BETA ISRAEL , ethno-religious group in Ethiopia which claims to be of Jewish origin and which is attached to a form of the Jewish religion based on the Bible, certain books of the Apocrypha, and other post-biblical Scripture; living in the provinces surrounding and to the north of Lake Tana and now in Israel. The Beta Israel, as the group calls itself, were known until recently by others as the Falashas, a term regarded by the group as one of contempt.
Although Beta Israel have long fascinated scholars, many features of their history remain little known and inadequately studied. This article seeks to present a survey of the political history of the Beta Israel from earliest time. It seeks to reveal the dynamic character of Beta Israel society and the manner in which patterns of leadership changed throughout the group's recorded history. Special attention is given to the competing claims concerning different types of leadership: secular/religious; traditional/modernizing; externally/internally selected.
Early History and Legends
Given the dearth of reliable historical material concerning the earliest Jews in and Jewish influences on Ethiopia, it is virtually impossible to offer any detailed analysis of their political structure. Nevertheless, a number of tentative generalizations can be offered which shed some light on the character of their communal organization. On the basis of the available evidence it does not appear likely that the earliest Jews entered Ethiopia in a single united group. It seems far more probable that they arrived in the country in small groups alongside other non-Jewish merchants, settlers, soldiers, etc. In a similar fashion, since Judaized elements could have entered Ethiopia from Arabia at any time from the 1st to the 6th century, there appears to be no reason to confine the entry of Jewish elements to a single brief period. Finally, the widespread impact of Jewish practices and influences on Ethiopian culture is only understandable if we assume that the Jewish immigrants did not live in isolation from their neighbors.
While a number of scholars have claimed that the introduction of Christianity to Ethiopia in the 4th country led to the persecution of local Jews, there is no direct evidence to support this.
In fact, it appears unlikely that the earliest Christian emperors had either the political mandate or the religious zeal to pursue such a policy. A strong possibility does exist, however, that the 6th-century Ethiopian emperor Kaleb, who sent troops to punish the Judaized Arabian ruler *Yusuf Dhu Nuwas, may also have taken action against the Jews of the Aksumite (Ethiopian) kingdom. It is most interesting to note that during his reign we hear for the first time of the Semien region (later a Beta Israel stronghold) as "that country [to which] the King of the Aksumites exiles anyone whom he has sentenced to be banished."
None of the sources on the period between the 6th and 13th centuries is of sufficient historicity to permit anything more than the most tentative of conclusions. This is particularly the case with regard to the legendary "Beta Israel queen" Judith (Gudit). While Bruce and Rathjens treated stories concerning this ruler with considerable enthusiasm, Conti Rossini and Ullendorff have more soberly concluded that they "possess no basis in historical fact." Even if the existence of a medieval queen is conceded, there is little evidence that she was a Jewess, much less a Beta Israel. Certainly, no Jewish dynasty ruled Ethiopia in this period. In the Hebrew sources for this period, neither *Eldad ha-Dani nor *Benjamin of Tudela appears to possess any first-hand knowledge concerning Ethiopia. Clearly we must wait for the "Early Solomonic" period in Ethiopian history (from 1270 onward) before we encounter any truly reliable sources on the Beta Israel polity.
war and adaptation
1270–1632 The year 1270 marks a turning point in Ethiopian history. In that year a new dynasty which traced its descent to King Solomon and to the ancient Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum came to power. Once these "Solomonic" Kings had consolidated their rule in the traditionally Christian areas of Ethiopia, they set out to impose their hegemony on all of the independent peoples of the Ethiopian highlands. Beginning with the reign of Amda Siyon (1314–1344) almost all these kings were to a greater or lesser extent concerned with the political subjugation of the Judaized population in the regions of Semien, Woggara, and Dambiya. In the middle of the 16th century, after the Ethiopian Christians had (with Portuguese assistance) successfully repulsed a major Muslim invasion, they turned their full attention to the Beta Israel. King Minas (r. 1559–1563) and his son Sarsa Dengel (r. 1563–1597) fought major battles against the Beta Israel and inflicted heavy losses upon them. Hostilities were renewed in the reign of Susenyos (1607–1632) and under his leadership the Ethiopian army totally defeated the Beta Israel who were led by their ruler Gideon. This defeat marked the end of Beta Israel independence.
a beta israel kingdom
Although it has for many years been claimed that an independent "Beta Israel" kingdom existed in Ethiopia during this period, and the Beta Israel themselves claim to have been ruled by a long line of kings, these contentions should not be accepted without careful scrutiny. There is little support in the contemporary primary sources for the idea that the Beta Israel were united into a single political framework earlier than the 16th century. As was noted above, none of the sources from the period prior to the 14th century is of sufficient historicity for firm conclusions to be drawn. Nor is there any evidence for the existence of a unified Jewish kingdom in the 14th and 15th century reports. Judaized groups are invariably referred to in the contemporary hagiographic texts and chronicles by the region they inhabited. Their rulers are depicted as local governors, members of the regional nobility. Thus we read of people "like Jews" in Semien, Wagara, Salamt, and Sagade," of "sons of Jews" in Enfraz; of the governor of Semien and Cambiya, etc. Even James Bruce, who perhaps more than any other writer deserves credit for popularizing the exploits of the Jewish "kings" of Ethiopia, makes no mention of a monarchy in this period. It is therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that in the 14th and 15th centuries the Beta Israel were politically divided and geographically dispersed.
The recognition of this reality has several important consequences for the interpretation of Beta Israel history. Firstly, it serves as a caution against attempts to artificially impose unity on the sources by treating scattered events in specific regions as if they affected all Beta Israel. The Christian Emperor Yeshaq's (r. 1413–1430) victory over the Beta Israel governor of Semien and Dambiya was not, for example, a defeat for all Beta Israel. Some were allies of the Emperor and benefited from his victory. In a similar fashion, the reported conversion to Christianity of much of the population of Salamt province by the 15th-century Christian missionary St. Takla Hawaryat must be evaluated in its proper geographic context. His successes in that region left the population of Semien at least temporarily untouched.
