The Falashas: the Ongoing Suffering of the Lost Jews

Wednesday 14 March 201808:16 pm
They carried as much luggage as they can in the year 1862 to relive the ordeal of Moses and his people. Thousands of those who were called "the lost" or "the people without a land" known as "Falasha" in Amharic responded to calls by monk Aba Mahari to leave their home. They lived in Ethiopia's Gondar, in the north of the Ethiopian Highlands 2,100 meters above sea level. They ascended to the Land of Milk and Honey to meet Jesus as promised by the Old Testament written in Ge'ez, the official language of the ancient Kingdom of Aksum. It is also the mother of all Al-Ḥabasha's languages, and the language the Falashas used while reciting prayers. Falasha, a name that appeared not before the 16th century, was not what they willingly wanted to be called; it referred to the fact that they were deprived of their right to own a land and to cultivate. Their work was limited to crafts that Al-Ḥabasha's Christians would look down on, such as blacksmithing and pottery. They called themselves "Beta Israel" to refer to their origins, without realizing they were part of a larger Jewish population scattered around the globe. They had not seen the Mishna, Zohar, Talmud nor the Torah in Hebrew.

Leaving in 1862

When Aba Mahari and his followers left Gondar looking for the Promised Land in 1862, there was a conviction that they were the only remnants of Israel; the group living between Gondar and Tigray Region were cut off from the Jews of the Yemeni plateau on the other side of the Red Sea, and from the Jews of the Nile Valley -- connected to Lake Tana 60 km south of Gondar. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church had strong connections with the Egyptian Coptic Church until 1959. More than one book referred to the "lost" Jews who descended from the Tribe of Dan in Sudan and Al-Ḥabasha. Rabbi David ibn Zimra (the Radbaz), born in Spain and was the Chief Rabbi of Egypt by the beginning of the Ottoman rule, vouched for the Jewish origins of a woman and a freed slave in Cairo, saying they descended from the Tribe of Dan. When the Radbaz declared the duo as Jews, Beta Israel was still a mountainous kingdom and was still in war with the Solomonic dynasty. And when Aba Mahari and his followers decided to leave Al-Habasha, they were fed up with persistent attempts to force them into converting to Christianity. These attempts were not led by Theodore II, Emperor of Ethiopia at the time, but by Protestant mission groups that Theodore allowed to temporarily work providing that they operate under the guidance of the Orthodox Church. Orientalist Protestants believed that Al-Habasha's church was the closest to them in the east for abiding by the biblical framework and being relative isolated. Meanwhile, the Falashas would deem any individual of their group sinful and outcast for following the missionaries; they filed complaints to Theodore amid rumors that the emperor would force them to convert. Aba Mahari believed such circumstances were a sign that a savior would rise to the occasion and save the Falashas and their faith. Like the people of Moses, those following Aba Mahari suffered disease, hunger and thirst. They were also attacked by bandits, while a large number of them drowned trying to cross the Tekeze river from Sudan's side. Rumor has it that Aba Mahari tried to part the river using a baton like what Moses did while crossing the Red Sea. While a few managed to go back to Gondar, some have tried to emulate Moses' trip again in the following years.

Beta Israel: a Product of Ethiopian History

In a book about the Falashas, Stephen Kaplan explains that the group was formed as a result of a series of events in the northern Ethiopian Highlands between the 16th and the 17th centuries, thanks to Jewish immigrants who came a long time ago from Egypt and Yemen. Beforehand, Maxime Rodinson put the link between Ethiopian culture and the Old Testament down to the effect of the Jews and their practices. The marriage of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba saw a war beak out in Ethiopia. The queen returned from Jerusalem while she was pregnant with Solomon's second son, Menelik I. All Ethiopia's emperors from the 13th century and beyond -- including Mengistu Haile Mariam who caused Haile Selassie to be asphyxiated before succeeding him -- belonged to the Solomonic dynasty. Kaplan did not know what to call the Falashas. Falasha was not their name when their local mountainous kingdom was still standing; they were only given this condescending name when they lost their independence and were deprived of their land. The name Beta Israel is also controversial, since according to Ethiopian writings, only members of the ruling Christian House of Solomon were referred to as Israelis. Ethiopian writings mentioned groups that the official church considered to be heretical, even though they believed that Jesus Christ was born as a human being then turned into a God. Beta Israel, even more heretical, believed that Jesus Christ had not yet been sent.

