Beta Israel – The History of Ethiopian Jewry

Jewish community in Ethiopia — the 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.

Origins of the Community

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.

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 king’s 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.

Religious Life

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 community’s 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 community’s 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).

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.

Missionaries and Trying Times

At the time of Halevy’s 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 Israel’s clergy could not compete. By providing schools and Bibles written in the local language, Amharic, the missionaries challenged the community’s practice and faith.

On a number of occasions the Beta Israel’s 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.

The World Jewish Community

Halevy’s 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.”

Faitlovich’s 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 Faitlovitch’s 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.

The Plight of Ethiopian Jews

Jews have lived in Ethiopia for over 2000 years. According to Ethiopian tradition, one-half of the population was Jewish before Christianity was proclaimed the official religion in the 4th century. The Jews maintained their independence for over 1000 years in spite of continuous massacres, religious persecution, enslavement, and forced conversions.

With the help of modern Portuguese weapons, the Amhara finally conquered the Jews in 1616, enslaving, converting, and killing them. Known as “Falashas” – a derogatory name meaning “stranger” or “exile” – Ethiopian Jews could no longer own land or be educated. Today Jews number only 25,000, less than 1 % of the population. Eighty-five percent live in Gondar Province, in the Semien Mountains near Lake Tana; the rest live in Tigre and Wollo Provinces.

Ethiopian Jews are Biblical, pre-Rabbinic Jews. They have the Torah (Written Law) but not the Talmud (Oral Law). Their language is not Hebrew, but Ge’ez. Their leaders are priests (kohanim) rather than rabbis. They have no knowledge or post-Biblical Jewish holidays such as Chanukah or Purim, or post-Biblical interpretations of the Law, e.g., the prohibition against mixing meat and milk. Until recently Ethiopian Jews practiced animal sacrifice, and ritual purification through immersion in water. Otherwise their religion is the same as Judaism throughout the world, including observance of the Sabbath and Biblical dietary laws. They are religious Zionists – i.e., they dream of a return to Zion. They call themselves Beta Israel (House of Israel), and have wanted to live in the modern state of Israel since its establishment in 1948.

Ethiopian Coptic Christianity incorporates an unusually large number of Judaic practices, including male circumcision, kosher dietary laws, and the Sabbath (which Christians observe on Saturday as well as Sunday). Christian emperors wore the Star of David on their crown, and Haile Selassie, the last of these emperors, was known as “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God.”

The incorporation of Jewish practices into Coptic Christianity has not benefitted Ethiopian Jews but, rather, has given rise to a great deal of hostility. The Kebra Nagast (Glory of Kings), the religious and national epic dating from the 14th century, illustrates Ethiopian Christianity’s attitude toward Jews. It states that Ethiopia was chosen as Zion by God, because the Jews are “unworthy,” “wicked,” “Christ-killers,” “enemies of God,” and will therefore be exterminated. The Christians view the Jews, whose landlessness has forced them to work as potters and blacksmiths, as possessed by buda, a satanic occult power. This power, many Christians still believe, enables the Jews to turn into hyenas at night, possess young women, eat corpses or turn them into animals, prey on children, kill cattle, and turn people into donkeys to enslave them. Jews are often blamed for causing hunger, crop failure, blindness, insanity, illness, and death.

Missionaries helped to promote this idea of the evil Jew who torments Christians. Jesuits, arriving in 1541 with the Portuguese, wanted to convert Jews to Roman Catholicism, but they were banished in the 17th century. No other missionaries came until the mid-19th century, the height of the Protestants’ conversion campaign. Shortly after the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews opened a missionary school, Jews tried to leave the country en masse, but many died from starvation, malaria, and beatings. Even after the missionaries were imprisoned and expelled, converted Jews continued to preach as lay teachers, and after World War II Haile Selassie welcomed back the exiled Protestant missionaries. To this day Ethiopian Jews are wary of strangers, and converts are ostracized.

Today, besides the 25,000 Jews known as Oritawi (Torah-true), there may be as many as 50,000 Maryam Wodet (Lovers of Mary) – Jews who, like the Marranos of Spain, converted to Christianity but secretly practice Judaism. Their main motive for converting was to gain land and to lose the stigma attached to being Jewish. But although they change their names and avoid smithing and pottery, they do not always pass for Christians; converts are seen as baptized Jews.

The Marxist government expelled missionaries in 1977. Although the government sees all religion as an enemy of the state, it could not successfully prohibit it. Christianity and Islam became official religions, and district representatives have held compulsory seminars dwelling on the evils of “non-traditional,” illegal religions – i.e., Judaism and animism.