A recognition of the decentralized character of Beta Israel society during this period is also of crucial importance to the proper understanding of the dynamics of Beta Israel political history. If one accepts the existence of an ancient Beta Israel kingdom with its origins shrouded in the undocumented past, the rest of Beta Israel history appears almost automatically to be little more than an account of their decline from this mythical peak. In fact, the story is much more complex. According to the extant sources, a centralized relatively unified political organization existed among the Beta Israel only from the 16th and early 17th centuries. The effective military-political structure described in Ethiopian royal chronicles of this period was not, therefore, an aboriginal characteristic of Beta Israel society. Rather it developed relatively late, probably in response to the external threat posed by the Christian empire. Their history is not accordingly a story of continuous and unremitting decline but rather a gradual process of consolidation and unification followed by a series of catastrophic defeats.
Even when applied solely to the period of the 16th and 17th century the term Beta Israel kingdom should not be applied too casually. Even those later sources which portray a far more centralized polity than existed in earlier periods are far from unanimous as to the precise character of the group's political structure. It is, for example, of interest to note that while many medieval Hebrew sources (none of them eyewitness accounts) accept the existence of a kingdom as axiomatic, the first-hand reports of Ethiopian, Portuguese, and Muslim observers are far more restrained. The claim put forward in the Chronicle of Emperor Sarsa Dengal that the 16th-century Beta Israel leader Radai lived from his own labor ("he was a tiller of the soil, who ate his bread by the sweat of his brow"; cf. Gen. 3:19) is difficult to reconcile with the idea of a fully developed monarchy.
Nor should James Bruce's detailed reports on the Jewish kings be accepted uncritically. Bruce, it must be remembered, visited Ethiopia almost a century and a half after Susenyos' victory over the Beta Israel. He was, therefore, at least in this case, a recorder of traditions and not an eyewitness. In addition, his claim that a Beta Israel king and queen still ruled at the time of his visit scarcely enhances his credibility8.
the rise of monasticism
The gradual evolution of a more centralized political structure was only one of the responses engendered by the Christian threat to the Beta Israel. During the same period a major revolution took place within the structure of Beta Israel religious life. A new form of religious leadership began to emerge. Faced with increasing political and military pressure from the Christian Ethiopian emperors, the Beta Israel adopted the Christian institution of monasticism as a means of consolidating and developing their unique communal identity. Beginning with Abba Sabra and Sega Amlak, who lived in the 15th century and are credited with founding Beta Israel monasticism, monks played a vital role among the Jews in Ethiopia.
According to Beta Israel traditions, the introduction of monasticism was accompanied by a number of other religious innovations including the introduction of new religious literature, the composition of prayers, and the adoption of important laws of ritual segregation and purity. The Beta Israel monks can thus be justly claimed to have been the chief carriers of their people's distinctive religious heritage. It appears probable that it was they who provided the ideological basis for the creation of a unified political structure among their people. Just how successful the monks were in assuming a central position in Beta Israel society is evidenced not only by the fact that they survived the demise of the autonomous political leaders but also by the fact that nearly all the figures commemorated by the Beta Israel as holy men at various holy places in Ethiopia were monks.
Any doubts one might have with regard to the finality of the Beta Israel's defeat at the hands of Susenyos are resolved by the decision of his son Fasiledes (1632–67) to build his capital at Gondar near the heart of Beta Israel territory. The site would only have been chosen after the local people had been totally subdued. According to both Christian and Jewish traditions, Beta Israel soldiers and artisans were speedily incorporated into the military and economic life of Christian Ethiopia. Although the Beta Israel no longer ruled themselves, the Gondarine period (1632–1769) is remembered as a period when the "(Beta) Israel lived in peace and welfare." Beginning in 1769, however, Ethiopia was plunged into an extended period of conflict and internal struggle. Known as the Zemane Masafent (the era of the princes or judges), because it resembled the period of the Old Testament judges when "there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his eyes," this period brought fresh sorrows to the Beta Israel. During a period of almost 100 years (1769–1855) Ethiopia lacked effective imperial rule and local rulers vied with each other for supremacy. The Beta Israel, whose well-being was largely dependent upon royal patronage and protection, suffered accordingly. Their decline from independence to imperial appointees to despised artisans is clearly visible in their changing patterns of leadership.
azmach and bejerond
Following their loss of independence in the 17th century, the structure of Beta Israel political leadership underwent a dramatic change. Autonomous rulers no longer exercised control over the community or the regions in which the Beta Israel lived. Political power passed into the hands of royal-appointed governors, none of whom was chosen by virtue of their traditional roles among their own people. Rather they acquired land and titles through their ability to render services to the Christian Emperors who resided in Gondar. The principal secular leaders of the Beta Israel became those who were recognized as such by the dominant society, rather than those related to their own previous ruling families. A new elite of soldiers, masons, and carpenters emerged.
The Beta Israel leaders of the Gondarine period are remembered as having held two titles: azmach (commander) and bejerond (treasurer). The former, which was the higher of the two ranks, was used to refer to military leaders and local officals. The latter appears to have had connections with tax collection, although as applied to the Beta Israel it seems to have referred primarily to the "chief of the workers" – especially potters, carpenters, masons, and blacksmiths. While the azmach might exercise leadership over a heterogeneous community, the bejerond's authority was confined to the Beta Israel. One informant stated, "The azmach was government administrator for many people, but the bejerond was only concerned with the Beta Israel."
One of the clearest indications of the deterioration of the status of the Beta Israel in the late 18th and 19th century is the gradual disappearance of the azmach. In the Gondarine period Beta Israel were appointed both azmach and bejerond, by mid-19th century those few Beta Israel who had any titles at all were exclusively bejerond. As James Quirin has noted, this transition was symptomatic of their social-political decline and increasing identification as a low-status artisan group.
One immediate consequence of the Beta Israel's loss of autonomy was a return to the decentralized pattern of communal organization which had characterized their political structure prior to the 16th and 17th century. While it may be convenient to continue to speak of the Beta Israel "community," no evidence exists for the survival of formal centralized communal institutions. Rather a large number of scattered communities existed with informal economic, political, marital, and religious ties. Halévy observed when he visited Ethiopia in 1867, "Chaque commune est autonomie et indépendante. C'est seulement dans les cas òu un grand danger menace la religion qu'on se reunit, afin de repousser l'ennemie commun" (J. Halevy, in: Bulletin de l'Alliance israélite universelle (1868), 95).
