The Ethiopian Jewish heritage is a rich and ancient one that deserves to be remembered. According to the Ethiopian historian Yohanes Zeleke, Ethiopian oral Jewish tradition maintains that Jews came to Ethiopia in stages, the earliest one being during the time of the famine in Canaan, when Abraham was forced to flee southwards. Ethiopian Jews believe that other waves include during the times of slavery in Egypt; during the reign of Manasseh of Judah, who sought to forcefully convert Jews into pagans; and another group came accompanying Melinik I, the son of King Solomon. Additional Jews are reported to arrive in Ethiopia following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
From the 7th century BCE up until 330 AD, Judaism was the official state religion of Ethiopia. However, Ethiopia became a Christian country when the Ethiopian Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity. The Christians behaved very brutally to the Jews in Ethiopia, resulting in them revolting and overthrowing their Christian overlords. In the 9th century, Ethiopia became a Jewish country again under the leadership of Queen Yeodit. However, following three additional centuries of Jewish rule, Egypt grew wary of the growing power of Jewish Ethiopia and united with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to overthrow the Jewish government in Ethiopia. Following the regime change in Ethiopia, countless Ethiopian Jews were murdered, sold into slavery, or forcefully converted to Christianity.
From the 14th century onward, with the brief exception of the rule of one Jewish emperor named Tewodros II in the 1800’s, the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews were forced to live as powerless and exploited landless peasants. However, in 1624, Jews did seek to regain their autonomy around the same time that Muslims in Ethiopia were also revolting against a policy of forced conversion, yet ended up instead committing a mass suicide that had an uncanny resemblance to Masada rather than be taken prisoner. At that time, all Ethiopian Jewish religious and history books were burnt as an attempt to eradicate Ethiopia’s Jewish heritage.
In the 20th century, the plight of Ethiopian Jews was very dire. When Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam rose to power in a coup d’état, 2,500 Jews were slaughtered and 7,000 additional Jews became homeless. Mariam’s Marxist ideology encouraged anti-Semitism within Ethiopia. In the 1980’s, Ethiopia forbade the practice of Judaism and the teaching of Hebrew. Countless Ethiopian Jews were imprisoned on fabricated charges of being Zionist spies and Ethiopian Jewish rabbis, known as Kesim, were constantly harassed by the Ethiopian government. Furthermore, forced military conscription took Jewish boys as young as 12 years old away from their families, who often never heard from their children again. Yet, to make matters even worse, a famine erupted around this time period as well.
While over 8,000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel between 1977 and 1984, most Ethiopian Jews were still in Ethiopia in 1984. Although Operation Moses which occurred between November 18, 1984 and January 5, 1985 brought 7,000 Jews to Israel, it came at a great humanitarian cost. In order to reach Israel, Ethiopian Jews were forced to march to Sudan at night, while hiding during the day from robbers and soldiers. 4,000 Ethiopian Jews would perish trying to make Aliyah, either from the poor sanitary conditions in the refugee camps in Sudan, from starvation along the way, disease, or from murder, and countless Ethiopian Jewish women were raped while trying to reach Israel.
However, after that point, the remainder of Ethiopian Jews, principally the elderly, the sick and small children who were unable to flee to Sudan, were stranded in Ethiopia. Over 1,600 Ethiopian Jewish children did not know the fate of their parents. It was only when rebels overthrew the Mariam dictatorship that Israel was able to rescue an additional 14,324 Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia, during Operation Solomon, in 1991. Today, over 36,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel.
Jews have lived in Ethiopia for over 2000 years. According to Ethiopian tradition, one-half of the population was Jewish before Christianity was proclaimed the official religion in the 4th century. The Jews maintained their independence for over 1000 years in spite of continuous massacres, religious persecution, enslavement, and forced conversions.
With the help of modern Portuguese weapons, the Amhara finally conquered the Jews in 1616, enslaving, converting, and killing them. Known as "Falashas" - a derogatory name meaning "stranger" or "exile" - Ethiopian Jews could no longer own land or be educated. Today Jews number only 25,000, less than 1 % of the population. Eighty-five percent live in Gondar Province, in the Semien Mountains near Lake Tana; the rest live in Tigre and Wollo Provinces.
Ethiopian Jews are Biblical, pre-Rabbinic Jews. They have the Torah (Written Law) but not the Talmud (Oral Law). Their language is not Hebrew, but Ge'ez. Their leaders are priests (kohanim) rather than rabbis. They have no knowledge or post-Biblical Jewish holidays such as Chanukah or Purim, or post-Biblical interpretations of the Law, e.g., the prohibition against mixing meat and milk. Until recently Ethiopian Jews practiced animal sacrifice, and ritual purification through immersion in water. Otherwise their religion is the same as Judaism throughout the world, including observance of the Sabbath and Biblical dietary laws. They are religious Zionists - i.e., they dream of a return to Zion. They call themselves Beta Israel (House of Israel), and have wanted to live in the modern state of Israel since its establishment in 1948.