Under the new government’s land redistribution policy, Jews are allowed to own land. However, the peasant associations in charge of distribution gave poor-quality land to Jews, and many are still without any land. Landlords continued to demand rent payments (50 % of the crop) even after land reform, and when Jews went to court their cases were thrown out.

Jews have been scapegoats of both the right and the left. On the right, an anti-Marxist former landowners’ group, the Ethiopian Democratic Union, went on a rampage against the Jews in 1978, cutting children’s feet off, bludgeoning babies, castrating men, raping women, torturing old people, and selling women and children into slavery. On the left, the Marxist-Leninist Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party has also attacked Jews as having “narrow nationalist” interests that are not acceptable in a modern (i.e. Amhara-dominated) state.

Jews have been persecuted by the government as well. In 1981, Major Melaku, member of the central ruling party and governor of Gondar Province, confiscated religious books, closed the synagogues and schools, imprisoned and tortured Hebrew teachers and religious leaders for teaching “Zionist propaganda,” made it hard for Jews to travel in the country, and closed the market except on Saturdays – thus forcing Jews, who will not work or travel on the Sabbath, to hire Moslem middlemen who take most of the profits. Today no Jewish education or religious practices are allowed.

The government’s policy against emigration is more stringently applied to the Jews because of the current regime’s anti-Zionism. Allowing Ethiopian Jews to emigrate is viewed as indirect aid to Israel. Jews are arrested when they try to escape, and when a person does get out, others are arrested to obtain information. Once imprisoned, they are often tortured – hung, beaten, forced to walk on broken glass. According to an Ethiopian Jew who recently spoke in Boston, conditions are deteriorating.

In spite of this, many Jews have managed to escape to neighboring Arab countries where Jewish refugees are frequently harassed, arrested, tortured, killed, or kidnapped into slavery. As a result, many refugees pretend to be Christians. Others try to make it on their own, living outside refugee camps in a land where they do not know the language, culture, or religion. Approximately 3000 Jews are now in these refugee camps, and some visitors to the camps indicate that their situation is even more urgent than that of Jews who remain in Ethiopia.

Prior to 1975, Ethiopian Jews were not allowed to immigrate to Israel, although some were brought in to learn Hebrew in order to teach in Ethiopia. Others gained entry by disguising themselves as Christian pilgrims. In 1975, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi followed the Sephardic Chief Rabbi’s 1973 declaration that the Beta Israel are indeed Jews, and they were granted automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. Despite this declaration, little was done to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Since 1980 this situation has been changing. Public awareness of Black Jews has increased, and the Begin government has made great strides in helping Ethiopian Jews resettle in Israel.

Over 3000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel. Upon arrival they are given medical treatment, as most suffer from eye, respiratory, or internal illnesses. They are taken by bus to an integration center where they remain for 12-18 months (other immigrants remain only six months at these centers), and are given free housing, health care, utilities, and a stipend.

For the first two weeks they are left alone with earlier arrivals from Ethiopia. They then begin an intensive course in Hebrew, and three or four newcomers are assigned to an Israeli who lives nearby and who will spend six to eight hours a day with them. Most Ethiopian Jews have never seen or used a bed, a cupboard, a gas stove, electricity, water faucets, or a toothbrush. Ninety-five percent are illiterate. They must learn how to hold a pencil, how to use canned goods, how to shop and use a bank if they are to adapt to life in Israel.

Ethiopian immigrants have adapted quickly to Israeli society: Many are studying at universities, or working as nurses, electronic technicians, farmers, and computer scientists. At the same time, they are trying to maintain their own cultural identity within Israeli society, making and selling their crafts, singing Ethiopian songs, and putting together an art exhibit – encouraged and aided by Israeli social workers. The World Zionist Organization is planning to establish a moshav (cooperative settlement) for Ethiopian Jews within the next two years.

Several groups have been formed in Israel and in North America to help Ethiopian Jews, including the Union for Saving Ethiopian Jewish Families (Israel), the Canadian Association for Ethiopian Jews, the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, and the Ethiopian Jewry Committee of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston.

In August 1982 the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs heard testimony on the status of Ethiopian Jews, and in April 1983 Reps. Stephen Solarz and Barney Frank sponsored a bill (H. Con. Res. 107) calling upon the U.S. government to express concern to “relevant foreign governments” and to seek ways to help Ethiopian Jews emigrate. On 19 July 1983 Paul Tsongas introduced a Senate version of the same bill (S. Con. Res. 55).

Ethiopian authorities have shown they are alert to public opinion, so Americans should write to their Representatives and Senators urging them to support these bills. The 1983 State Dept. Report on Human Rights Practices says, “In the religious and cultural areas, Falashas are worse off since mid-1981 than other ethnic groups in the Gondar Province.” Ethiopian Jews constitute the most threatened Jewish community in the world.

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