The Beta Israel's lack of autonomy and of an effective political-military leadership also resulted in a sharp decline in the communities' coercive power. Abba Yeshaq, one of the Beta Israel's outstanding religious leaders of the 19th century, told the French explorer Antoine d'Abbadie that originally the Beta Israel would stone to death any member of the community who ate leavened products on Passover. Following their loss of independence, however, they were compelled to change the punishment. "Mais aujourd'hui, comme on n'a pas de roi juif, on se contente d'infliger une pénitence qui est le don d'une chèvre d'un an."
Abba Yeshaq's words serve as a reminder that however great the authority of the Beta Israel clergy, neither they nor any other group in post-independence Beta Israel society had the power to enforce its will upon the population. On the whole, the means of coercion in their hands were largely limited to steps such as ostracism, which depended upon the support of community opinion. As Halévy wrote, "Chaque province, chaque ville se soumet volontairement à la decision de son prêtre et de ses debteras."
At the heart of the daily functioning of the voluntary system described by Halévy stood the village elders (shmagilotch). On their role he observed, "La justice est exercée par les anciens (chimaguelié). Les plaintes et les différends sont portes devant eux. Leurs jugements sont toujours respectes par les deux partis. Personne n'ose s'y opposer ni faire appel a l'autorité amharique."
Although Halévy appears to have been the first witness to mention the role of the elders in Beta Israel society, the phenomenon he describes was probably of considerable antiquity. Certainly we can presume that it existed at least from the time when the Beta Israel lost their independence. More importantly, it formed an integral part of Beta Israel life throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and thus forms a vital element in any comprehensive picture of their traditional leadership in the modern era.
Although we possess no specific information of the Beta Israel clergy during the Gondarine period, it appears likely that their importance was increased by the decline of the autonomous political leadership. In particular, the monastic clergy who became virtually the only leaders not dependent upon the Christian kings for their position, probably rose in status. The further decline of the secular leaders during the "era of the princes" could only have further enhanced their standing.
By the time we begin to receive detailed accounts of Beta Israel life in the first half of the 19th century, the paramount position of the monastic clergy is clearly established. Antoine d'Abbadie, one of the most important of the early European visitors to Ethiopia wrote, "Bien qu'il n'y ait pas de hierarchie ecclesiastique, les Falachas reconnaissent pour chef les plus savent ou le plus habile de leurs moines." The centrality of the monastic clergy during this period receives further confirmation in the Beta Israel's own sources according to which their religion survived a severe crisis in the early 19th century due to the efforts of the monk, Abba Wedaje. Significantly it was also the monastic clergy who served as communal spokesmen when the first efforts to communicate with world Jewry were made. Finally, it was upon the monastic clergy that the main responsibility fell to defend their people against the temptations of foreign missionaries.
1860–1905: The Missionary Challenge
By the middle of the 19th century a small number of Westerners had visited the Beta Israel and brought reports about them back to Europe. Although a number of these travelers were themselves missionaries, it was only in 1859 that organized Western missionary activity amongst the Beta Israel began. In that year the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews established its Ethiopian mission. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of the mission's activities upon the Beta Israel. While the number of converts they procured was never very large, the educational opportunities they offered and the vernacular scriptures they distributed significantly disrupted the Beta Israel communities. Existing divisions between regions and groups within the population were exacerbated. New tensions were also created. For the monastic clergy in particular, the missionary intervention proved fateful.
the decline of monasticism
A crucial feature of the missionary program was a concerted effort to undermine the Beta Israel's confidence in their priests and monks. These clerics attracted the ire of the missionaries for a variety of reasons. Firstly, as evangelical Protestants the missionaries had a deep aversion to any monastic religious hierarchy. (They were, for example not less bitter in their condemnation of the clergy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.) The Beta Israel religious leaders were, moreover doubly blameworthy in their opinion, because they claimed biblical sanction for their office. Typical of their hostility to the monks was the encounter of the missionary Henry Aaron Stern with a "wild fanatical looking monk with a grin of contempt which imparted to his black face and capacious mouth a repulsive expression with an air of pride and self-complacency."
Stern and his colleagues not only attacked the priesthood and monasticism as institutions, but also exploited every opportunity to demonstrate their superiority by engaging individual clerics in disputations. Their task was not a difficult one. The Beta Israel clergy were honored by their people because of their piety and the communal and ritual roles they performed; not for their skill as debaters. Few, if any, Beta Israel priests possessed a complete Bible. The arts of citation and argumentation, at which the missionaries were so skilled, was totally foreign to them. Inevitably, they came out second best in the confrontations engineered by the missionaries.
The deleterious effects of the missionaries' direct attacks upon the monastic clergy were further supplemented by other activities with less immediate but no less important consequences. In particular, the opening of the mission schools and the distribution of Amharic Bibles (and religious tracts) set in motion a mini-reformation among the Beta Israel. Young men and secondary clerics (debtera) attracted by the mission's offer of education and an alternative avenue to achievement and status were among the most prominent early converts. The missionaries themselves drew a clear connection between literacy and familiarity with the biblical text, and the decision to defy clerical authority.
The missionary attempt to undermine the Beta Israel's trust in their religious leaders was based upon a shrewdly accurate assessment of their centrality to their people. In the mid-19th century as today most Beta Israel possessed only a rudimentary understanding of the symbols and rituals which comprised their religious traditions. The clergy, especially the monks, were not only the paramount ritual experts, but also the chief guardians of the community's traditions and beliefs. It thus, for example, fell to them to defend the community's interests before the king when in 1862 the missionaries succeeded in temporarily curtailing Beta Israel sacrifices. The monks moreover held tremendous sway over their followers. On no less than three occasions during the first decades of the missionary enterprise (1862, 1874, 1879) groups or individual monks succeeded in leading large bands of Beta Israel on ill-fated exoduses out of Ethiopia. Given such devotion, it becomes clear that the missionary assault on clerical prestige and status held the promise of totally undermining the Beta Israel religious system. In fact, the missionaries seem to have been confident that this was, in fact, happening.
