Or the plight of the Ethiopian Jews…
Beta Israel was the name given to the Jewish people of Ethiopia. Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, they are now reduced to a couple thousand located in Addis Ababa. Here’s their story…
Jews in Ethiopia, how did they get there?
Theories abound as to the origin of Ethiopian Jews. One is that they were descended from Menelik, the son of King Solomon. Another traces it roots to the tribe of Dan – one of the lost tribes of Israel and yet another espouses that they were the unfortunate ones who could didn’t make it across the parting of the Red Sea in time and took off south in order to escape Egypt and wound up in what is present day Ethiopia.
What did they believe in?
In a religious sense, these members of Beta Israel have always considered themselves as exiles from Israel. For the better part of two thousand years, they had no contact with the rest of the Jewish community. They never learned of the Talmud nor did they celebrate the feast of Hanukkah. Many of them thought that they were the only Jews left in the world and were shocked to discover that the majority of Jews were white. Their religious life revolved around their interpretation of the Torah. Similar to other Jews, they worshipped at synagogues, kept to a kosher diet and recognized Saturday as the Sabbath. While they did adopt some of their own customs, many were similar in nature to what Jews from around the world practiced.
So what happened to them?
It seems these people (estimated in the hundred of thousands) had lived there in relative peace and tranquility until around 1400 or so when Ethiopia started to embrace Christianity. Over the ensuing years, their numbers were reduced substantially. During the 17th century, what little lands these people had left were seized and they were forced into the mountains.
Things didn’t get any better, by 1900 estimates were that only 60,000 –70,000 remained. Their numbers had been greatly reduced by famine/disease or forced conversion to Christianity. Those that remained finally managed to get some attention from the rest of the Jewish community. In 1923 a Polish born Jew by the name of Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch opened up a school in Addis Ababa and also transported several out of Ethiopia to attend Jewish schools throughout Europe. Once Ethiopia was liberated from Italy, the remaining Beta Israel theoretically had equal rights under Ethiopian law. We all know what that means; they were systematically persecuted and discriminated against. They came to be known as “Falashas”, a word meaning “strangers” in one of the native tongues.
Their numbers continued to dwindle. By the time 1977 rolled around there were relatively few left. In 1984, the Israeli government, in conjunction with support from the United States and Great Britain began Operation Moses. Its mission was to airlift the remaining members of Beta Israel out of Ethiopia and to finally bring them home to the Promised Land. They were successful in getting between 7000 – 8000 out before the operation was suspended. In 1991, a similar tactic was used. Named Operation Solomon, over 14000 Beta Israel were relocated. Today, only a handful remain in Ethiopia.
So how’s life in Israel for the "Beta Israel"?
I guess it depends on one’s perspective (Any noders living in Israel feel free to help me out here). Picture yourself as one of these Beta Israel, coming from a small villages in remote sections of Ethiopia. The pace of Western society, the lack of knowing the native language of Hebrew and the abrupt move into another culture have all created problems during the assimilation process. Beta Israel also face racism and stigmatization in their adopted country. As recently as 1997, any blood donated by Ethiopian Jews was thrown out on principle. Not because of lineage factors but because of the fear of contamination by AIDS. Unemployment of Ethiopian Jews in Israel runs higher than the national average and their so-called “Jewishness” has faced constant scrutiny. On the upside, Ethiopian Jews are now presented with many more educational and occupational opportunities than they could have ever attained in Ethiopia.