Book Review: The Falashas, a Short History of the the Ethiopian Jews by David Kessler

David Kessler is 90 years old and has published the third edition of The Falashas. It is available in the US (he is English) from Frank Cass, c/o 5803 N.E. Hassalo St, Portland Oregon 972213-3644 for $19.50 plus shipping. Tel 503-287-3093.

The book is very meaningful to me since I read the first edition about 10 years ago and it helped launch my wife, Diane, and me into the efforts to give Ethiopian Jewry their well deserved and long overdue recognition in the modern Jewish world.

It is a recognition that has been given begrudgingly and very incompletely by many eurocentric Jews. The Ethiopian Jews of Falasha origin who remain in Ethiopia who want to go to Israel number about 20 thousand souls. There is a quota between the Ethiopian government and the government of Israel to the effect that only a thousand Jews a year may leave for Israel. With what other country does Israel have such a quota? Why?

The official reason is that Ethiopian Jews left behind in Ethiopia are being “checked” for their authentic Jewishness, one by one, by the ministry of Interior. However there are extensive and very accurate demographic lists obtained by an Ethiopian aliyah organization, South Wing to Zion, that are available to the government, both the current and the previous one. The present government is supposed to be more sympathetic. It may be, but not in deeds, so far. The Labor Meretz crowd (previous government) knew exactly how to mutilate the Falashas: call them Christians. Who wants Christians? It worked except for the chief rabbinate which has recognized the so called Feres Moura as returning (t’shuva) Jews, not as Christians.

Kindly, Dr Kessler acknowledges that he hasn’t the slightest idea where the term Feres Moura comes from since it was not in the early edition of his book or ever in print in any book before 1991. The reason: the term was made up in 1990 by the Jewish Agency and the Israeli embasssy in Addis Ababa in a desperate but successful effort to limit the size of the community that would come to Israel.

This bias is not what Dr Kessler talks about extensively in his book. Instead, he dwells upon the wrong selection of sources used by some important scholars when searching out the history of the Falashas and their predecessors from the Merroitic civilization. For example one of the favored sources is the Kings Chronicles. This is very comforting to many scholars since it is a “written” source. However, Kessler prefers oral sources since the Kings Chronicles are a totally political document and much of Ethiopian history is written after the country converted from Judaism to Christianity in the 4th century. My Ethiopian friends assure me that the Chronicles are commonly rewritten by each succeeding King who has usually poisoned or otherwise hastened the dispatch of his predecessor.

The geneology of Ethiopia begins with Saba in the Bible when the descendents of Noah are listed. The queen of Sheba (Saba, too) who legend says visited Solomon and after whom the Song of Songs is written, is but one of the many early Ethiopian Jewish connections. Kessler discusses Ethiopian history with remarkable erudition and clarity. And he is just as earnest in his ignorance as his inclinations

The book, to me, from a Kulanu perspective, is about more than the Falashas. It is about the need to know who are the Jews, where they are, what we can do to reunite, and what we can all learn from each other. And one thing more: it teaches us not to develop any bizarre racial ideas about the distribution of Jews in our long travels through the ancient world.