"Respecting the Jews, or Falashas, one remarkable feature is at present observable, namely, that they have been greatly divided in their religious opinions, as also in respect of their adherence to the monks… Hence, a great division has arisen, and although we must not as yet be too sanguine, yet we may freely say that the balance is in our favor" (Jewish Record (January 1862), 2).
The earliest period of missionary activity also saw the creation of another sort of division among the Beta Israel, with the establishment of a major settlement in the Tigre province of northern Ethiopia.
Although Beta Israel villages appear to have existed in Tigre province during the Middle Ages, the modern Tigrean communities appear to have originated in 1862. In that year a large number of Beta Israel inspired by a prophet set out for the Promised Land. Their attempt ended not in a miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, but in disaster and starvation. Many died, some straggled back to Gondar, others settled in Tigre especially in the Shire region. As time passed they acquired many of the characteristics of their Tigrean neighbors, most notably the language Tigrinya. Their economic situation and historical experience also diverge significantly from their brethren further south. During the late 19th and early 20th century contact between the Jews of Gondar and Tigre was irregular, and no common leadership united the two regions.
While the activities of the missionaries may have posed a serious challenge to the religious authority of the Beta Israel monks, this problem pales in comparison to the threat to their survival created by the great famine of 1888–1892. During this four year period Dervish invasions, rinderpest, drought, locusts, and disease devastated most of northern Ethiopia. It appears likely that between a third and a half of the Beta Israel died during this period. Those who survived left their normal places of residence and scattered far and wide. Traditional village life and the customary separation from non-Jews broke down in face of the danger of starvation. Beta Israel monks seem to have been especially hard hit. Certainly, none of the travelers who visited Ethiopia in the late 19th or early 20th century viewed them any longer as the central pillars of Beta Israel religiosity. Priests (qessotch) and elders had, by this time, become the new communal leaders.
1904–1936: Faitlovitch and His Students
The arrival of Jacques *Faitlovitch in Ethiopia in 1904 marks another turning point in the history of the Beta Israel. Although Faitlovitch's teacher, Joseph *Halévy, was the first practicing European Jew to visit the Beta Israel, it was only through the activities of Faitlovitch himself that they were slowly introduced into the mainstream of world Jewish history. He was moreover similarly instrumental in beginning the gradual trend towards the "normalization" of their religious belief and practice. Processes set in motion by Faitlovitch in the early 1900s were to reach their culmination in the aliyah of the majority of the Beta Israel in the decade of the 1980s.
Faitlovitch's activities were central for an understanding of the history of the Beta Israel in the 20th century even if his immediate effect on the majority of the Beta Israel population should not be overestimated. Either the symbolic impact of Faitlovitch's presence in the capital and his closeness to the Negus or the circulation of his letters written in Amharic, kept as precious relics by the families that possessed them, played a role creating imaginary links with the Jewish world among Beta Israel population living in the villages. The total number of students who studied in Addis Abeba. Asmara and small villages' schools Faitlovitch founded was never very large but information about new possibilities in education circulated even among distant villages.
Twenty-five young Beta Israel were educated mostly in Europe, ten in Palestine and 1 in Egypt. The boys were received by local Jewish communities and individual rabbis in different ways, sometimes strongly supported to adapt to the Western world and other times abandoned due to a lack of money, interest or commitment. Some of them contracted illnesses and died such as Solomon Isaac, Yizkiahu Finkas, Abraham Baroch, Abraham Meir. While, some students such as Ghetié Yirmiahu, Taamrat Emmanuel, and later Bayyu (Reuben) Isayyas, Menghestu Isaac, Taddesse Jacob and Yona Bogale used their education on behalf of their people, many never returned to the villages which they had left behind. Some of them took advantage of the opportunities they were offered when Haile Sellasse regained his power in 1941 and offered them to work in different ministries in Ethiopia. The primary significance of Faitlovitch's efforts for the Beta Israel political structure may well lie in his attempt to develop a new modernized elite. The fact that Faitlovitch was very paternalistic and authoritarian in his decisions regarding the fate of the young Beta Israel he brought to Europe, imposing the adoption of new Western Jewish codes and the abandon of the entire Beta Israel culture for sure influenced the behavior of the future Beta Israel elite that didn't always act as expected by Faitlovitch. Certainly, from Faitlovitch's time onward an ever-increasing gap existed between those perceived by outsiders as Ethiopian leaders and the internal realities of Beta Israel society. In part at least this gap reflects the differing rates of development between European and Ethiopian Jewry. The increasingly modernized and cosmopolitan world Jewish leadership sought their counterparts in Ethiopia and found them among Faitlovitch's students. Thus, a tiny group of urbanized, educated Beta Israel came to be seen as community representatives. At the same time in rural Ethiopia the priests and elders continued to dominate village life and a decentralized pattern of communal organization persisted. (T. Parfitt, E. Trevisan Semi (eds.) The Beta Israel in Ethiopia and Israel, Richmond (Surrey) 1999; T. Parfitt, E. Trevisan Semi (eds.), The Beta Israel: the Birth of an Elite among the Jews of Ethiopia, 2005)
[Steven Kaplan /
Emanuela Trevisan Semi (2nd ed.)]
1935–1941: The Italian Conquest
The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935/36 put a dramatic end to Faitlovitch's educational efforts. As Mussolini's troops approached Addis Ababa in the spring of 1936, the pupils of the Faitlovitch school took refuge in the French Legation. After Taamrat Emmanuel in 1937 was forced to flee the country Menghestu Isaac took his place as school's director. The Addis Ababa school continued to exist in bad conditions until the end of the occupation maintained by pupils working in the town. During the period of the Italian occupation a number of Beta Israel (such as Taamrat Emmanuel and Taddesse Jacob) distinguished themselves in the patriotic resistance. Others collaborated with the Italian authorities.
