July 12, 2024
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Acheinu Beta Israel: The Jews of Abyssinia

Question: Does anyone know what Injera is? I doubt that many people do. But most of us are familiar with laffa, or malawach, or Indian naan.

Well, Injera is the national dish in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It was introduced by the Jews of Ethiopia, or Beta Yisrael, who made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael.

The history of Beta Esra’el (Beta Ysrael) in Ethiopia is fairly similar to that of other Jewish communities in the Diaspora. For many generations their foreignness made them targets for hostility, harsh legislation, forced conversion, persecution and even murder by their neighbors. The amazing fact that they survived so hostile an environment says much for the determination and will to exist which have empowered Jews everywhere to endure difficult times, through their devotion and praise of Hashem’s name.

This is what Beta Ysrael has in common with other Diaspora Jewish communities. However, there are two features which distinguish the history of Beta Israel from those of other exiles.

First of all, Beta Ysrael has been completely isolated from the rest of the Jewish people, including those in neighboring Yemen and Egypt, for about 2,400 years. This is extremely significant and illustrates the uniqueness of the community. Of all Jewish communities which have survived to this day, Beta Ysrael is the one which most merits the description “lost” or “distant” tribe.

Secondly, the Jews of Ethiopia enjoyed a “golden” period of independence and rule. During the power struggles and wars of the Middle Ages, the Falashas were not an unfortunate minority persecuted by the rulers and native population. On the contrary, for centuries the Jews were a powerful force among the Abyssinian tribes. They apparently numbered in the hundreds of thousands; they fought and rebelled. They were even at times victorious and assumed power.

The Jews and their history in Abyssinia are first mentioned explicitly sometime around the 10th century. Around 960, the Falashas and the Agau tribes rebelled against the kings of Aksum (the dynasty of Menelik) and the dominant Christian religion. The uprising was led by a queen known as Judith or Esther, sometimes identified as “the Jewess,” leader of the Falashas. Judith set out to eradicate Christianity from the land, burning churches and monasteries and slaughtering monks and priests. Following here, a new royal dynasty, called the Zagwe, rose to power and ruled Abyssinia for about 350 years. Apparently the Ethiopian Jews enjoyed great influence under this regime.

The Menelik Dynasty resumed control in the latter half of the 13th century and launched war almost incessantly against the Falashas. The result was the effective loss of Falasha independence, with the final downfall of the Jews of Ethiopia sometime in the early 17th century.

In 1332, Emperor Amda Siyon (1314-1344) sent his military commander, Tzaga Chrisus, to attack the Falashas, who had risen against him in northern and western Abyssinia, as he pursued a holy war against the Muslims in the south and east. He repressed the Falashas cruelly and pushed them back to their strongholds in the Semyen Mounts.

Amda Siyon’s great-grandson, Negus Ishak (1414-1429), also fought the Falashas and built churches on the ruins of their synagogues. Twenty-four Abyssinian judges were dismissed for daring to protest against the evil done to the Jews.

Negus Za’ra Ya’kob (1434-1468) continued the persecutions and added the title “Exterminator of the Jews” to his name. His subjects were required to tie a strip of parchment to their foreheads bearing an inscription expressing their commitment to the Christian faith. Interestingly enough, however, Jewish influence grew during his reign. Contemporary Abyssinian chronicles tell of Jewish converts, including the son of the Negus Abba Tzaga, who became a well-known and influential Jewish hermit and friend of Abba Tzabra, one of the community’s spiritual leaders.

The warfare and persecution continued, on and off, throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. Echoes of the wars spread far and wide. Jews in Mediterranean countries who heard of the battles or met Falasha prisoners of war offered for sale in slave markets, primarily in Egypt, believed that the strife might indicate the coming of the Messiah, since this event was supposed to be preceded by war between Jews and Christians.

During the reign of Negus Lebna Dengel (1508-1540) and his son Claudius (1540-1559), Muslim forces under Arab Emir Ehmed Garan, ruler of eastern Ethiopia and Somalia, conquered broad stretches of Ethiopia including Semyen and Dembia, where the Jews had settled. With the help of the Portuguese, who intervened in Abyssinia (at the time one of Portugal’s New World discoveries en route to India), Negus Claudius liberated his land from the Muslims and took revenge on the Falashas and their king, Yoram, whom he executed for aiding the Muslim enemy. The new Falasha King, Radi, went to war with Negus Minas (1559-1563); upon defeat, however, he was taken prisoner by Minas’ successor, Negus Sarsa-Dengel (1563-1597).

A detailed chronicle describes Sarsa-Dengel’s brutal wars against the Falashas, under the leadership of Kaleb, Radai’s brother, wherein the Jews were badly beaten. The Abyssinian chronicle describes Falasha acts of heroism at the very time when their downfall became increasingly clear.

The war between the Falashas and the king’s forces intensified. Kaleb’s forces employed the device of rolling stones upon their enemies so they could not climb the mountain; the king’s forces had to postpone their ascent accordingly. At the seventh hour, the king ordered them to fire cannon. The first volley felled Tzavarei Alama and a woman who had hidden under a tree. Kaleb and his men were fear-stricken at this, for it appeared to them that the thunder had fallen from the sky. Dob’a Siltan came down to them from the hill—he had encamped there to guard the narrow passage—the result being that the Falashas were encountered at once from left and right, from above and below.