Ethiopian Coptic Christianity incorporates an unusually large number of Judaic practices, including male circumcision, kosher dietary laws, and the Sabbath (which Christians observe on Saturday as well as Sunday). Christian emperors wore the Star of David on their crown, and Haile Selassie, the last of these emperors, was known as "Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God."
The incorporation of Jewish practices into Coptic Christianity has not benefitted Ethiopian Jews but, rather, has given rise to a great deal of hostility. The Kebra Nagast (Glory of Kings), the religious and national epic dating from the 14th century, illustrates Ethiopian Christianity's attitude toward Jews. It states that Ethiopia was chosen as Zion by God, because the Jews are "unworthy," "wicked," "Christ-killers," "enemies of God," and will therefore be exterminated. The Christians view the Jews, whose landlessness has forced them to work as potters and blacksmiths, as possessed by buda, a satanic occult power. This power, many Christians still believe, enables the Jews to turn into hyenas at night, possess young women, eat corpses or turn them into animals, prey on children, kill cattle, and turn people into donkeys to enslave them. Jews are often blamed for causing hunger, crop failure, blindness, insanity, illness, and death.
Missionaries helped to promote this idea of the evil Jew who torments Christians. Jesuits, arriving in 1541 with the Portuguese, wanted to convert Jews to Roman Catholicism, but they were banished in the 17th century. No other missionaries came until the mid-19th century, the height of the Protestants' conversion campaign. Shortly after the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews opened a missionary school, Jews tried to leave the country en masse, but many died from starvation, malaria, and beatings. Even after the missionaries were imprisoned and expelled, converted Jews continued to preach as lay teachers, and after World War II Haile Selassie welcomed back the exiled Protestant missionaries. To this day Ethiopian Jews are wary of strangers, and converts are ostracized.
Today, besides the 25,000 Jews known as Oritawi (Torah-true), there may be as many as 50,000 Maryam Wodet (Lovers of Mary) - Jews who, like the Marranos of Spain, converted to Christianity but secretly practice Judaism. Their main motive for converting was to gain land and to lose the stigma attached to being Jewish. But although they change their names and avoid smithing and pottery, they do not always pass for Christians; converts are seen as baptized Jews.
The Marxist government expelled missionaries in 1977. Although the government sees all religion as an enemy of the state, it could not successfully prohibit it. Christianity and Islam became official religions, and district representatives have held compulsory seminars dwelling on the evils of "non-traditional," illegal religions - i.e., Judaism and animism.
Under the new government's land redistribution policy, Jews are allowed to own land. However, the peasant associations in charge of distribution gave poor-quality land to Jews, and many are still without any land. Landlords continued to demand rent payments (50 % of the crop) even after land reform, and when Jews went to court their cases were thrown out.
Jews have been scapegoats of both the right and the left. On the right, an anti-Marxist former landowners' group, the Ethiopian Democratic Union, went on a rampage against the Jews in 1978, cutting children's feet off, bludgeoning babies, castrating men, raping women, torturing old people, and selling women and children into slavery. On the left, the Marxist-Leninist Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party has also attacked Jews as having "narrow nationalist" interests that are not acceptable in a modern (i.e. Amhara-dominated) state.
Jews have been persecuted by the government as well. In 1981, Major Melaku, member of the central ruling party and governor of Gondar Province, confiscated religious books, closed the synagogues and schools, imprisoned and tortured Hebrew teachers and religious leaders for teaching "Zionist propaganda," made it hard for Jews to travel in the country, and closed the market except on Saturdays - thus forcing Jews, who will not work or travel on the Sabbath, to hire Moslem middlemen who take most of the profits. Today no Jewish education or religious practices are allowed.
The government's policy against emigration is more stringently applied to the Jews because of the current regime's anti-Zionism. Allowing Ethiopian Jews to emigrate is viewed as indirect aid to Israel. Jews are arrested when they try to escape, and when a person does get out, others are arrested to obtain information. Once imprisoned, they are often tortured - hung, beaten, forced to walk on broken glass. According to an Ethiopian Jew who recently spoke in Boston, conditions are deteriorating.
In spite of this, many Jews have managed to escape to neighboring Arab countries where Jewish refugees are frequently harassed, arrested, tortured, killed, or kidnapped into slavery. As a result, many refugees pretend to be Christians. Others try to make it on their own, living outside refugee camps in a land where they do not know the language, culture, or religion. Approximately 3000 Jews are now in these refugee camps, and some visitors to the camps indicate that their situation is even more urgent than that of Jews who remain in Ethiopia.
Prior to 1975, Ethiopian Jews were not allowed to immigrate to Israel, although some were brought in to learn Hebrew in order to teach in Ethiopia. Others gained entry by disguising themselves as Christian pilgrims. In 1975, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi followed the Sephardic Chief Rabbi's 1973 declaration that the Beta Israel are indeed Jews, and they were granted automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. Despite this declaration, little was done to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Since 1980 this situation has been changing. Public awareness of Black Jews has increased, and the Begin government has made great strides in helping Ethiopian Jews resettle in Israel.
