Return of a Lost Tribe

Marc Shapiro spent the summer of 1987 living among the Falasha in Ethiopia. His overview of the history and beliefs of this people, “The Falasha of Ethiopia,” appeared in the December 1987 issue of THE WORLD & I.

The Unfinished Exodus of the Ethiopian Jews

The unfinished exodus of Ethiopian Jews into Israel has created a brokenhearted people: Almost every Ethiopian Jew has loved ones in both countries. Of the many children who made it to Israel, their parents either were left behind in Ethiopia or died in the camps in Sudan. Many elderly people and many women with very young children stayed behind, unable to endure the three-week-long trek along a treacherous escape route. Since Operation Moses came to an abrupt end in early 1985, no further steps have been taken to bring the rest to the promised land of their dreams. Preferring the name Beta Israel (House of Israel), Ethiopian Jews are better known the world over as Falasha, a Ge’ez (ancient Ethiopic) term meaning “stranger” or “exile.” They number approximately twenty-five thousand people—sixteen thousand of whom currently reside in Israel. One of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, their history in Ethiopia is ancient and their origins are obscure.

According to their own tradition, they are descended from Jews who accompanied Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. More scientific theories place the Falasha in the Agau family of tribes. Some scholars claim that Judaism reached them from Jews living in southern Arabia, Egypt (possibly in Elephantine), or even from a permanent Jewish community in Ethiopia. Isaiah 11:11 strongly implies that there was an established Ethiopian Jewish community in the days of that prophet, approximately 740 B.C. Scholars, however, are hopelessly divided on the date when Judaism was adopted by the Falasha.

Rabbinic authorities have adopted a different approach. In the fifteenth century a great rabbi, David Ibn Zimra of Egypt, ruled that the Falasha were descendants of the lost tribe of Dan. His ruling was based upon the report of the famous ninth-century traveler Eldad Hadani. Eldad reported that his people (the tribe of Dan) and three other tribes lived in northeast Africa. Although Eldad’s testimony has never been granted any validity by scholars, Zimra’s ruling has often been cited by rabbis as proof that the Falasha are Jews.

Jewish literature of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries makes further reference to Ethiopian Jews and their constant battles with their neighbors in Ethiopia. A few Ethiopian Jews were seen in Jerusalem during that time. But because of their near-total isolation, most of the scanty material relating to the Ethiopian Jews was based on rumor. In 1489, for example, the great rabbinic scholar Obadiah Bertinoro wrote from Jerusalem that the Lost Tribes of Israel were engaged in battle with Prester John, the legendary Christian monarch who was said to rule Ethiopia (and other near-mythical kingdoms) from the fourteenth century onward. Very little new information came to light regarding the Falasha for the next few hundred years.

While Jews in other parts of the world were barely aware of the Falasha for many years, the Falasha thought they were the only remaining Jews. They continued to follow Judaism as it was practiced before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Mainstream Judaism had incorporated the Oral Law codified in the Talmud to guard against erosion of the faith through non-Jewish influences; in isolation, the Falasha developed their own interpretations of the faith. They placed far more emphasis upon certain forms of ritual purification than did mainstream Judaism, but were less strict about conversion. They adopted monasticism, most likely from their Christian neighbors, and observed the Sabbath and dietary laws with meticulous care. They also added their own celebrations to the traditional pre-Talmudic feasts and fasts. Their scriptures and liturgy were in Ge’ez, while they spoke Amharic. They had absolutely no knowledge of the Hebrew language.

Entry into World Interest

Protestant churchmen learned of the existence of the Ethiopian Jews from James Bruce’s five-volume work, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, published in Edinburgh in 1790. Bruce revealed that this tribe, completely isolated from other Jews, was in fact practicing pre-Talmudic Judaism. Christian missionaries, already active in the Near East, were dispatched to Ethiopia to proselytize among the Falasha. An agreement between the Ethiopian emperor and the missionaries stipulated that all converts would be baptized into the Ethiopian church.

The most famous missionary was Henry Aaron Stern, a converted Jew, who worked actively on behalf of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. Stern arrived in Ethiopia in 1860 and recorded his experiences in his book Wanderings among the “Falashas” in Abyssinia (reprinted in 1968). Through his great fervor, by 1863 Stern had managed to convert approximately sixty-five Jews, who subsequently founded a new community at Lake Tana.

These events during the nineteenth century brought the situation of the Falasha to the attention of Jews in other parts of the world. Certain leaders of European Jewry reached swiftly, such as Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer, a leading German rabbi. He issued a well-publicized manifesto calling for something to be done to counter the missionaries’ efforts to convert the Falasha. After urging that a Jewish mission be sent to Ethiopia to bring desperately needed spiritual assistance, he concluded his moving plea as follows:

Have pity, dearest fellow believers; save, deliver, aid this holy matter in the name of God; organize committees, offer yourselves as members thereof. Contribute abundantly and frequently, and what seems to be so difficult will be accomplished in a comparatively short time.

