The Long Road Home

(Excerpt published in the Spring 2009 Kulanu newsletter)

Introduction

The words of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, run deep in the heart of every Jew, resonating to the far corners of the earth:

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart, with eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion, then our hope – the two thousand year old hope – will not be lost: To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

image: Beit Avraham photo collage

Click on the collage above to view a photo slideshow about Beit Avraham.

Exiled from Israel and scattered throughout the world centuries ago, Jewish people are found in almost every part of the globe. From secret enclaves in Mexico to remote locations in India to secluded villages in Ethiopia, the Jewish people have endured, fighting to preserve themselves amongst the nations. Mounting persecution and anti-Semitism in large parts of the world drove many Jews to isolate themselves and in some cases, deny their identity in order to survive. Occasionally, Jews even “converted” to dominant religions in attempt to assuage persecution and blend into the larger societies. Yet, in their hearts, they remain Jews and dream of one day returning to the Promised Land. This manuscript chronicles the plight and struggles of one such group to preserve its Jewish identity and ultimately make the long journey home: the Beta Israel, the Jews of Ethiopia.

Nebulous Origins

Although Orthodox Christianity and Islam are the two most prominent religions in Ethiopia today, Judaism has been present for centuries, though its exact origin cannot be determined. According to the Kebra Negast (Glory of the Kings), a compilation of Old Testament, Rabbinical, Christian, and Arabic literature,1 Judaism supposedly arrived in Ethiopia with Menelik I, the alleged son of King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba.2 However, insufficient evidence exists to support this legend and/or definitively conclude the origins of Ethiopian Jewry. Among scholars, two widely accepted theories on the origins of Ethiopian Jews are those of “The Lost Tribe” and “The Convert.” “The Lost Tribe” perspective asserts Ethiopian Jews to be direct ethnic descendents of one of the 12 tribes of Israel, who were scattered and lost during one of the exiles. “The Convert” theory purports they were rather early indigenous, Ethiopian converts to Judaism sometime prior to the 4th century C.E.3

Ethiopia’s Exodus

Despite their nebulous origins and early fight for recognition in the Jewish world, Israel eventually accepted the Beta Israel as a Jewish community and ultimately assisted her brethren in the wake of severe poverty, discrimination, and violent political oppression. Israel sponsored two massive, covert airlifts, Operation Moses in 1984/85 and Operation Solomon in 1991, rescuing and absorbing over 22,000 Beta Israel.4

The Journey

image: Beit Avraham child

© Amy Cowen

Traveling by bus from Addis Ababa to Gondar, Ethiopia in the fall of 2004, I spoke with Daniel Workneh Ben, affectionately known as the “falasha merchant” among fellow Beta Israel. As Addis faded in the distance and our bus approached the vast mountainous highlands, he began to recount his frequent journeys to Northern Ethiopia in preparation for the 1991 airlift. Workneh Ben, a Beta Israel who assisted the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in rescuing Ethiopian Jews during Operation Solomon, was responsible for collecting Jews in Gondar and escorting them to Addis Abba en route to Israel. Continued persecution, political oppression, and Ethiopia’s violent coup d’etat in 1991 drove Israel to evacuate thousands of additional Beta Israel, years after the first massive airlift in 1984.

With tears welling in his eyes, Workneh Ben began to recall those whom he assisted. “I love them so much; I loved everybody. Sometimes I just wanted to cry,” he said. He was involved in the process from beginning to end, often taking many Beta Israel under his care. Aside from registering thousands of emigrants’ names and providing documents for their passage, he vividly recalls the eve of the evacuation.

The Eve of the Escape

As night settled over Addis Ababa and danger lurking in the shadows, Workneh Ben emerges shrouded into the darkness. Covertly knocking on door after door, he begins to alert and gather thousands of Beta Israel for the secret evacuation the following morning.5 Remarkably, as Ethiopia’s Socialist Dergue6 regime collapsed with the invasion of Ethiopian rebel forces, in less than 36 hours, IDF planes transported over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.7

Reaching “the land flowing with milk & honey”

Sitting poolside in Kiryat Yam, Israel in the summer of 2003, Zemena, one of the 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in Operation Solomon, began to recount his passage from Ethiopia to the Promised Land some 15 years earlier. Sitting in his home in Gondar on an ordinary day, he is interrupted by a persistent knock on the front door. The door opens and his friend is standing in the corridor, motioning for him to leave. “Yalla! Let’s go to Israel; we have to go now!” he said. Zemena was in shock and disbelief. “It had to be a joke,” he thought. Yet, it was true. “We were finally leaving,” he said. He was immediately escorted from his home in Gondar to the Israeli embassy in Addis Abba where he boarded a plane along with 300-400 other Beta Israel. The planes were packed with little room to move, but there was excitement in the air, Zemena said. Nearly five hours later, the plane touched down in a new land, their Promised Land. “I still remember it; it was amazing,” he exclaimed.8 Today, over 60,000 have been repatriated to Israel, with the entire Ethiopian-Israeli population reaching nearly 120,000.9