Separate Religion

The term "Jew" was not common among the Falashas, even though Scottish traveler James Bruce who discovered them while searching for the source of the Nile River classified them as Jews. In her recent French book, "Ethiopian Jews: from Gondar to the promised land", anthropologist Lisa Anteby stresses that the protestant missionaries drew European Jews' attention to the Falashas, and they also instilled in them a sense of being "Jews". The Falashas did not use Hebrew. Additionally, the Old Testament written in Ge'ez was not produced in rolls like the Torah. Beta Israel has literature consisting of books of Syriac Christian and Arab origins. The more local books came directly from the Ethiopian church's library, with nothing similar to Mishnah and Talmud. The Falashas observed the sanctity of Saturdays, when they would only eat cold food. However, they would ignore the Talmudic tradition to light candles before dusk. Falashas also abstained from having sex on Saturdays, whereas it is actually recommended according to Talmud. Similarly to Al-Habasha's Christians, Falashas would fast quite often; every Monday and Thursday as well as the 12th, 15th and 29th of each month, and would celebrate every full moon. The religious officials of Beta Israel had a lot in common with those of the Ethiopian church; they could get married but cannot be divorced, and had priests and monks within their ranks. Their houses of worship were called "mosques", mostly built with clay and straw bales. Their prayers were performed while standing with music Falashas' prayer halls consisted of yards, praying spaces and areas designated for priests. They were also the only Jewish group that kept sacrificing animals near their house of worship, a tradition all Jews stopped after Solomon's Temple was destroyed, a fact the Falashas only knew when they moved to Israel in the 1980s.

The "Lost Tribe" Theory

Over the course of centuries, the Falashas did not regard themselves as a lost Jewish tribe, but saw themselves as the only part of Israel that survived. The Falashas' isolation ended when they started communicating with European Jews. A few years after Aba Mahari and his followers left, linguistic professor Joseph Halévy who was specialized in Ethiopian languages, arrived in Gondar in 1867. White as he was, his attempts to convince the Falashas that he was one of them was met with sarcasm. Halévy promised them that European Jews would help and support them, but his story about the Falashas was doubted and neglected when he returned to Paris. During this time, near the end of the 19th century, large segments of the Falashas were increasingly converting to Christianity. Forty years later, prominent European scholar Jacob Faitlovitch, an old student of Halévy, arrived in Gondar from Lodz after he persuaded Baron Edmond James de Rothschild to fund his trip. When Faitlovitch told the Falashas that he was a Jew like them, they thought it was the same lie told by all white people to trick them into converting to Christianity. They told him another white man, Halévy, promised to take care of them and then vanished. Faitlovitch was impressed by the Falashas' feeling that they were different from their neighbors. He thought they descended from the Tribe of Dan that had been lost thousands of years ago, and took it upon himself to integrate them into the rest of the Jewish population. He wanted them to stop sacrificing animals and abandon monasticism, among other traditions. He also introduced to them some Jewish symbols and traditions, such as the Star of David and lighting candles on Saturday night. The Alliance Israélite Universelle doubted what Faitlovitch said about the Falashas and sent Chaim Nahum, who later became the chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire, to Gondar. Nahum thought otherwise, saying the Falashas were not Jews. However, he did not oppose their immigration into large European cities, which he believed would make them more civilized. Faitlovitch was religious and Zionist, and therefore was keen to encourage the immigration of the Falashas into Palestine. When he did not receive help from the Jewish Agency for Israel, he established schools in Eritrea and Ethiopia and tasked Tamrat Emmanuel, who he had sent to Europe for education, with managing them. Emmanuel was not keen to push for the emigration of the Falasha, even though he eventually opted to spend the rest of his life in Israel after losing his status as one of Emperor Haile Selassie's advisers. Concurrently, the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, a group that appeared among the Afro-Americans in the late 19th century, had the tendency to immigrate to Ethiopia. Some of them sought to build a settlement near the Falashas' villages.