Over 3000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel. Upon arrival they are given medical treatment, as most suffer from eye, respiratory, or internal illnesses. They are taken by bus to an integration center where they remain for 12-18 months (other immigrants remain only six months at these centers), and are given free housing, health care, utilities, and a stipend.
For the first two weeks they are left alone with earlier arrivals from Ethiopia. They then begin an intensive course in Hebrew, and three or four newcomers are assigned to an Israeli who lives nearby and who will spend six to eight hours a day with them. Most Ethiopian Jews have never seen or used a bed, a cupboard, a gas stove, electricity, water faucets, or a toothbrush. Ninety-five percent are illiterate. They must learn how to hold a pencil, how to use canned goods, how to shop and use a bank if they are to adapt to life in Israel.
Ethiopian immigrants have adapted quickly to Israeli society: Many are studying at universities, or working as nurses, electronic technicians, farmers, and computer scientists. At the same time, they are trying to maintain their own cultural identity within Israeli society, making and selling their crafts, singing Ethiopian songs, and putting together an art exhibit - encouraged and aided by Israeli social workers. The World Zionist Organization is planning to establish a moshav (cooperative settlement) for Ethiopian Jews within the next two years.
Several groups have been formed in Israel and in North America to help Ethiopian Jews, including the Union for Saving Ethiopian Jewish Families (Israel), the Canadian Association for Ethiopian Jews, the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, and the Ethiopian Jewry Committee of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston.
In August 1982 the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs heard testimony on the status of Ethiopian Jews, and in April 1983 Reps. Stephen Solarz and Barney Frank sponsored a bill (H. Con. Res. 107) calling upon the U.S. government to express concern to "relevant foreign governments" and to seek ways to help Ethiopian Jews emigrate. On 19 July 1983 Paul Tsongas introduced a Senate version of the same bill (S. Con. Res. 55).
Ethiopian authorities have shown they are alert to public opinion, so Americans should write to their Representatives and Senators urging them to support these bills. The 1983 State Dept. Report on Human Rights Practices says, "In the religious and cultural areas, Falashas are worse off since mid-1981 than other ethnic groups in the Gondar Province." Ethiopian Jews constitute the most threatened Jewish community in the world.
In Ethiopia, the Jewish community struggled just to survive. During the 1980s, with famine and disease rampant in Ethiopia, NACOEJ sent 18 missions to Jewish villages, bringing in doctors, medicine, clothing, and school supplies. NACOEJ played a key role in the quiet rescue of Ethiopian Jews before and between Operations Moses and Solomon.
Following Operation Solomon, NACOEJ provided food, education, employment, and religious facilities to Ethiopian Jews waiting to make aliyah. Programs included a Jewish day school, daily School Lunch Program, Feeding Center for Children Under Age 6 & Pregnant and Nursing Mothers, adult education, and employment help for adults. NACOEJ also continued to play a significant role in enabling Ethiopian Jews make the journey to Israel.
In Israel today, the Ethiopian-Jewish community is an important part of society. However, their struggles are not yet over. Many Ethiopian-Israeli families live below the poverty line and cannot give their children the tools they need to do well in school. They strive to build a future, despite the obstacles.
NACOEJ programs in Israel help Ethiopian students build a bright future by providing them with educational and financial support. NACOEJ believes that a strong education today opens the door to success tomorrow.
NACOEJ programs include the Limudiah Intensive After-School Education Program, which provides assistance for Ethiopian elementary school children, the NACOEJ/Edward G. Victor High School Sponsorship Program to help Ethiopian-Israeli teens attain quality high school education, and the NACOEJ/Barney & Rachel Landau Gottstein Adopt-A-Student College Sponsorship Program that enables Ethiopian-Israeli college students pursue higher degrees.
The 20th century saw very difficult conditions. In the 1980’s, Ethiopia forbade the practice of Judaism and teaching Hebrew. Jews were imprisoned on fabricated charges of being Zionist spies and Ethiopian Jewish rabbis, known as Kesim, were constantly harassed by the Ethiopian government. Forced military conscription took Jewish boys as young as 12 years away from their families, who often never heard from them again. A famine erupted to make it worse. Israel made a major effort to move them to Israel. Today, over 36,000 Ethiopian Jews live there.
Ethiopia has a rich and ancient Jewish heritage. Judaism was the state religion of Ethiopia from the 7th century BCE to 330 CE, . However, It became a Christian country when the Ethiopian Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity. The Christians behaved very brutally to the Jews resulting in the revolt and overthrow of the Christians. In the 9th century it became a Jewish country again However, After three centuries of Jewish rule, Egypt grew wary of the growing power of Jewish Ethiopia and united with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to overthrow them. This led to the murder, sale, or forceful conversion to Christianity. This eventually led to a mass suicide that resembles Masada.