David Silon

Israel and Ethiopia

Since the massive aliyah from Ethiopia in the mid-80s, the governments of Ethiopia and Israel have maintained close diplomatic relations. Even in spite of all the events since October 7th, relations are still close.  And now, Jews are able to go back and forth between the two countries freely. Individual Jews who desire to make aliyah, have left parents or other family members behind, either voluntarily or due to the seemingly racist policies of the rabbinic authorities who were not that receptive with them to begin with. Now Israeli citizens, and in spite of some racist incidents with Israeli officials, many thousands are proudly serving in the IDF in Gaza, constituting some of its bravest soldiers – and they also made their fair share of sacrifices. For example, Master Sergeant Kalkidan Meharim of the Negev town of Ofakim, was killed in battle on May 24th. His mother, who still lived in Ethiopia, was notified of her son’s death, and immediately flew to Israel for his funeral.

It is not really well known how far and deep relations between Israel and Ethiopia go, not to mention how long the Jewish community there had been in existence. There’s a custom that the last Ethiopian dynasty, which Haille Selassie belonged to, was descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (In fact, the Royal Ethiopian flag had emblazoned on it, the Lion of Judah.)

It was probably during the time of King Solomon that the first Jews settled in, what is now Ethiopia. According to tradition, they were of the Tribe of Dan. Eventually, and for the most part, this community became isolated from other communities, both Diaspora and the Land of Israel, for the first, approximately, 2000 years of its existence. It wasn’t until the 9th century that the iconic traveler Eldad ben Mahli haDani (the Danite), who some historians believe was from Ethiopia, traveled throughout the lands of the Middle East and North Africa, including the Land of Israel, telling of the powerful Jewish community there. At the time, no one doubted him, but centuries later, some of the most prominent rabbis questioned his stories.

For many centuries, because the community was not nearly as familiar as other Diaspora communities, there were often debates among the rabbis of the authenticity of their Jewishness. In addition, many Ethiopian Jews tended to avoid traveling to the Land of Israel until the coming of the messiah. Yet, there were many instances of Ethiopian Christians making pilgrimages due to their veneration of Holy Scripture. In the 12th century, during the Crusader period, the king of Ethiopia, Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, was so inspired by reports coming from these pilgrims, that he sought to build a new spiritual city, named after himself, as an attempt to recreate Jerusalem in his kingdom. The famous rock-hewn Church of Saint George, one of a series of churches built in the city during that time, was inspired by the king’s vision.

Early in the 15th century, the first recorded aliyah from Ethiopia took place. They came, along with Jews from other Eastern countries, and were among those who corresponded with the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Elijah of Ferrara. They had told him of the wars of the Jewish community against the legendary King, Prester John, giving rise to messianic expectations.

Many of the rabbis in Jerusalem, still not convinced of their authenticity, often shunted them to the side of Jewish society. As a result, the Ethiopians found themselves in the same category as the Karaites, who were also not considered fully part of the Jewish people. Therefore, the two groups drew closer together – so much so that the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem came to be guarded by two Ethiopians.

Since then however, more and more rabbis seemed to be convinced that they were indeed fully Jewish and should be treated as such. In the early 16th century, before the Ottoman conquest, Rabbi Avraham Halevy, who had made aliyah from Morocco, often corresponded with the Jews in Ethiopia. This correspondence continued even after the Ottoman conquest. The agitation caused by the false messiah David Reuveni, who had proclaimed himself to be of the tribe of Reuven (hence, his last name), was felt, not only throughout the Land of Israel, but also in Southern Europe as well. Historians have long debated his Diaspora ancestry and it remains unclear whether he was a Jew from Ethiopia or Arabia or Yemen. By the 1570s, news reached the kabbalists in Tzfat regarding Jewish participation in the Christian-Muslim wars then raging in Ethiopia.

The question of Ethiopian Jewry’s authenticity was finally resolved in 1855 with the arrival of an official from that community, Daniel Ben Hamdya, who went to Jerusalem to convince the rabbinic authorities that Ethiopian Jews were indeed fully Jewish like any other. In this, he succeeded, and slowly but surely, contact between the Jews in Ethiopia with those of other Diaspora communities as well as the Land of Israel, was established. In 1862, a certain Aba Mahari, like David Reuveni before him, claimed himself to be the messiah, and attempted to lead the entire Jewish community back to the ancestral homeland. He gained many followers; but the journey was not very successful. Many people died along the way. And the rest returned to Ethiopia.

