The History of Ethiopian Jewry

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In the mid-nineteenth century an excited, yet anxious, Jewish community gathered on the front porch of their synagogue.
“We are a miserable nation, we have no judge and no prophet.” - they bemoaned -  “Is it time for us to return to our holy city of Jerusalem?” - they asked with a glimmer of hope.
This Jewish community was not in France, England, Russia or any other one of the early European Zionist strongholds. No, this letter was produced by Beta Israel, the Jewish community of Ethiopia. Writing over twenty years before any major European Aliyah, the Ethiopian Jewish community was perhaps the first Jewish community to internalize the Zionist ideal of returning to Israel, even attempting a mass Aliyah as early as 1862.
Anyone following the news of the past few weeks in Israel knows that there have been protests across the country, demonstrating against police brutality against black Jews along with broader issues of systemic racism in Israel.
Now this is nothing new. From the outset of the country non-Ashkenazi Jewish groups have been treated with contempt and inequality by their European Jewish counterparts. The Ethiopian community has been subjected to all the same pathologies as their Mizrachi counterparts with the additional factor that their “Jewishness” has been questioned from the moment of their arrival in the international Jewish conscious (more on this below).
However, to fully understand the Ethiopian Jewish community and the current protests across the country we must take a step back and talk about the history of Beta Israel.
Who are the Ethiopian Jews? What is their origin? And how did they end up in the state of Israel?
The origin of Beta Israel is actually shrouded in mystery with differing views amongst historians, rabbis, and the actual community themselves.
Beta Israel had no knowledge of the Talmud or any sort of oral law, which means that they were probably not a part of the mainstream post-second Temple Jewish community. This leaves two options:
The minimalist historical view is that Beta Israel is the result of a mass conversion sometime in the past millennium. The predominant theory within this line of thinking is that the Ethiopian Jewish community is the result of a medieval Christian sect that wanted to revert back to a biblical lifestyle and converted en mass. This also seems to be the type of view backed up by a handful of genetic studies that highlight a similar genetic makeup between the non-Jewish and Jewish Ethiopian communities (with a few caveats that are beyond the scope of this article).
The maximalist historical view, championed both by Beta Israel along with a sizeable minority of scholars, is that Beta Israel, or at least some of its ancestors, split off from Judaism at some pre-diasporic point. Beta Israel generally views itself as being from the tribe of Dan, who were disconnected from mainstream Judaism in the 8th century BCE after the 10 northern tribes of Israel were destroyed and subsequently exiled by the Assyrian Empire. Other views within the maximalist camp include other breakoff points sometime throughout the Greco-Roman period.
Regardless of their origins, by the mid-nineteenth century Beta Israel numbered around 300,000 people with a strong and distinct Jewish identity with roots going back at least 1000 years. At this time the community was faced with a number of both external challenges and opportunities.
In 1859 a Protestant missionary group arrived in Ethiopia with the intention of converting as much of the community as possible. Unsurprisingly their arrival provoked a strong reaction from within the local Jewish community. What is more surprising is that word of this attempted conversion made its way up the map to the European Jewish world - who quickly came to Beta Israel’s defense - at least for now.
Given the history of Beta Israel, their Jewishness has always been a question debated by Jewish thinkers from the medieval period onwards with strong opinions on each side. The mid-nineteenth century Protestant mission, however, prompted many leaders within European Jewry to issue a strong statement attesting to the Jewishness of Beta Israel along with a call to action for Jews worldwide to help both bolster resources within Ethiopia and help establish early Zionist ideals within the community.
That is how we ended up with our letter from the beginning. An Ethiopian Jewish community, tormented by civil war, missionaries, minority status, famine, plague, and eventual Italian Facism was now reconnected with global Jewry.
In 1921 Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel (read more about him here), issued a statement recognizing the Jewishness of Beta Israel - a ruling that would later be challenged by subsequent Ashkenazi rabbis of the State. But, by the time the State of Israel was declared in 1948, the leader of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, refused to allow any Jews to leave.
While there were a few waves of illegal emigration out of Ethiopia, the majority of Beta Israel remained until the 1970’s. It took Israel until 1975 to officially apply the Right of Return to Beta Israel - eventually undergoing a number of covert missions to rescue the Ethipian Jewish community over the course of the next 20 years (Operations Joshua and Solomon are some of the more famous ones).
The legacy and relationship between Ethiopian Jewry and modern Israel is one that demands nuance. On the one hand Israel helped rescue tens of thousands of Jews from Ethiopia - a risky and costly endeavor that truly highlights Israel’s commitment to Jews wherever they may be residing. Furthermore, the government and country did help many of the new immigrants in a plethora of ways, aiding them in establishing a new life in Israel.
On the other hand, debate over their Jewishness has been and still is a black mark with major rabbis (mostly Ashkenazi) rejecting their Jewishness. Many of the early immigrants were forced to undergo an official conversion upon their entry into the country - a painful coercion for a people that have been Jewish their entire lives. Today there is undoubtedly racism, governmental neglect, and disproportionate police brutality affecting Ethiopian Jews within Israel - some left over from their entry into the country and some a systemic problem ubiquitous throughout institutions in the Jewish State.
Arguing that Israel is perfect is always a foolish endeavor. The beauty of both Judaism and Israel is that dissent - when it comes from a healthy and loving place - is accepted and incorporated into the overall progress of the community. There is undoubtedly much that Israel can do to better the lives of Mizrachi and Ethiopian Jews throughout the country and ignoring the problem is ignoring a 3000 year moral imperative that is at the heart of both Judaism and the land of Israel.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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