Since Italian policy towards the Beta Israel varied during the period of their occupation and was itself somewhat self-contradictory, its effects on community leadership and organization were complex. Although the Italians initially considered the possibility of pursuing a policy towards the Jews of Ethiopia similar to that exercised in Libya, it soon became clear to them that the absence of a formal community structure made this impossible. In the end they were forced to conclude that "if and when the Jews of Ethiopia will be organized in a community, they will be required to join the Union of Italian Jewish Communities." After promulgating "racial laws" in 1938 in Italy the Minister of Africa "no longer allowed the involvement of foreign Jewish organizations in the affairs of the Falashas" and there was no more an interest in that policy (D. Summer-field, From Falashas to Ethiopian Jews: The External Influences for Change c.1860–1960, London and New York, 2003, p.96). In the meantime, the Beta Israel were considered an oppressed tribal group "liberated" from the Christian Amhara. Bayyu (Reuben) Issayas, a former student with administrative experience, was appointed their chief and awarded the traditional Ethiopian title of Gerazmach (Commander of the Left Flank). The Italians appeared to have abolished the land restrictions that denied the Beta Israel to own land and established an area for Beta Israel to settle, near Gondar (Wuzeba and Ambober), linked by the building of roads. During the massacre of 120 Ethiopians in Mereba, a crime committed by the Italian occupants in 1937, thirty-two Beta Israel were killed (Taamrat's letter to Faitlovitch, 19.9.1937, in: E. Trevisan Semi, L'epistolario di Taamrat Emmanuel: un intellettuale ebreo d'Etiopia nella prima metà del xx secolo (Torino, 2000), 250–256.
Prior to the liberation of Ethiopia in 1941 only a handful of Western Jews had visited the Beta Israel. In the next three decades, their numbers were to swell dramatically. Trends which first became apparent in the period of Faitlovitch, such as outside intervention, education, and normalization of religious practice, escalated significantly. In a similar manner the pressure upon the Beta Israel to speak with one voice grew. The traditional religious leadership was increasingly challenged by Western-educated members of the community and contact with outsiders became an ever more important route to status.
No description of Beta Israel leadership and the influence of outside forces on community organization in the period after World War ii would be complete without a discussion of the figure of Yona *Bogale. Born in Wolleqa, Gondar in 1910, Yona studied with Faitlovitch and Taamrat Emmanuel in Ethiopia. Later he pursued further studies in Jerusalem, Frankfurt, Zurich, and Paris. After his return to Ethiopia he worked as a teacher and a civil servant. In 1953 he left the imperial service and from that time on, until he left Ethiopia in 1979, he involved himself with various projects connected with the Beta Israel community.
During the more than 25 years of Ato Yona's activities as a spokesman for the Beta Israel, foreign involvement with the community in Ethiopia steadily increased. The Israel government, the Jewish Agency, ort, jdc, political activists and casual travelers all made their impact felt upon the Jews of Ethiopia. From the perspective of the various Jewish organizations, which sought to aid their co-religionists in Ethiopia, the Beta Israel's lack of political unity and their tradition of village-level politics appeared inefficient and wasteful. In an attempt to rationalize and simplify the giving of assistance, such organizations sought to impose an artificial unity on the Beta Israel whereby a single individual represented all the communities and coordinated the distribution of assistance.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his unique background, Ato Yona came to represent the Beta Israel community to much of the outside world, especially to various Jewish organizations. As the interest and financial involvement of world Jewry with the Beta Israel grew, Ato Yona became a well-known and idealized figure. Yet, his position within the community was often a far cry from that depicted by outsiders.
Throughout the period of the 1970s, for example, an open dispute existed between Yona Bogale and the leading priest of the Gondar area, Abba Uri Ben (Berhan) Baruch. In part, the quarrel was based upon a disagreement as to how funds from the various "pro-Beta Israel" committees should be divided among different villages. However, it soon developed beyond this specific issue to a more general dispute over the nature of community leadership and society: a conflict between internal religious leadership and external/political power. On the one hand, the religious leader was known, trusted, and respected throughout the Gondar region; and on the other hand the political leader, was educated and experienced, and had gained prestige and influence through both the money he received from abroad, and the recognition of foreign committees.
The quarrel also appears to have had a generational component as well, for it pitted the young Israeli-educated Hebrew teachers against the priests and elders. In the words of Uri ben Baruch "the young teachers want to lead the people, but the priests and the head of the elders don't want to surrender their leadership… But, because the young teachers have access to the government, Beta Israel follow them, and only adults and the elderly continue to obey the priests as of old."
The divisions which arose in this case can as we have seen be analyzed on a variety of levels. Religious, political, and generational factors all appear to have been of relevance. There was, moreover, a minor geographical component insofar as the leadership struggle appears to have originated in the competition between villages for scarce resources. However, the importance of the geographical factor was relatively insignificant, when compared to the major role it assumed in the division between Amharan and Tigrean Beta Israel. In this case a major regional division developed whose repercussions are being felt to this day in Israel.
Despite the earlier visits of Faitlovitch and Rabbi Ḥayyim *Nahoum world Jewry remained largely ignorant of the Tigrean Jews. In a census undertaken in the 1950s the number of Jews in Tigre province was underestimated by more than two thirds (1,250 est. versus 4,000). Moreover, the Jews of Tigre benefited far less than those in the Gondar region from the relief and educational efforts of world Jewry. Thus existing social, economic, and linguistic differences were exacerbated by a growing gap in modernization, education, and secularization. By the time the Beta Israel were brought en masse to Israel in the 1980s (and here too the experience in the two regions varied tremendously) a latent hostility existed between many members of the Gondar and Tigrean communities.
Developments in the Later 1970s
jewishness of the falashas
The first major statement affirming the Jewishness of the Beta Israel was made in the 16th century by Rabbi David ibn Zimra, the Radbaz. After an intensive study, he declared the Beta Israel as "of the seed of Israel, of the Tribes of Dan." He further stated that marriage to one of the Beta Israel is permissible as long as that person accepts the more modern practices of rabbinic Judaism. And in later responsum, he became explicit and even more emphatic in stating the Beta Israel are unquestionably Jews.
Recognizing that the Beta Israel, because of their isolation, practiced a more biblical Judaism than the rabbinic Judaism of his time, the Radbaz wrote: "These who came from the land of Cush (Ethiopia) are without doubt of the Tribe of Dan and because there are not among them scholars, masters of tradition, they seize unto themselves the literal meaning of Scripture… they are as a child who has been held captive among idolators."
