The North American Jewish community, the general American leadership, and the Israeli government all had a hand in rescuing the Ethiopian Jews known as the “Beta Israel,” who are forever grateful for these efforts. In 1973, Israeli Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef officially recognized the Beta Israel as part of international Jewry, assuring their universal acceptance. He called for the immediate reunification of this community with the rest of the Jewish People in their ancient homeland of Israel
Last week, after so many false and broken promises from the Israeli government on the matter of bringing the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the only Ethiopian Jewish member of the Israeli Parliament, Dr. Avraham Neguise, told Israeli media that “Israel doesn’t want Ethiopians.” There are no problems with bringing Jews from any other country into Israel; only those from Ethiopia are suspect, and are subjected to additional, onerous criteria for entry. According to the Israeli national statistics office, there are nearly half a million relatives of former-USSR immigrants who have no connection with the Jewish religion in Israel. But for Ethiopian Jews, there is a higher level of scrutiny. Some educated members of the Ethiopian Jewish community are also complaining that international Jewish philanthropic and educational agencies are not open to hiring Ethiopian Jews for any kind of professional leadership positions. I have had personal experiences of this nature with Jewish philanthropic agencies in the United States and Israel, which I hope to write about in the future. The former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has questioned why these things are happening in the best, most modern, civilized, democratic, and Biblical/Torahic country. This community is forgotten, and hidden Jews in Ethiopia are seeking for their voice to be heard, to allow them to move to Israel as Jews.
The Beta Israel hail from the Gondar region in Northern Ethiopia. This area, encompassing Gonder and Gojam, is where the great Nile River has its source, and it is the original home of the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews. There is a historical account from the early 15th century of the Ethiopian King of the Solomonic dynasty, surrounded by the Ottoman Empire, taking some members of the Beta Israel community with him to the North Showa region in Central Ethiopia. These Ethiopian Jews, part of the Beta Israel community, preserved their Jewish culture and maintained their tradition, but for various reasons, their contact with the larger Northern Ethiopian Beta Israel community was lost or limited.
The Central Ethiopian Jewish community was subjected to harsh persecution and oppression. They were forced to conceal their religious beliefs and practices within their own community and families. The surrounding non-Jewish Ethiopian community called them the “Bal Ej,” which means “the handymen.” They were also known as the “Buda,” the same name given to the Northern Ethiopian Beta Israel Jews, meaning, belief in the power of the evil eye and the ability to change into a hyena. Non-Jewish Ethiopians believed that all Ethiopian Jews, those from both the Northern and Central regions, had the power to kill their children simply by gazing at them, or might, at night, morph into hyenas and eat their offspring. As a child in Ethiopia, I remember one non-Jewish Ethiopian neighbor asking my mother to spit on her baby, in the hope that this would protect the child, as it was thought that one would not consume her own saliva. These superstitions bear an eerie resemblance to anti-Semitic myths that took hold in Europe.
Jacques Faitlovitch was a historian who visited Ethiopia in the first half of the 20th century and, along with the esteemed contemporaneous Ethiopian Jewish leader, Ato Yona Bogala, became influential in convincing the rest of international Jewry that the Jews of Ethiopia were full members of the same ancient Children of Israel. In 1908, the chief rabbis of 45 countries issued a joint statement officially accepting the Jewishness of the Ethiopian Jews, and 13 years later, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine, formally recognized the Beta Israel as Jews. The elders and most senior members of the Ethiopian Jewish community know of these “Bal Ej” Jews from the central Ethiopia (North Shewa) region and acknowledge them as part of their own People, as do the current Chief Qes and Chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, despite their limited power to effect a practical decision towards this end.