The Law of Return, and the Law of Repentance

The Jewish state's stance on the Falashas was anything but consistent for decades. It pushed for an educational program for them in Ethiopia, only to reverse the decision later. The 1970s saw a turning point when American Jewish commissions started helping the Falashas, at the same time when the United Nations General Assembly voted that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination". The US commissions thought the UN vote can be revoked by discovering dark-skinned Jews and renewing the immigration into the Jewish state. Meanwhile, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel acknowledged Beta Israel as a Jewish group based on the Radbaz's opinion, and hence they became eligible to invoke "the law of return" and fly to Israel. In Ethiopia, which severed its ties with Israel after the 1973 war, Haile Selassie died and the Derg, a military junta, took over, causing civil wars to erupt. This is the context in which the Falashas moved to Israel. In the 1970s, the Falashas were only several hundreds. Today, they are estimated at 125,000 and have been represented by MPs in Israel since 1996. After the 1984 famine and the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to Sudan, including the Falashas, the Israeli intelligence -- Mossad -- coordinated with Nimeiry's regime in Sudan to secure the extraction of thousands by Belgian plans in what is known as "Operation Moses". There were testimonies of abuses the Falashas were subject to while being transported to camps, including sexual extortion of women. While they did not suffer during the Holocaust or the Italian occupation under Benito Mussolini, the Falashas' memory of pain was the relocation to Sudan and its aftermath. [caption id="attachment_71165" align="alignnone" width="833"] During an anniversary of the Ethiopian Jews' immigration to Israel.[/caption]   Years later, Operation Solomon took place in May 1991 while rebels surrounding Addis Ababa to topple Mengistu Haile Mariam. The operation aimed to transport 15,000 of the Falashas to Israel by planes over the course of two days. At the time, a problem emerged with the status of those who had converted to Christianity yet wanted to immigrate to Israel. There was a contradiction between the civil law of return and the Jewish Halakha; the law does not apply on those who converted to another religion, whereas Halakha gives converts, known as the Falasha Mura, the chance for repentance through certain traditions. This meant the Falasha Mura could fly to Israel if they declared repentance, although many of the converts had already been actively involved in evangelical churches' activities. [caption id="attachment_71166" align="alignnone" width="832"] The Falasha Mura.[/caption]

Circumcising the Circumcised

According to Lisa Anteby, the Falashas who clinched to their faith were the most to oppose the immigration of the Falasha Mura to Israel not only because they betrayed the group, but also because of the possibility they could end up being in a better position in Israel. Beta Israel once identified itself as the only chosen people and refused to be treated as a guilty group that must seek repentance. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has acknowledged the Falashas as Jews without asking them for repentance, yet did not accredit their religious figures. By mid-1980s the rabbinate thought it was important to enforce some draconian measures, such as Hatafat Dam Brit, a ritual circumcision for those already circumcised. It was not enforced after a wave of protests, yet the Rabbinate remained in charges of issues related to marriage, divorce and burials. The Falashas were shocked by many things once they have arrived in Israel. For example, they were staggered to know that carbonated beverages were available in stores, although it includes yeast. Many of them also refused medicine altogether, with some even promoting Al-Habasha's spiritual healing among the white Jews. Their eating habits were also different from the Jews'. For example, the Falashas would mix meat with cheese, which contradicts the kosher food instructions that prohibit the mixing of meat and dairy products. Today, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel warns the Falasha Mura of eating the food of the Falashas, or Beta Israel, because the latter does not slaughter animals pursuant to the Halakha methods, which ensure that a slaughtered animal would be drained of blood completely.


Israel's immigration office tried to deal with the Falashas differently than with Mizrahi Jews, who were offered dwellings in certain areas in the 1950s. Consequently, the Falashas became scattered in many cities and white Jews often treated them condescendingly. The discrimination the Falashas were suffering from has amplified correspondingly with an increase in the immigration of Eritrean, Ethiopian and Sudanese labor to Israel. Perhaps what has insulted the Falashas the most was the press revealing that most of the blood they had donated since their arrival was disposed of due to infections, including AIDS and malaria. The discrimination urged Ethiopian Israeli youth to develop a culture inspired by revolutionary African-American figures. Lisa Anteby highlights that black people across the world have a lot in common, saying the Afro-American and Jamaican music is one of the main traits of the Ethiopian community in Israel. [caption id="attachment_71167" align="alignnone" width="831"] A protest against racism in Israel, 2012.[/caption]   Today, one third of the Falashas are born in Israel. As an ethnic group, they are the most likely to volunteer to serve in the Israeli army, and they mostly vote for the Likud. They are still suffering from racism; in 2015, protests were triggered after a video of a Falasha soldier being beaten up by two policemen went viral. Meanwhile, singer and actress Ester Rada is being promoted as a model of success and an indication that the integration of the Ethiopian Jews into the Israeli society was a success. The name of late singer Ofra Haza, whose parents had emigrated from Yemen to Israel, was used to serve the same purpose.
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