by Gabby Blair
There are a few leading theories regarding the origin of the Ethiopian Jews known as Beta Israel. One such theory is that they are actually the lost Tribe of Dan, as ruled by 15th century rabbinical great David ibn Zimra (The Radbaz) of Egypt. Another theory traces their origin back to King Solomon’s union with The Queen of Sheba, and claims they are descended from the Jews who came with their child, Menelik, as he travelled from Jerusalem to Ethiopia with the Ark of the Covenant ; and yet another theory claims their ancestors fled after destruction of The First Temple in Jerusalem, settling in Ethiopia. While each of these theories has support, it is likely that we will never have a definitive answer of which story is the truest.
What is known, and considered as the definitive first non-biblical record of Jews in the Kush, (historically ancient Ethiopia, and modernly, part of Sudan), comes from the 9th Century Hebrew diary of a Jewish merchant and traveler known as Eldad ben Mahil Ha-Dani. Ha-Dani traveled widely and spread the story that he was a descendant of the Tribe of Dan, hence his surname. According to his log, Ha-Dani had come upon a lost fragment of his tribe which together, with descendants from the tribes of Asher, Gad and Naphtali, had its own independent Jewish state in Eastern Africa. During his travels, which appear to have stretched from Iberia to Babylonia, and perhaps even into China, Ha-Dani spread word of these people who were in possession of the Torah; the five books of Moses and some of the writings of the Prophets, but that had no inkling about the Talmud, nor of the book of Esther, creating a bit of a stir in the communities he visited. El-Dani’s travels and adventures led him to shipwrecks, slavery and redemption as he roamed from place to place meeting up with various fragments of the Tribes of Israel, for which he provided descriptions of behavior, territory, local disputes and customs. Eldad Ha-Dani demonstrated a deep knowledge of haggadic literature in his writings and his accounts have been accepted and even quoted by Talmudic authorities like Rashi and RABaD (Rabbi Abraham Ben David III), although not all were as accepting of his claims. Regardless, Ha-Dani’s now ancient records along with other supporting bits of Jewish literature from the 15 & 16th centuries referencing Ethiopian Jews have certainly helped create a historical tie of today’s Beta Israel to Modern day Israel.
Over the centuries, in general isolation from others of their faith, Beta Israel, referred to by other Ethiopians as Falashas (meaning outsiders or strangers) lost much of the independence they had enjoyed throughout the Middle Ages, and by the mid 1600s, many were sold into slavery, forced to convert to Christianity and denied rights such as landownership. In a 1790 publication entitled “Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile,” by a Scotsman named James Bruce, an estimated population of 100,000 Falashas were reported to be practicing pre-Talmudic Judaism. This singular reminder of a possibly ancient and highly isolated Jewish community resulted in a heavy influx of missionaries to Ethiopia in the 19th century. As word spread about conversion efforts focused on the Falashas, some Jewish leaders in Europe began to publicly campaign for a way to intervene on behalf of their lost brethren. In 1867 Joseph Halevy, a well known French linguist, traveled to Ethiopia to assess the claims of Beta Israel and the activities of the missionaries. Halevy was greeted with skepticism as all previous visits by white Europeans before him were Christian missionaries’ intent on conversion. Halevy, who was familiar with Ethiopian languages of Ge’ez and Amharic, revealed that there were other Jews around the world, a concept the Beta Israel were apparently unaware of. In addition to studying their practices and customs, Halevy was tasked with trying to change the ways of these ancient peoples to be more in line with mainstream Judaism at that point. When he returned to France a year later, he was of the opinion that the Beta Israel were indeed Jews, and detailed similarities in customs. Beta Israel had laws of kashrut, death and mourning rituals, laws related to purification, birth and circumcision and kept Shabbat strictly. Halevy’s work was also meant to introduce the concepts of Talmud and highlight the differences, such as the use of animal sacrifices, that would need to be reconciled should Beta Israel be accepted with the wider Jewish community. In 1904, Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch, a student of Halevy, traveled to Ethiopia with the blessing of Paris Chief Rabbi, Zadok Kahn, and became the first real champion for their cause. Faitlovitch continued to work towards recognition of Beta Israel until he died in 1955. Many challenges to accepting the Falasha came from numerous critics and the debate on their legitimacy waxed and waned throughout the early 20th century, during which time very few emigrated to Israel.