After months of protests by Ethiopian Jews against institutionalized racism in Israel in 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted that racism exists in Israel and that the Ethiopian community has been its victim. Consequently, he formed a special committee to address this issue. However, we have not seen clear evidence of or heard any updated report on this committee’s efforts towards equal treatment under the law of the land, and high-ranking government officials continue to deplore the status quo. In my personal conversations and meetings with our community leaders, we have shared our confusion about the Prime Minister’s words and actions, upon seeing the Knesset hold up the Ethiopian Aliyah without any clear reason. My own observation confirming that the Prime Minster of our Jewish State and his admiration have no respect for people like me, Jews from Ethiopian or of other African origin, was made last summer, on July 6, 2016, when he visited Ethiopia and could not spare even ten minutes of his time to visit the community or to meet the Ethiopian Jewish leaders. I have yet to hear of the Prime Minster providing clear information about or issuing a caring statement regarding the release of the Ethiopian hostage Avraham Menguest, an Israeli citizen, from the hold of Hamas. To my knowledge, the Prime Minister meets local Jewish community leaders on all his official visits to foreign countries, so why not the Ethiopian ones? Historically, when Israeli citizens have been held hostage by terrorist organizations, certain protocols of communication with the family, local citizens, and the foreign captors are followed. And so, again, why not for the Ethiopian Jewish Israeli citizens? In my humble respect can I say Are they not equal to the others?
On March 6, 2017, the Jerusalem Post quoted deputy speaker of the Israeli Parliament, MK Hilik Bar’s statement, in reference to the Jews left behind in Ethiopia who are being called upon to meet an exceptionally high burden of proof in order to make Aliyah, that “this is a great injustice and we must end this shameful saga and make sure we bring them all to Israel immediately.”
Israel and the international Jewish community should be wise and use their brethren, the Ethiopian Jewish professionals, to present a better picture of the State of Israel or of the international Jewish community to the world. The Ethiopian Jews are very humble and strong lovers of Jerusalem and of the State of Israel. They are a great source of social capital for the Jewish world. Today, Ethiopian Israeli youth are talking about creating a movement to return to Ethiopia, due to their suffering of racism in the Land of Israel. Two prominent leaders of the community and former members of the Israeli Parliament have already returned to Ethiopia. They have made their homes and work back there, in the Land of Ethiopia. During the Summer of 2015, amidst Ethiopian Israeli protests against racism, the Ethiopian-born former Member of the Israeli Parliament, Adisu Massala, stated from his home in Addis Ababa, “I’m sorry to see that the younger generation is protesting over the same issues that I [fought for] thirty years ago,” adding that he felt guilty for being away from his comrades as they fought for their rights.
Presently, too, the Ethiopian Jewish “Bal Ej” community remaining in Addis Ababa in the area of “Kechenea” has built its own Modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue, called Beta Salam, ቤተ ሠላም “the House of Peace,” and practices Judaism according to its knowledge. As an Ethiopian Jew who cares for the community, I recently donated 55 of these siddurim to The Beta Salam Synagogue in Addis Ababa, in memory of my grandparents and in honor of the births of my sons. However, because of its African origin, the international Jewish community and the Israeli government have not given this community its due recognition or extended it the hope of ingathering to Israel. As they are true brethren and genuine Jews, it is time to raise these members of our People from their corner of the earth and bring them upright to Israel. As in the past, the North American Jewish community, international Jewry at large, and the Israeli government all bear great responsibility for the work of bringing these long-lost Jews home finally.
Former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and NYU professor Rabbi Jonathan Sacks considers, in his recent commentary on the weekly Torah portion, “Essays on Ethics,” why it may be that so many Jews are lawyers. His understanding of this phenomenon rests on the central role that law, and its close relatives, justice and social order, play in Judaism. The values inherent in these institutions, he writes, are at the heart of the Jewish faith and its unique contributions to the human endeavor. It is these ends that must be upheld if we, as a People, are to be true to ourselves. And yet, they are the very ones at peril when all are not treated equally, on their merits, regardless of race. Sadly, that is the situation that now prevails in our Land, with respect to the Ethiopian Jews. And that is what I write about here, in the hope of effecting a remedy there, that we may finally fulfill the Biblical imperative to establish Justice within our borders, for all who live peacefully in our midst.
Shmuel Legesse is a social activist on behalf of the Ethiopian Jewish community, who has represented the Israeli Knesset in International Public Affairs and served in the Israeli police force. He holds a master’s degree in Community Leadership and Philanthropy from Hebrew University and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Administration while studying for Rabbinic ordination.