Thus spoke the great rabbi from Cairo, who lived in North Africa and was perhaps closer to the Beta Israel people and their issues than any rabbi of his time or since then.
After the Radbaz, a few other noted rabbis such as Rabbi Ya'akov Castro, also declared the Beta Israel as descendants of the Tribe of Dan. But it was not until Christian missionaries, especially the apostate Jew, Henry Stern, started to make inroads among the Beta Israel in the mid-19th century, that the western Jewish world once again became concerned about the Jews of Ethiopia.
It was the revered Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer of Eisenstadt, founder of the Agudat Israel, who made a bold statement in favor of the Beta Israel in 1864. Rabbi Hildesheimer, described in the Jewish Chronicle as "one of the foremost leaders of the strictly orthodox party on the (European) continent," urged that a special mission be undertaken to them. "Do not lose courage, my brethren, but be full of confidence; never yet have the unfortunate knocked at the door of a Jewish house without having found assistance."
Yet little happened until the Alliance Israélite Universelle of Paris sent the semiticist Joseph *Halévy to investigate the situation in Ethiopia. Convinced that the Beta Israel were Jews by religion who wanted to be recognized as part of the Jewish people, Halévy inspired his pupil, Professor Jacques *Faitlovitch, to concern himself with the Beta Israel.
Faitlovitch, who probably more than any other single person was responsible for keeping interest in the Beta Israel alive, obtained a very important document. It was a letter written in 1906 addressed to the Beta Israel as "our brethren, sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who dwell in Abyssinia." It refers to the Beta Israel as "our flesh and blood," and it assures them of help in religious education. It expressed hope that G-d" will gather us from the four corners of the earth and bring us to Zion." The letter was signed by 44 leading rabbis from Europe, America and Egypt. Included in the list were Herman Adler (Chief Rabbi of London), H. Gaster, S. Daiches, Moritz Gudemann (Chief Rabbi of Vienna), Raphael Meir Panigel (Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and of Palestine), and Jacob Reines of Russia (the first head of the Mizrachi movement).
Among the many documents Faitlovitch obtained was a letter, dated December 4, 1921, from Abraham Isaac *Kook, the highly respected Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine. Rav Kook called out to World Jewry "to save our Beta Israel brethren from extinction and contamination… and to rescue 50,000 holy souls of the House of Israel from oblivion. A holy obligation rests upon our entire nation to raise funds with a generous hand to improve the lot of the Falashas in Ethiopia and to bring their young children to Jewish centers in Palestine and the Diaspora…"
It was on February 9, 1973, that the plight of the Ethiopian Jews was brought once more to the attention of world Jewry. Rabbi Ovadiah *Yosef, Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, in a letter addressed to Mr. Ovadia Hazi, former spokesman for the Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, gave a ruling on the status of the Beta Israel as Jews according to the halakhah.
After quoting the views of a number of eminent religious authorities, including those of the Radbaz, Rabbi Hildesheimer, and the Ashkenazi chief rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Isaac Halevi *Herzog, in favor of their being in fact Jews, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef wrote:
I have therefore come to the conclusion that Falashas are descendants of the Tribe of Israel who went southward to Ethiopia, and there is no doubt that the above sage established that they (the Falashas) are of the Tribe of Dan… and (these sages) relached the conclusion on the basis of the most reliable witnesses and evidence.
I, too… have investigated and inquired well into… (these matters)… and have decided that in my humble opinion, the Falashas are Jews, whom it is our duty to redeem from assimilation, to hasten their immigration to Israel, to educate them in the spirit of our holy Torah and to make them partners in the building of our sacred land…
I am certain that the government institutions and the Jewish Agency, as well as organizations in Israel and the diaspora, will help us to the best of our ability in this holy task… the mitzva of redeeming the souls of our people… for everyone who saves one soul in Israel, it is as though he had saved the whole world.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 's letter refers to the Beta Israel as descendants of the Tribe of Dan. Support for this view can be traced back as far as the 9th century c.e. in the writings of the Jewish traveler Eldad Ha-Dani. Such rabbinic luminaries as Rashi cite Eldad as an unquestioned authority on these issues.
On March 11, 1975, it was reported that an Interministerial Committee had ruled that Israel recognized the Ethiopian Jews entitled to automatic citizenship and full benefits as prescribed under the 1950 Law of Return.
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Shlomo Goren expressed disapproval of this ruling, but after the winter of 1978 when he met a group of new immigrants from Ethiopia with the greeting, "You are our brothers; you are our blood and our flesh. You are true Jews… You have returned to your homeland," he too joined the ranks of the long list of rabbis affirming the Jewishness of the Beta Israel.
Nonetheless, Rabbis Yosef and Goren requested a symbolic ceremony which is called a ḥidush ha-yahadut, meaning "renewal of Judaism." This ceremony consists of a ritual immersion without the necessity of a blessing for the women. The men are also immersed because they are already circumcised. They need only a ceremonial milah.
This symbolic ceremony is not a conversion. It does not require any study period. The rabbis request that it be done within a few days of the Ethiopian Jews' arrival in Israel. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef expressed it best when he defined the ceremony as "an act of renewing their covenant with the Jewish people" (Jerusalem Post, August 1977).
Some Ethiopian Jews, who have suffered much as a people to preserve their Judaism against almost insurmountable odds, felt the ceremony was an insult. Nonetheless, all went through with it until 1985 when they started to oppose to it. This opposition culminated in a month-long strike in the autumn of 1985 that ended with an agreement (S. Kaplan "The Beta Israel and the Rabbinate: Law, Politics and Ritual," Social Science Information 27, 3, 1988, pp. 357–70). Nevertheless this issue continued to be considered very sensitive and when in 1989 rabbi David Chelouche was appointed marriage registrar for all Ethiopians in the country the question was settled by a compromise: "Since he did not believe that Ethiopians needed to undergo any form of conversion, those married under his auspices were exempted from any preconditions not imposed on other Israelis" (S. Kaplan and H. Salomon, "Ethiopian Jews in Israel: a Part of the people or Apart from the people?" in U. Rebhun and C. Waxman (eds.), Jews in Israel: Contemporary Social and Cultural Patterns, Hanover and London, 2003, pp. 118–148: 131)
[Howard M. Lenhoff /
E. Trevisan Semi (2nd ed.)]
In the U.S. during April 1974, the old American Pro-Beta Israel Committee started by Professor Jacques Faitlovitch and another committee merged to form the American Association for Ethiopian Jews. This new organization, founded by Dr. Graenum Berger, has brought the plight of the Ethiopian Jews to the forefront of issues in American Jewry, and supports many absorption programs in Israel. Also in the U.S., the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council in 1980 formed a Committee on Ethiopian Jewry.
