Ethiopian Jews emerged into the full glare of the modern world in 1984, after centuries of isolation. They arrived in Israel in droves under Operation Moses. However, despite their rapturous ‘welcome home’, it has not all been plain sailing.
There are many theories about the origins of Ethiopian Jews, who prefer to be called Beta Yisrael. Many of them say they descend from the Tribe of Dan, which emigrated southwards from Egypt in the 5th century B.C.E. Another legend purports they come from Menelik, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, although Amharic Christian Ethiopians claim the same origin.
Western ethnologists surmise that the Jews of Gondar either emerged from a Judaizing strain amongst Ethiopian Christians, or were converted by Yemeni Jews who crossed the Red Sea.
Up to 500,000 of the Beta Yisrael governed areas of north Ethiopia from the 7th century, under rulers like Queen Yahudit. In 1624 Portuguese-backed Christian Ethiopians defeated them. Since then they have faced persecution and were called Falashas, meaning ‘strangers’. The 19th century Jewish traveller Faitlovitch wrote about them, and in 1955 the Jewish Agency built schools and a seminary for them in Ethiopia.
Beta Yisraelim differ from other Jews in several respects. They pray in Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopic language, rather than in Hebrew. They also maintain forms of monasticism, which died out elsewhere in Essene times (2nd century B.C.E to 2nd century C.E.). For historical reasons they have no knowledge of the Talmud, or festivals like Purim and Chanukah. They also have unique festivals like Seged and women’s Rosh Chodesh (new moon) celebrations.
The Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadiah Yosef, recognised Beta Yisraelim as Jews in 1972. Some managed to immigrate, but famine and civil war in the 1980s prompted Israel’s dramatic rescue operations that were named after Moses and Solomon.
Up to 70,000 Beta Yisraelim now live in Israel. Since 1991, thanks to agencies like JAFI (Jewish Agency for Israel) and the JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), many families have been reunited after living apart for years. Ethiopian Jews have bridged huge cultural gaps to serve in the Israeli army and excel at universities. One Ethiopian Jew, Adissu Messala, became a member of Knesset, the parliament of Israel.
Still, Ethiopian Jewish traditional kessim (religious leaders) resent being bypassed by Israel’s religious establishment. The Beta Yisrael feel Jewish and thus see ‘ritual conversions’ as demeaning. In 1996, Ethiopian blood donations were discarded due to fears of AIDS. This exacerbated tensions and led to accusations of racism.
Thousands of Jews from Quara in Ethiopia came to Israel in 1999. Meanwhile, thousands more Beta Yisraelim, who had converted to Christianity years ago, clamoured to go on aliyah (immigration to Israel). Called Falashmura, they wished to return to Judaism. Some 65% of these people have relatives in Israel.
Since their arrival in Israel, Ethiopian Jews have been met with great generosity, but also veiled racism in the form of denouncing their traditions, language and ‘folk religion’. At the beginning of the 21st Century, there is still much conjecture as to their future.