At the request of Beta Israel’s Jewish leaders, the Jewish Agency appointed its first ambassador to Ethiopia in 1953. Over the next decade community members were trained to become emissaries to their people, medical clinics were opened and Hebrew schools were established in the villages of The Beta Israel. In 1973, in a landmark ruling, Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, then Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, confirmed the identity of Beta Israel based on the earlier rulings of the Radbaz. Two years later, long time ruler Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by a Marxist coup d’etat resulting in much violence and instability for Ethiopia and its neighbors. As the situation continued to deteriorate into 1975, especially for The Beta Israel, Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, finally signed off his agreement with Rabbi Yosef’s 1973 opinion, thus allowing the Israeli government to grant Ethiopian Jews “The Right Of Return”. Within a year, Israel had managed to transport nearly 500 Ethiopians to Israel.
Over the next decade, nearly 8000 Jews were covertly relocated to Israel. Between November 1984 and January 1985, during “Operation Moses”, an additional 8000 Jewish refugees from camps in Sudan were successfully airlifted by night with the quiet permission of the Sudanese government. After having its cover blown by a report in The Washington Jewish Week, the story was picked up by the New York Times which ran it on the front page on December 11, 1984. This put heavy pressure on Sudan which, as a member of the Arab League, was technically at war with Israel, forcing an immediate end to the operation. In early 1985, the US sponsored “Operation Sheba,” which helped rescue an additional 500 Jews that remained in Sudanese camps. Thousands of Jews remained in Ethiopia, until the regime began to falter in 1991. As the government was close to being toppled, the US interceded on behalf of Israel allowing the latter to seize an opportunity to successfully launch the 36 hour “Operation Solomon” in 1991. Using a combination of 36 commercial and military transport planes almost 15,000 Jews were moved from Addis Ababa to Israel in less than two days. All planes had been stripped of interior furnishings in order to fit the maximum number of people, and the planes flew nonstop over that 36 hours. “Operation Solomon” was successfully conducted under total news blackout and set a world record for transporting an unmatched 1122 passengers in a single flight.
Even after such huge operations to relocate the Beta Israel and three decades since emigration from Ethiopia began, absorption has proven difficult. Coming from traditional villages to a new land with little more than the clothing on their backs, The Beta Israel have struggled with assimilation. Undoubtedly the root of social obstacles such as poverty and lower levels of education and employment amongst their transplants, is related to language barriers, sudden environmental and technological changes, along with racism. Officially ending the mass aliyah of Ethiopian Jews in 2013, The Jewish Agency of Israel has directed those still awaiting Aliyah to pursue applications through their government, which has sadly, torn families apart. Many are unable to pass the increasingly stringent vetting process as their families have members that are Falash Mura; a term designated for those who underwent a Christian Conversion at some point, forced or otherwise.
Similar to other large waves of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, Ethiopians struggle with the establishment in validating their Jewish legitimacy and face discrimination for who they are. Recent pro-rights rallies and higher profile cases of injustices along with the rising population, are hopefully paving the way to help better absorb the Beta Israel. Through the ages, their ancestors clung to their faith, as it had been passed down through generations, even when they believed themselves to be the only Jews left in the world. As they were introduced to modern Judaism, they accepted it and integrated it into their traditions to be a part of their people. Considering the great changes that The Beta Israel have gone through in a relatively short period of time, it is not surprising that they are struggling. It is obvious, after researching their history, that they are a strong and resilient people. As their numbers within Israel grow, I believe they will carve a place for themselves next to their brothers in faith as did immigrants before them. As Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose ruling provided the crucial recognition they needed to make aliyah was quoted as saying, “Anyone who refuses to accept Ethiopians should get up and head home.” It is more important today than ever before to recognize that the rich diversity of our people can only stand to strengthen us and is crucial to our survival.