In 1977, the ORT World Union established a nonsecular training program in Addis Ababa and in the province of Gondar that affected a number of Ethiopian Jews.
ethiopian jews in israel
In Israel, the Ethiopian Jews demonstrated against the government, the Jewish Agency and world Jewish leadership on January 1, 1979, and again on October 30, 1979, for not doing enough to bring their people to Israel. Following these demonstrations, Prime Minister Begin met with the leaders of the Ethiopian Jews of Israel and pledged his full support to save their people and to bring them to Israel. Renewed demonstrations took place in December 1981. At the end of the 1970s there were about 1,000 Ethiopian Jewish residents of Israel, whereas estimates of the number of Beta Israel remaining in war-torn Ethiopia ranged from 20,000 to 25,000.
[Howard M. Lenhoff]
In a decade of dramatic changes for World Jewry, the Beta Israel stood out as the Jewish community that had undergone the most dramatic transformation. At the end of 1982 the number of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel stood at about 2,300 and the vast majority of community members were still in Ethiopia. Ten years later the Beta Israel as a diaspora community had ceased to exist. By the end of 1992 over 45,000 Ethiopian immigrants had settled in Israel. When those born in Israel are included and those who have died subtracted, the total number of Ethiopian Jews in Israel exceeds 50,000. (See Table: Ethiopian Jews in Israel).
Despite the relatively short period within which the Beta Israel were brought to Israel, each period in their immigration had different characteristics. Most of those who came prior to 1984 were from the Tigre and Walqayit regions of northern Ethiopia. They arrived in small numbers through the Sudan and were gradually settled throughout Israel. In 1984 over ten thousand Jews from the Gondar region of Ethiopia flooded into Sudanese refugee camps. Initially they were brought out a few hundred at a time, but deteriorating conditions necessitated a more dramatic approach. During a period of less than two months starting in mid-November 1984, more than 6,500 Beta Israel were airlifted to Israel in what became known as "Operation Moses." Premature publicity brought the operation to a halt, but in March 1985 a further 650 Jews were rescued in "Operation Joshua." During the period from March 1985 to October 1989 only a relatively small number of Jews managed to leave Ethiopia. The renewal of diplomatic relations between lsrael and Ethiopia, however, paved the way for legal emigration on the basis of family reunification. By the summer of 1990 over twenty thousand Ethiopian Jews had migrated to Addis Ababa in the hope of being taken to Israel. During 36 hours between May 24 and 25 as rebel troops threatened to conquer the capital, over 14,000 Beta Israel were airlifted to Israel in "Operation Solomon." In the succeeding year and a half, several thousand more Beta Israel were brought to Israel. By the end of 1992 only a handful of Beta Israel remained in Ethiopia. A large number (estimates vary between 30–250,000) of falas moura (Christians of Beta Israel descent) remained in Ethiopia.
Although all the Beta Israel have left Ethiopia, their resettlement in Israel is far from complete. Virtually every aspect of their absorption process remains fraught with difficulties, and a clear danger exists that Ethiopian Jews in Israel will find themselves marginalized geographically, socially, and religiously.
Despite clearly stated criteria for dispersing Ethiopian immigrants around the country, settling them in permanent apartments has always proven difficult. Housing in the designated sites has not always been available, while local authorities and residents have not necessarily welcomed the influx of a dependent population. For their part the Ethiopians have been reluctant to abandon the protection of immigrant housing and have often refused to do so unless provided with housing that meets all of their criteria regarding cost, proximity to relatives, climate, and employment opportunities. Only after immigrants have been settled in permanent apartments can issues such as children's education and long-term employment be seriously confronted.
As of September 1992 almost half the Ethiopian immigrants in the country were still in temporary housing: 2,500 were in hotels, 7,600 were in regular absorption centers, and 15,000 were living in mobile homes. Each of these groups presents officials with a different set of difficulties, but the last is probably the most problematic. Mobile homes for Ethiopian immigrants (as well as a relatively small number of Russians and veteran Israelis) were situated in 22 sites around the country. Most were located in isolated areas far removed from other Israelis, schools, and employment opportunities. It was anticipated that many immigrants would continue to live in such quarters for at least 3 or 4 years.
So long as the Ethiopians remained in temporary quarters, it was extremely difficult to complete their educational, social, and occupational absorption. Although official statistics were never released, it was generally estimated that prior to 1991, 80% of Ethiopian immigrants eligible for work had found jobs. Those who have arrived in the following two years had a much harder time finding employment both because of their geographic isolation and difficult conditions in the Israeli economy.
Although more than two decades have passed since Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (at the time Sephardi chief rabbi) ruled that the Beta Israel were Jews, many details of their religious status remain unresolved. Despite recurrent demonstrations and court appeals, most Israeli marriage registrars continue to follow the Chief Rabbinate's guidelines and require Ethiopian immigrants wishing to marry to undergo ritual immersion. Rabbi David Chelouche of Netanya and other rabbis designated by him require no such ceremony and continue to perform weddings for Ethiopian Jews throughout the country. Some Ethiopian activists have demanded that qessotch (priests), the community's religious leaders, be allowed to conduct weddings and perform divorces as in Ethiopia. The Chief Rabbinate has firmly rejected this demand. Instead it has agreed to allow the qessotch to serve on religious councils in areas with large Ethiopian populations and has suggested that they study to become marriage registrars.
