Sharon Shalom

Baseless Hatred? The Ethiopian Jewish Experience

Since Hamas’ barbaric attacks of October 7th, my son has asked me several times: “Why do they hate us? What did we do to these people who are murdering our babies? All in all, we just took our own land back from them.”

These are weighty questions. What is the source of their hatred? What are the causes of antisemitism? The Bible has asked and answered these questions.

In the Torah portion of Toldot, chanted last Shabbat in synagogues around the world, we read about the struggle of two brothers, Jacob and Esau, in their mother’s womb. This is an a priori struggle. The Sages said in the Midrash: “It is a well known halacha (rule) that Esau hates Jacob.” That’s how it is. Their hatred is ontological; it has no explanation.

On the other hand, later in the Torah, we do get the impression that there is a reason for the hatred. Esau hates Jacob because Jacob took both his blessing and his birthright. That is, the hatred is not a priori or stemming from their mother’s womb. It is only after they were born that Jacob’s disdainful and deceitful behavior towards Esau engendered his hatred.

The question of Esau’s hatred has occupied, currently occupies and will always continue to occupy us. In general, there are two opinions on the matter. According to one, there is a reason for anti-Semitism; And according to the other, anti-Semitism has no reason. The second approach is problematic for our rationality. Is antisemitism really a phenomenon that has no explanation?

Maybe the answer is both. Hamas’ hatred for Israel is reminiscent of the baseless hatred of our previous historical tormentors. As noted, this is a Halacha. But maybe there is still something that the Jews are guilty of that arouses their hatred towards us? And how does the history of Ethiopian Jews shed light on the matter? As usual, we will travel a little through the history of Ethiopian Jews to answer our questions.

Although Ethiopian Jews maintained their uniqueness as Jews, they did not differ in appearance or dress from their non-Jewish Ethiopian neighbors. There was nothing external – visual or behavioral — that would give rise to a reason to hate them. Despite this, historical research confirms my extensive personal experience as someone who experienced antisemitism in Ethiopia, that the hatred towards Jews has always existed, and it simply took different forms. For example, the fact that Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewry) specialized in creating crafts of clay, weaving and construction, was a consequence of their being prohibited from land ownership, by the non-Jewish Ethiopian rulers. This ban was imposed under the rule of the Christian Emperor Isaac (1413-1430). The prohibition on land ownership required the Beta Israel to engage in vocations. They were forced to abandon non-mobile assets and agriculture to take mobile jobs such as carpentry, clay and iron work.

The historian Steven Kaplan writes, “According to the sources, Emperor Isaac said to the people of Beta Israel: Whoever is baptized as a Christian will be able to inherit his father’s land. Whoever does not do so lose it […] It is almost indisputable that Isaac’s reign marks the beginning of the long-standing policy of dispossessing Beta Israel of their lands…”

This process required the Beta Israel to investigate new economic strategies. The majority of the sons and daughters of Beta Israel accepted the circumstances and decided to convert their physical assets into assets capable of earning, such as implements for pottery, blacksmithing and weaving  (Quirin, J.A). There is no doubt that this move, which brought about significant transformations in the Beta Israel’s worlds of work and livelihood, contributed significantly to the survival of their community from an economic point of view. Due to their professional skills, the Beta Israel were an essential part of the construction of the city of Gondar in 1635.

However, engaging in these crafts, despite their economic advantages, exacted a heavy social price.  Being viewed as craftmakers marked the Beta Israel as a distinct, inferior and low status group in the general social hierarchy. “In the eyes of the Christians, the Jews were a kind of impure and semi-despicable sect. Their occupation in blacksmithing gave them an aura of evil Sorcerers. Their inferiority was illustrated by the prohibition that applied to them of owning land” (Hagi Ehrlich).

Here too, we are called upon to distinguish between the cause and the effect. Is it the very fact that the Beta Israel were forbidden to own private land that led it to engage in these crafts and therefore to being perceived as inferior?  Or is it possible that a pre-existing perception of the Beta Israel as inferior led Ethiopian society to dispossess them from their private lands?

One way or another, it seems that Beta Israel was caught in a religious and social reality where, on the one hand, the prohibition to own land led them to engage in crafts attributed to witchcraft and magic, and on the other hand, engaging in these crafts led to a negative attitude towards them from their fellow Ethiopians. And still, if we overlook this and other prohibitions, the relations between Jews and Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia,  on a person to person level, were most of the time, good.

The story of the Ethiopian Jews accurately reminds us of the history of the Jews everywhere, at every point on the globe. These dilemmas faced Jews in every time and era, before the Zionist movement, before the establishment of the State, before the lines of ’48 and before the lines of ’67.

We can learn two lessons from this. On the one hand, we cannot have illusions about how many non-Jews feel about us. On the other hand, we must believe that ways can be found to lower the walls of hatred between us and our neighbors. For the Christian world, it took almost two thousand years. I hope that the Muslim world, especially the haters of Israel, will take less time, for the benefit of all humanity.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom is the founding director of Ono Academic College's International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry. He is also the author of Dialogues of Love and Fear (Koren, 2021) and From Sinai to Ethiopia (Gefen, 2016).
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