Left Behind: The Falash Mura

In spite of these massive, assisted operations, many Ethiopian Jews, some of whom have relatives in Israel, were left behind. At present, still thousands of Ethiopian Jews or rather descendents of Ethiopian Jews still remain in Ethiopia, awaiting emigration to Israel. Known as Falash Mura (they consider the term derogatory), these Ethiopians of Jewish descent converted to Christianity under duress and from religious and social pressures several generations ago, many foregoing their Jewish faith and identity. The confiscation of their homes and property by neighbors drove thousands to relocate to the cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa in hope of immigrating to Israel.10 Compounds in these cities run by Jewish aid organizations have been responsible for providing rescue and relief services to the remaining Falash Mura including food and resource distributions, medical care, housing, employment programs, and Jewish and elementary/adult education, while preparing individuals for absorption into Israeli society. In addition, Jewish religious ceremonies are held daily at the compounds. At present, while the Gondar compound is still in operation, some programs no longer exist due to lack of funding, and the compound in Addis Ababa has since been closed.

image: Elderly Woman

© Amy Cowen

Contrary to modern, traditional Judaism, Ethiopian Judaic practices were seemingly more reminiscent of the ancient Judaism practiced by the Israelites of the Old Testament. In recent decades, however, the Beta Israel have begun to adhere to more modern Judaic practices. Thus, in preparation for immigration, courses on Hebrew, Tefillan, and traditional Jewish prayers are taught twice a day. Men wear kippot and tallitot (during religious services or classes) while women don white headscarves and use a mikveh to purify themselves after menstruation.

Although their practice of modern Judaism prepares the remaining Beta Israel (Falash Mura) for integration into Israeli society, some have mixed feelings. Workneh Ben, who continues to advocate and work on behalf of his people, said, “While it’s great [the practice of modern Judaism], I’m afraid it forces them to lose their culture and heritage. Who they are will all be lost.” He hopes to help preserve the unique customs of his people by developing a museum in Ethiopia dedicated to Ethiopian Jewry.11

In spite of their present observance of Judaism, previous conversions to Christianity by the Falash Mura caused Israel to initially deny their right to repatriation. But with mounting pressure from advocates and relatives living in Israel in addition to worsening conditions of these individuals, Israel finally conceded. In January 2005, the Israeli government declared that all remaining Beta Israel (Falash Mura) would be brought to Israel by the end of 2007. Today, nearly two years later, this has yet to be fulfilled, leaving many to wait indefinitely in the slums and so-called refugee camps of Addis Ababa and Gondar. As a result, some are beginning to lose hope.

Held Captive

Sitting in his home, not larger than a small bathroom, one distraught-looking man said that he and his family have waited over 10 years to move to Israel. Jobless, he has been unable to pay the rent in months and can hardly afford to provide for his family. “We feel like prisoners. There is nothing we can do,” he said. “We feel trapped.” In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel are discriminated against, marginalized and denied access to jobs and property for being Jewish; in Israel on the other hand, they are not considered Jewish, and they feel unwanted due to skin color, socio-economic standing and nationality.12 Getenet at times even wishes his Jewish identity away. He explained that his father ultimately divorced his mother because he discovered that she was Jewish. “Even today, if someone sees a Beta Israel on the road, people will say, ‘Kill him! So and so is a Falasha (landless, alien),” said Getenet.13

Although the process is slow, the remaining Beta Israel or Falash Mura have had breakthroughs in gaining international Jewish aid, worldwide coverage, and eventual access to Israel. However, there are yet still others who have gained little coverage and aid, but are equally fighting for recognition from the larger Jewish world and nation of Israel: the Beit Avraham community. The Beit Avraham of Ethiopia’s Northern Shewa region appears to be an additional subset of Ethiopian Jews that has begun to emerge in more recent years although remaining relatively obscure and unknown to both academic and Jewish worlds alike.


Notes

  1. Yayeh, Qes Asres. Traditions of the Ethiopian Jews. Ontario, Canada: Kibur Asres, 1995. ↑ Top
  2. Gessesse, Kebede and Durrenda Nash Onolemhemhen. The Black Jews of Ethiopia. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998. ↑ Top
  3. Quirin, James. The Evolution of the Ethiopian Jews. Philadelphia: University of PA Press, 1992. ↑ Top
  4. Gessesse, Kebede and Durrenda Nash Onolemhemhen. The Black Jews of Ethiopia. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998. ↑ Top
  5. Workneh Ben, Daniel. Personal interview. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 30 October 2004 & Gondar, Ethiopia: 8 November 2004. ↑ Top
  6. The Dergue regime was an oppressive Marxist/Socialist government that controlled Ethiopia from 1974-1991. During that period, many people, particularly the Jews were silenced and killed. ↑ Top
  7. Gessesse, Kebede and Durrenda Nash Onolemhemhen. The Black Jews of Ethiopia. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998. ↑ Top
  8. Zemena. Personal interview. Kiriat Yam, Israel: 8 July 2003. ↑ Top
  9. Wagner, Matthew and Etgar Lefkovits. “Bring Falash Mura here, Shas Minister Margi urges.” The Jerusalem Post. 18 May 2009. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1242212398860&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull ↑ Top
  10. Bard, Mitchell. The Falash Mura. Jewish Virtual Library. 1 August 2005 http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/falashmura.html. ↑ Top
  11. Workneh Ben, Daniel. Personal interview. Addis, Ababa, Ethiopia: 29 October 2004. ↑ Top
  12. Beta Israel school teacher. Personal interview. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 6 September 2004.↑ Top
  13. Getenet. Personal interview. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 9 September 2004.↑ Top