Around the beginning of the Zionist movement in 1882, Yakub Yalo became the first Ethiopian Jew to study at a mainstream yeshiva in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, one of the central tenets of the Zionist movement became the total erasure of any Jewish history in the ancestral homeland, aside from Biblical history. This had many dire consequences, one being the Zionist rabbis’ refusal, typically ignoring and disrespecting the rulings of the pre-Zionist rabbis, to recognize the authenticity of Ethiopian Jewry. But there were many Jews, mainly from Europe, and especially France, who decided to ignore this Zionist stupidity and would work tirelessly against this rabbinic racism. Jacques Faitlovich, a French Jew, was a leader in this. He had long studied, and lived among, the Jews in Ethiopia and he tirelessly advocated for their rights, as Jews, later establishing advocacy organizations in Europe, Israel, and the United States. By the 1920s, he succeeded in bringing over a group of Ethiopian Jewish school children and educators to Mandatory Palestine, to become acquainted with the contemporary Jewish community, especially in regards to education.

By the early 30s, there were frequent visits from members of the Ethiopian Royal house, and the Jews were often their hosts. In fact, in 1933, the Empress of Ethiopia visited, and even attended a performance of the opera Rigoletto, performed in Tel Aviv. During World War II, Emperor Haille Selassie sought refuge in the Land of Israel after the Italians invaded his country.

Fortunately, the initial racism from the rabbinic authorities now seems to have largely dissipated, largely. The following list of prominent Ethiopians who have made their mark on Israeli society, is by no means complete:

Taamrat Emmanuel – close friend and ally of Jacques Faitlovich. He had previously studied in France and Italy where he was ordained a rabbi. After he and Faitlovich had lived in Mandatory Palestine for two years, they both returned to Ethiopia, where Emmanuel taught until his aliyah after Israeli independence. Unfortunately, he would experience the constant racism from the Israeli rabbinate until the day he died, in Tel Aviv in 1963. Yona Bogale – educator and Aliyah activist. Originally one of the students brought to Mandatory Palestine by Faitlovich. Rabbi Yefet Alemu – received smicha from the Schechter Institute after receiving a BA and MA. Adisu Massala – first Ethiopian-Israeli to serve in the Knesset, member of the Labour party and later One Nation. Shlomo Molla – politician and former member of the Knesset for the Kadima party. Meskie Shibru-Sivan – actress and vocalist. Abatte Barihun – jazz saxophonist and composer. Rabbi Yosef Hadane – Chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian community, from a prominent family of religious leaders and activists; first in his family to make aliyah. In 1979, he became the first Ethiopian Israeli to be ordained an orthodox rabbi. Son of Kes Raphael Hadane of Dembiya who, with his household, later followed him to Israel where he fought for the acceptance of the Falash Mura as Jews. Rabbi Mazor Bahaina – member of the Shas party and a former Knesset member. Pnina Tamano-Shata – first Ethiopian-Israeli Government Minister, member of Yesh Atid. Former journalist in Channel 1 and the first Ethiopian-Israeli presenter. Ziv Caveda – midfielder for Hapoel Holon. Esti Mamo – model. One of the first Ethiopian-Israelis to make it into the entertainment industry. The sisters Ayala and Malka Ingedashet – popular singers. Sirak M. Sabahat – actor, star of the French film “Live and Become”. Rahamim Elazar – activist and Amharic language newscaster in Rekha radio. Shai Biruk – midfielder, first for Hapoel Ashkelon, later for Hapoel Kfar Sava. Ester Rada – actress and singer. Hagit Yaso – singer, winner of Kochav Nolad 9. Avraham Neguise – one of Israel’s most prominent Ethiopian Activists and a member of the South Wing to Zion. His struggle, with the support of many other Ethiopian-Israelis, has resulted in the Israeli government continuing to bring the last 23,000 Jews from Ethiopia. Member of the Knesset for the Likud. Yityish Titi Aynaw – Miss Israel 2013 who went on to represent Israel at the Miss Universe pageant. Eden Alene – singer, winner of the third season of The X Factor Israel and of the 7th season of HaKokhav HaBa, represented Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2021. Mazi Melesa Pilip – served in the IDF. After marrying her American husband, she moved to the United States where she entered politics; served in New York’s Nassau County Legislature.

About the Author
David currently lives in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles pursuing many interests. He is totally anti-Zionist and is a pro-Israel blogger who also blogs about the histories of the other Arab-occupied indigenous peoples of the Middle East and North (see His booklet, The Occupied Territories [by David Marc], about these indigenous peoples, is currently sold on Amazon.
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