*This date, The Registry honors Ethiopian Jews. Ethiopian Jews or Beta Israel are a Black African ethnic group from northwestern Ethiopia who practice Judaism.

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. Since the 1980s the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews have migrated to Israel. Outsiders have often referred to the Ethiopian Jews as Falasha, meaning "moved" or "gone into exile" in the ancient Ge'ez language. Today their community considers the term derogatory and prefers instead Beta Israel, a Hebrew term for "House of Israel."

Although the origins of Judaism in Ethiopia remain a mystery, it is likely that the community's roots extend 2500 years. Some Beta Israel believes that they are descendants of Menelik, according to legend, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Others believe the Beta Israel to be the tribe of Dan, one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Still others trace the group's history to the biblical parting of the Red Sea, holding that the Jews of Ethiopia were those who did not cross in time and thus escaped from Egypt by heading south. Some scholars have suggested that the Beta Israel are the descendants of a group converted by Jews from southern Arabia (present-day Yemen) roughly 2001 years ago speaking Agaw (a Cushitic language).

When the kingdom of Aksum adopted Christianity as its official religion during the fourth century C.E., the Beta Israel was forced to relocate to the mountainous region around Lake Tana. Over the centuries the Beta Israel, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, ruled a powerful state in what is today Ethiopia. Beginning around 1400, however, the Dynasty of Solomon’s Ethiopia gradually subdued this Jewish people. During the seventeenth century the Ethiopian emperor finally defeated the Jewish state and seized their land. Most Beta Israel gradually gave up their Agaw language and adopted the Tigrinya or Amhara language of their neighbors. The situation of the Beta Israel worsened toward the end of the nineteenth century. By 1900 only 60,000 to 70,000 remained; the rest had fallen victim to famine or disease or been forcibly converted to Christianity.

In 1923 Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch, a Polish-born Jew, took up their cause. He put the Beta Israel in contact with Jewish communities around the world, opened a school for them in Addis Ababa, and sent several to Jewish schools in Europe. Although Faitlovitch's activity came to a halt during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, for the first time in modern history the Beta Israel had some contact with other Jews. Since Ethiopia's liberation in 1941 the Jews in Ethiopia have theoretically had equal rights under the law. Yet their community continued to face persecution and discrimination and, along with many other Ethiopian groups, suffered a greatly under the repressive regime of Haile Mariam Mengistu.

Religiously, the Beta Israel have always identified themselves as exiles from the land of Israel and as believers in the faith of Moses. For almost 2000 years they were completely isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. They never learned of the Talmud, the codification of Judaism's oral law, or of any of the post-biblical traditions, such as the holiday of Hanukkah. So isolated were they from the rest of the Jewish world that many did not know that other Jews still existed, nor that the many of them were white. The religious life of the Beta Israel is based on the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and its oral interpretations as passed down from generation to generation, and the community's own holy writings.

Some Beta Israel customs are comparable to Jewish practices based on oral law and rabbinical literature; others resemble ancient customs practiced by Jews during the biblical and Talmudic periods. Beta Israel villages, usually set apart from neighboring Christian villages, were always situated near a body of water for ritual purposes of immersion and purification. Religious life revolved around the synagogue (mesgid or beit makdas).

Their community has always kept strictly to the kosher diet and has observed the Saturday Sabbath as a day of rest. The Beta Israel celebrates all the festivals mentioned in the Torah in addition to those of their own tradition. The timing of holidays is determined by a religious lunar calendar exclusive to the Beta Israel. A traditional priesthood (the Kohanim) has led the community's religious life, and the priesthood has gained increasing importance during the upheavals of the twentieth century as the repository of the group's traditions. Because the Beta Israel have transmitted rituals orally, the expertise of the priests has been a critical element in maintaining the liturgical cycle.

Before 1977 all but a handful of Beta Israel lived in Ethiopia. In 1984 and 1991, however, the Israeli government arranged two dramatic airlifts (Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, respectively) to bring thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Today more than 60,000 Beta Israel live in the state of Israel, while only a few thousand remain in Ethiopia, concentrated in the capital of Addis Ababa. The migration to Israel brought difficulties for the Ethiopian community. The abrupt move from the rural villages of Ethiopia to the very white, Westernized, and mostly urban society of Israel proved an extreme and disorienting transition for many. Before coming to Israel few Beta Israel knew any Hebrew. Even their Bible is written in Ge'ez, a precursor to the modern languages of north-central Ethiopia, Amharic and Tigrinya.

While free from the religious persecution they faced in Ethiopia, the Beta Israel now faces racism and a daily struggle for integration in Israel. This struggle was exacerbated in January 1997, when it was discovered that the Israeli government was automatically discarding blood donated by Ethiopian Jews out of a fear of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The discovery of this racist policy led to a protest by more than 15,000 Ethiopian Jews in Jerusalem and drew widespread publicity. Most Ethiopian Jews in Israel currently live in very poor segregated towns, with unemployment running well above the national average. More surprisingly, the Beta Israel has faced constant challenges to the authenticity of their Jewishness.

On the more positive side, the community enjoys greater educational opportunities than ever before in its history, and several hundred Ethiopian Jews are enrolled in colleges and graduate programs in Israel. Also organizations such as the North American conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) are serving the many barriers and issues unique to the dilemma they still endure.

Education remains the main way to improve the social and economic status of Ethiopian Jews. Ethiopian students face a number of obstacles in the Israeli educational system, and as a result, increasing numbers of frustrated Ethiopian youth are dropping out of school. This perpetuates the poverty cycle. The dropout problem continues to be a plague. The latest statistics from Ha'aretz, 1997 estimated that between 1,800 and 2,000 teenagers have dropped out of school. This represents about 15% of the student population.

Juvenile delinquency is growing even among children as young as 8 or 9 years old. A woman who runs a program in Beersheva to help children in elementary school said that children are remaining at the malls until all hours. Discarding school on a semi-regular basis is growing and often young people are getting involved in petty crime. She described this as a pattern that is spreading and involved 300 children under the age of 14 in Beersheva alone. There are also Ethiopian youth gangs in many of the cities where there is a concentration of immigrants such as Rehovot, Rishon LeZion, Netanya, Beer Sheva, Hadera etc., as well as in Tel Aviv. In neighborhoods with a high concentration of Ethiopian immigrants, they have encountered Israeli criminals actively recruiting Ethiopian youths into drug sales and other criminal activities.

However officials at the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that helps the immigrants, stress the positive: There are 1,500 Ethiopians in universities or colleges, compared with just 100 five years ago. Also they, government ministries, and Jewish communities’ abroad plan to come together for a $600 million nine-year program of job training and improving education for Ethiopian immigrants.

An equally strong ray of light is the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), founded in 1993 as an independent advocacy group. It works with hundreds of young activists from all over Israel and, funded mostly by American Jews, lobbies Israeli politicians. Members of the organization say it has enabled thousands of students to study in academic rather than vocational programs. It has also been instrumental in a rise in the number of Ethiopians who pass their high school matriculation exams.

One IAEJ program tackled truancy by forging contacts between Ethiopian dropouts and "big brothers and sisters." The program was adopted and expanded by the Education Ministry as a way of reaching all children at risk, and now has 15 offices across Israel. In 1999 the last remaining group of some 2,300, from the Quara area of Ethiopia, was flown to Israel. Three years ago the population of Jews of Ethiopian origin living in Israel was about 74,000.

Reference:
Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews
28 Pierre Koenig Street, 2nd Floor
Jerusalem 93169 Israel
Phone: 972-2-678-9673

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