Ethiopian Jews


Ethiopian Jews
   Sometimes called Falashas, meaning "strangers." Folklore in Ethiopia and in some traditional Jewish circles explains the existence of the Jewish community in Ethiopia as deriving from the 10th century BC union of Israel's King Solomon and the queen of Sheba. Others say Jews have been in Ethiopia since the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC and that they could be descendants of the lost tribe of Dan. In Ethiopia, the Jews lived primarily in small villages in the mountainous regions, where they were subsistence farmers, with a close-knit social structure and family life.
   Israel's relationship with Ethiopia began in the prestate period, when, acting on behalf of the British government, the Zionist community in Palestine provided military and technical assistance to the forces of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie in their efforts to evict the invading Italian army. The quality of bilateral relations expanded in 1960, when Israel assisted Ethiopia in combating the Arab-backed rebellion in the breakaway province of Eritrea. In return for this assistance, Ethiopia granted Israel de jure recognition in 1961. Over the subsequent decade, Israel sent hundreds of military and economic advisors to Ethiopia, and Israeli academics played a role in helping to establish the Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia severed diplomatic relations with Israel in October 1973 under pressure from the Arab and Muslim oil-producing countries.
   In 1977, Israel agreed to airlift military and medical supplies to Ethiopia in exchange for Israel's being permitted to take about 200 Ethiopian Jews on the returning transport planes. Between 1980 and 1984, some 7,000 Ethiopian Jews fled the civil war in their country and made their way to Israel; many arrived only after spending many months in squalid refugee camps in neighboring Sudan. During a period of about 2 months beginning in November 1984, more than 6,500 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel as part of Operation Moses. An additional 700 were transported to Israel in March 1985 in Operation Sheba. In total, some 14,300 Ethiopian Jews reached Israel between 1972 and August 1985. In May 1991, Operation Solomon brought an additional 14,400 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, all in a 24-hour period. From the Falash Mura compound in Addas Ababa came 3,105 immigrants (see ALIYA) to Israel.
   In a June 1997 cabinet decision concerning the Ethiopian Jews, the Interior Ministry decided to extend the mission of the special consul in Addis Ababa to examine the right to immigrate by the communities in Kwara (Qwara) and Gondar in accordance with the Law of Return. The ministry also sought to expedite the immigration procedures, but conditions in Ethiopia led to fraudulent attempts to immigrate, and lack of adequate records slowed the process. In May and June 1999, steps were undertaken to bring to Israel the remnants of the Jewish community residing in the Kwara Province of Ethiopia. And in 1998, though there were some serious problems in the early stages of their absorption, the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews rapidly became fully integrated in Israeli society.
   The airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel raised the issue of whether the Ethiopian Jews were in fact to be considered Jews under Jewish law and practice. The spiritual leaders of the Ethiopian community, known as kessim (singular, kess), were excluded from acting as rabbis in Israel despite their traditional role among the Ethiopians as rabbis and were prohibited from performing weddings, but there was the broader issue of discrimination and related matters. The central issue was the recognition of the rights of Ethiopian Jews in all aspects of Israeli life and society. In part, the issue derives from the fact that the Ethiopian Jews were isolated from Jewish oral law and rabbinical interpretations and relied instead on the Torah as the basis of their beliefs. The Ethiopian Jews refer to themselves as Beta Israel (House of Israel). The chief rabbinate of Israel insisted that the kessim catch up on the oral law to be accepted as practicing rabbis in Israel.
   In Ethiopia, the kessim presided over marriages and divorces, circumcisions, and funerals, and they sought the same rights in Israel. Israel's chief rabbinate refused until they studied relevant Jewish law and were appropriately certified. The Ethiopian Jewish tradition goes no further than the Bible or Torah. The Talmud and the commentaries that form the basis of modern Jewish traditions were never incorporated into their system.
   A related issue is the fate of thousands of Ethiopian Christians of Jewish descent and the campaign to bring them to Israel.
   See also Foreign Policy; Who is a Jew.

Historical Dictionary of Israel. .

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