The ongoing controversy concerning marriages and the status of the qessotch is not merely a halakhic-legal issue. It is also symptomatic of the vast changes that have shaken the Ethiopian family in the past decade. Couples have divorced and remarried, children have asserted an unprecedented degree of independence, and women have redefined their roles. Changes have, moreover, not been limited to the restructuring of relations within the family. The family's relationship to the surrounding society has also been radically changed. In Ethiopia families and households were the foundation of rural communal life and served as schools, workshops, clinics, reformatories, and credit organizations. In Israel most of these functions have become the primary responsibility of other institutions. Thus, the past decade has witnessed not only a dramatic and irreversible change of location (in a geographic sense) for the Ethiopian family. It has also produced a no less revolutionary transformation of its place (in a social-economic sense) and its relationship to its surroundings.
The Ethiopian Jews continued to undergo dramatic changes in a very short period of time. In 2005 there were approximately 85,000 in Israel, of whom 23,000 were Israeli-born. Official Israeli absorption policy aimed to prevent the development of Ethiopian ghettos and thus encouraged Ethiopians not to concentrate in the same areas and to purchase homes in towns where employment and social services were available. This policy failed to some extent because immigrants wished to be housed near relatives and chose to live were it was cheapest, often preferring not to leave absorption centers. In 1993 the Ministry of Absorption initiated a special program to encourage immigrants to buy houses and apply for mortgages outside peripheral areas. Between 1988 and 2001, 10,542 Ethiopians purchased apartments with the help of government mortgages. If the special mortgage program permitted many Ethiopian families to own their homes, the goal of settling them in the center of the country was not achieved, because the Ethiopians concentrated in a few selected areas while Jerusalem and Tel Aviv remained with very small Ethiopian populations.
The State acted in the process of absorption of Ethiopians according to a model of "mediated absorption" and the Jewish Agency was responsible for the process. This policy encouraged employees to treat immigrants as a social problem, which led immigrants to conform to expectations and behave accordingly. In 1999 there were 14,778 Ethiopians aged 25–54 in the country but only 53 percent participated in the labor force (compared to 76 percent of all Israelis of the same age). Only 38 percent of the Ethiopians in the labor force were women (compared to 68 percent of all Israeli women). Most of the Ethiopians were employed in manufacturing (especially men) and in public services (especially women). Few of the Ethiopians were in academic and liberal professions (4 percent of men and 15 percent of women).
The Israeli education system planned to have all young Ethiopians attend state religious schools in the first year of their arrival. Government policy sought to restrict the percentage of Ethiopian students in classes to no more than 25 percent, but this program too was not achieved. Many students went to *Youth Aliyah boarding schools.
In 1996 Maariv revealed that the Magen David Adom blood bank had for years systematically thrown out blood donated by Ethiopian Israelis without informing the donors. This occurred because Ethiopian immigrants were considered a high-risk group for aids (especially those who arrived in Operation Solomon). The "blood scandal" was accompanied by many demonstrations covered by the international media and by a commission of enquiry. At the outset of the 21st century the absorption of Ethiopian Jews remained the most problematic, economically, socially, and culturally, among all immigrant groups.
[E. Trevisan Semi (2nd ed.)]
W. Leslau (ed.), Beta Israel Anthology; Black Jews of Ethiopia (1951), incl. bibl.; A.Z. Aescoly, Sefer ha-Falashim (1943); idem, Recueil de Textes Falachas (1951); C. Conti Rossini, in: Rivista degli Studi Orientali, 8 (1919–20), 563–610; idem, in: Rendiconti della Reale Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 31 (1922), 221–40; J. Faïtlovitch, Notes d'un Voyage chez les Falachas (1905); idem, Mota Musē (Heb. and Fr., 1906); J. Halévy (ed.) Tē'ēzaza Sanbat (Fr. and Ethiopian, 1902); C. Rathjens, Die Juden in Abessinien (1921); L. Stein, Die Juden in Abessinien (1851); H.A. Stern, Wanderings among the Falashas in Abyssinia (1862, 19682); E. Ullendorff, The Ethiopians (1960); idem, in: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 24 (1961), 419–43; M. Wurmbrand, ibid., 25 (1962), 431–7; idem, in: ja, 242 (1954), 83–100; idem, in: L'Orient Syrien, 8 (1963), 343–94; C.A. Viterbo, in: Annuario di Studi Ebraici (1935–37), 113–23; F. Altheim and R. Stiehl, Araber in der Alten Welt, 1 (1964), 127–30; 3 (1966), 18–21, 22; 5 pt. 1 (1968), 2, 133. add. bibliography: L. Anteby-Yemini, Les Juifs éthiopiens en Israel: les paradoxes du paradis (2004); E. Hertzog, Immigrants and Bureaucrats: Ethiopians in an Israeli Absorption Center (1999); S. Kaplan, "Black and White, Blue and White and Beyond the Pale: Ethiopian Jews and the Discourse of Color in Israel," in: Jewish Culture and History, 5, 1 (Summer 2002), 51–68; S. Kaplan and H. Salomon, "Ethiopian Jews in Israel: a Part of the People or Apart from the People?" in: U. Rebhun and C. Waxman (eds.), Jews in Israel: Contemporary Social and Cultural Patterns (2003), 118–48; T. Parfitt and E. Trevisan Semi (eds.) The Beta Israel in Ethiopia and Israel: Studies on the Ethiopian Jews (1999); idem (eds.), The Beta Israel: the Birth of an Elite among the Jews of Ethiopia (2005); T. Shwartz, Ethiopian Jewish Immigrants: the Homeland Postponed (2001); Sh. Swirski and B. Swirski, "Ethiopian Israelis: Housing, Employment, Education," in: The Israel Equality Monitor, 11 (June 2002), 1–45: E. Trevisan Semi, "Hazkarah, a Symbolic Day for the Refoundation of the Jewish Ethiopian-Community," in: Jewish Political Science Review, 17, 1–2 (Spring 2005); Sh. Weil, "Religion, Blood and the Equality of Rights: the Case of Ethiopian Jews in Israel," in: International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, 4 (1997), 397–412.
"Beta Israel." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beta-israel
"Beta Israel." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved April 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beta-israel