This time, half the Falashas fell by point of sword and arrow, throwing their souls to the valley as they fled. The beasts—bulls, camels, mules and donkeys—were also killed; none remained alive… For Abba Nevai it was complete annihilation; no man or woman either young or old, nor any animal was left standing.

In the early 17th century, during the reign of Negus Susenyos (1607-1632), the Falashas were still rebelling against the crown near the mountains of Semyen. Intent upon destroying the Falashas, the negus began to conquer their strongholds, slaughtering men, women and children as he proceeded. The Falasha King Gideon and large numbers of his supporters were massacred. The rebels were surrounded and faced laws requiring forced baptism. Many of them did convert to Christianity and were sold into slavery.

This period marked the end of the relative independence and self-government which the Jews of Abyssinia had enjoyed for many generations. They now faced years of suffering as a persecuted minority. They were no longer entitled to own land; their rights were taken away. They became despised, objects of scorn.

But even in those difficult times, the Jews of Abyssinia maintained Jewish tradition in their villages, and isolated themselves from gentiles and gentile customs.

They became progressively fewer in number, and were estimated at between 100,000 and 250,000 in the 19th century. Since they were poor and lacking in other resources, they had to make use of the holy writings of the Coptic Church.

European Christian missionaries first came to Ethiopia in the 17th century and attempted to convert the Jewish minority, whom they considered a suitable target for their activities, but it was only in the middle of the 19th century that Western European Protestant missionaries saw the fruits of these efforts. They invested a great deal of money and effort into renewing the campaign, and succeeded in converting many Ethiopian Jews to Christianity.

From then on, with more European missionaries, travelers and researchers visiting Abyssinia, reports of the lost Jewish tribe began to reach Europe and world Jewry.

A sudden rage of Jewish Messianic fervor for Zion broke out among the Falashas, who were torn between the hostile regime of Negus Theodore (1855-1865) and Christian missionaries claiming that the Messiah (Jesus) had already brought the Gospel to the world. In 1862, six of the community’s kesoch (priests) with Abba Mahari at their head, led thousands from their villages, with absolutely no preparation, northwards to the Red Sea and Jerusalem. They believed that Hashem would perform a miracle and divide the waters as He had during the Exodus.

This “revival” came to a bitter end when the convoy stopped close to Aksum in the Tigre district of northern Ethiopia. Many of the pilgrims had died of hunger and epidemics; the rest returned to their villages, only to find they had been destroyed while they were away.

It was at this time that Ethiopian Jewry first began to have contact with Jews from the rest of the world. Joseph Halevy, the first Alliance Israelite Universelle emissary, reached the Falasha villages in 1867-68.

The situation of the Ethiopian Jews worsened towards the end of the 19th century. By the turn of the century, their numbers were estimated at only 60,000. Many died from epidemics and famine. An invasion of Muslim Dervishes from Sudan in 1889 devastated parts of western Ethiopia and seriously harmed the Falasha villages. And many were converted by missionaries.

It was only at the beginning of this century that the Ethiopian Jewish community began to raise their hopes. This was largely due to the efforts of Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch, who felt a responsibility to act on behalf of the Jewish People as the savior of Ethiopian Jews. Through him, Ethiopian Jews sent letters to other Jews throughout the world and received encouraging answers expressing identification with them, which bolstered their morale and helped them to stand up to the relentless efforts of the missionaries.

In 1923, Dr. Faitlovitch opened a school in Addis Ababa for young Ethiopian Jews. During the first half of the century, he enrolled some 40 young Falashas in Jewish religious schools in Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany and Jerusalem. Although they returned to Ethiopia, only a few of them helped the community to benefit from their newly expanded knowledge of Judaism and the world in general.

Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia (1936-1941) brought Jewish activity to a halt, and the school in Addis Ababa was closed.

Since Ethiopian independence was restored, and in fact throughout most of this century, Ethiopian Jews have—at least according to the law—enjoyed equal rights. However, the native population has remained hostile to the community to the extent that even lives have been lost.

As progress spread through Ethiopia, young Jews began to move from the villages into the cities, in particular to Gondar and the surrounding area. Though younger members of the community moved away from their villages and thus from their tradition and began to assimilate, it must be emphasized that the Falashas in the villages have kept faithfully to their religious traditions.

The Jews of Ethiopia—estimated in 1983 at about 30,000—have maintained their Jewish faith and religious love of Zion and the Holy Land. The birth of the State of Israel, and its subsequent contact with them, made them more determined to protect what was left of the Jewish population from total assimilation.

It may be said that if this community—which is settling “en masse” in Israel today—had not been saved, the rest of the Jewish People might never have known of this wonderful “lost” tribe. However, the promise God made through his prophets that the Jews of Cush would return to Zion and to Jerusalem has not been broken; it is taking place before our eyes.

The 2005 movie “Live and Become” explores the challenges of Ethiopian Jews (and African Jews generally) in the land of Israel. Having returned at long last and with high hopes to the land of Israel, they discover that for them, the land does not at once “flow with milk and honey.” They confront discrimination, misunderstanding, and yes, prejudice from their fellow Jews. This is the movie that Ofra Haza embellishes with her beautiful love-song “My Ethiopian Boy.” Reviewer Stephen Holden says “Live and Become” exerts a tidal pull. It makes you feel the weight of history, of populations on the move in a restless multicultural world. It makes you reconsider cultural assimilation, a process that may seem to be complete but whose underlying conflicts may never be fully resolved.

By Yehiel Levy

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