A critical and historical crossroads for the Beta Israel

Ethiopian olim exiting the plane after touching down at Ben Gurion Airport. (Olivier Fitoussi, courtesy of The Jewish Agency for Israel) via Jewish News
Ethiopian olim exiting the plane after touching down at Ben Gurion Airport. (Olivier Fitoussi, courtesy of The Jewish Agency for Israel) via Jewish News

In the middle of the 19th century, a new and mysterious world of Jews in faraway Ethiopia was revealed through an exchange of letters between the leaders of Ethiopian Jewry and the sages of the Holy Land. The moving letters caused a stir in the community and set the wheels in motion for the return of Ethiopian Jews to their people and homeland.

The publication of these letters in the British Jewish press in 1847 and then later in the French Jewish press, in my opinion, played a central and important part of raising awareness of the existence of Ethiopian Jews – Beta Israel. This discovery then brought back to the centre stage the mystery that surrounded the disappearance of the lost tribes of Israel.

Following the publication of the letters, rabbis as well as the general public saw this as the fulfilment of the vision of the prophet Isaiah about the return of a lost tribe. And reports that Protestant missionaries began working to convert Jews to Ethiopian villages created a wave of practical organizing among Diaspora Jews to connect Ethiopian Jews to the Jewish world. Emissaries were sent to Ethiopia, important rabbis decided that they were Jews and distributed letters calling for their rescue.

For example, in 1864, Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer – one of the most influential rabbis in Germany – published a public announcement in a Jewish newspaper, talking about the difficulties and dangers in the lives of Ethiopian Jews. In the letter, he opines on the question of their Judaism and declares that it is his consideration that they are Jews and must be rescued, and even recommends several actions. As he writes in his public “kol kora” – “Our brothers are our flesh and blood, and the time has come to save them.”

This was the beginning of a concerted effort to connect Ethiopian Jewry to the rest of the Diaspora Jews, but hope faded as the reality of the undertaking required proved difficult and the Jews in the villages in Ethiopia were left in the dark. And so the path of Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to the Promised Land has always been full of challenges and pitfalls.

In the late 1970s, a historic breakthrough occurred and immigration from Ethiopia began.

This Aliyah is widely believed by many in the Beta Israel community to have been carried on the wings of divine providence itself. It was their faith that motivated them to go to Zion, to Jerusalem, on foot on arduous journeys to Sudan, risking their lives. Their one goal was to fulfil the dream of more than 2,000 years, to return to Jerusalem.

And thanks to loyal emissaries, brave men and women, from within and outside the Ethiopian Jewish community, from within Israel and from the diaspora around the world, who fought against walls of resistance and defeated them. The first to fulfil the generational dream of longing for Zion.

Today, a debate is raging about the status of a new wave of Ethiopian immigration. It is worth noting that there are significant differences between Ethiopian Jews from Beta Israel who immigrated to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s, who maintained their Judaism piously and did not assimilate in Ethiopia, and those who wait in the transit camps and are questioned whether they are from ‘Israel’s seed’. And this may be the subject of a separate article. But looking clear-eyed at the present situation, it seems as if history is repeating itself. And the press becomes a major player again.

At the time of writing, the war in Ethiopia, which is taking its toll on its citizens – and has long been a war not only between soldiers – has raised the issue of the ‘seed of Israel’ in the public debate, both in Israel and around the world. The state of emergency has created a lively debate in Israel about what to do with those in the transit camps and in the Tigray region.

It is important to emphasize that the issue is complex and has been challenging the State of Israel for many years. Even among Ethiopian Jews from Beta Israel in Israel, there are disagreements over whether they are from the ‘seed of Israel’.

And all the time I and many others find ourselves faced with questions like – so how many Jews really remain in Ethiopia? After all, a few years ago it was said that the Aliyah missions were over, but more and more are coming. So, when will it stop? But I am reluctant to answer such a question, because, despite attempts to turn this question into one for which the answer is yes or no, the answer is much more complicated.

At the same time, it is necessary to grapple with the main issues, and it is time to decide on the matter once and for all. Lives are at stake. We must remember that we are currently in a crisis situation that cannot be ignored. Many of those in Ethiopia have been waiting for immigration for many years. They are in the transit camps and study Hebrew and Torah there, pray in a synagogue and more. And they believe that they will immigrate to the Land of Israel. This situation requires a solution. It’s time to dive deep inside and face these difficult and challenging questions.

History has taught us that the moments in time when everything connects and an opportunity for real change emerges are rare. And such an opportunity has come our way these days.

We are at a critical and historical crossroads. The war and resultant humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia rages on and puts pressure on us to find a solution. There is also a new government with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid – who is also the Alternate Prime Minister – and who has demonstrated his commitment to resolving the situation. Such an opportunity where all the stars align is not likely to be repeated.

Even today, as in the 19th century, we foresee the power of the media, both at home and abroad, and the power of the Jews of the Diaspora to propel the ship and assist at this historic juncture.


About the Author
Roni Fantanesh Malkai is a community advocate and activist based in Northern Israel.
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