Persuaded by the well-known Semitist and linguist Joseph Halevy (and much public pressure), the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a leading Jewish philanthropic organization in France, also decided to do something about the missionary onslaught. In 1867 they sent Halevy to Ethiopia to survey the situation and report on the missionary activities. Many Falasha were at first reluctant to talk to Halevy, fearing that he was simply another missionary. All his efforts to convince them that he was a “white Falasha” failed, and with good reason: Christian missionaries also had introduced themselves as white Falasha. Halevy later described how he eventually earned the confidence of the Ethiopian Jews:

The name of Jerusalem which I had accidentally mentioned changed as if by magic the attitude of the most incredulous. A burning curiosity seemed all at once to have seized the whole company. “Oh, do you come from Jerusalem, the blessed city? Have you beheld with your own eyes Mount Zion, and the House of the Lord of Israel, the holy Temple?”. I must confess I was deeply moved on seeing those black faces light up at the memory of our glorious history.

This great love for the holy land was illustrated vividly by an unfortunate incident that had occurred only a short time before Halevy’s trip. Interpreting the Christian conversions as a sign that the messiah had come and that the Old Testament prophecy of the ingathering of exile could now be fulfilled, a Falasha holy man named Abba Mahari convinced thousands of his people to leave their homes and march to Jerusalem. Carrying flags and singing, the multitude believed that God would divide the Red Sea as he had done for Moses. They set out in 1862, but after three tiresome years they had reached only as far as Axum in the Tigre province. Tired, hungry, and ill from malaria, they abandoned their quest.

Faitlovitch’s Efforts to Combat Apathy

Despite the genuine concern manifested by certain important figures in world Jewry, most of the European Jewish leadership did not pay much attention to the situation of the Falasha. They simply did not believe that the Falasha were, in fact, Jewish. Their doubts stemmed in large part from the fact that the Falasha had many customs that differed from mainstream Judaism, including some, such as monasticism, that clearly had Christian origins.

One person who did not feel this way was Jacques Faitlovitch (1881-1955). Born in Lodz, Poland, Faitlovitch moved to Paris, where he devoted himself to oriental studies at the Sorbonne. While studying Ethiopian languages under Halevy, Faitlovitch began to take an interest in the Falasha. With financial support from French banker Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Faitlovitch traveled to Ethiopia in 1904 and lived among the Falasha for eighteen months, devoting himself to studying their culture. Faitlovitch returned to Europe in 1905 convinced that the Falasha were truly Jewish and that unless they were encouraged to resist the missionaries, their very survival as a Jewish community was threatened. He concluded that they needed education and contact with Jews from the rest of the world.

Faitlovitch attempted to convince the European Jewish communal organizations, especially the alliance, to take a closer look at the Ethiopian Jewish situation. In 1908, responding to increasing pressure generated by Faitlovitch, the alliance sent a Turkish rabbi, Haim Nahoum, to survey the Falashan situation. Nahoum reported that the Falasha were definitely not Jews, they were happy where they were, and there was no need for the Jewish world to render them any assistance. Nahoum’s negative report prevented any leading Jewish organization from seriously considering the initiation of a project aimed at assimilating the Ethiopian Jews into the larger Jewish community. Most Jews continued to view the Falasha as an oddity, much the same as the Samaritans and the Karaites.

Unsuccessful in getting the support of the existing Jewish organizations, Faitlovitch decided to organize pro-Falasha committees. The goal of these committees, established in Italy, Germany and the United States, was to gain recognition of Ethiopian Jews and to provide them material and spiritual support.

One of Faitlovitch’s major concerns was education. After his first trip to Ethiopia he brought two Falasha boys back to Europe to be trained as teachers, so that they could later return and educate their people. During later trips to Ethiopia Faitlovitch set up schools and devoted many months to teaching Hebrew. He realized that the modern Jewish community in Europe would have a very difficult time accepting primitive and uneducated blacks as full-fledged Jews. Some of Faitlovitch’s Falasha students went on to attain distinguished leadership positions—the most famous a boy named Tedesa Yacob, who later served as Ethiopia’s finance minister.

Faitlovitch also attempted to narrow the gap between Falasha religious customs and those of mainstream Judaism. He realized that to be accepted by all Jews, the Falasha would have to conform to mainstream Jewish practices. Surprisingly enough, the Falasha were not opposed to altering their ancient traditions and were very excited when he began to teach them Hebrew. Even one of the most important Falasha practices, the Passover sacrifice, was given up at Faitlovitch’s urging.

Faitlovich is remembered in the Falasha community as a savior, the man who enabled them to continue living as Jews and also to be reunited with the rest of their people. It was because of Faitlovitch that the Falasha began to regard their ancient dream of emigration to Israel as a realistic possibility. “His whole life was consecrated to assisting them” wrote Faitlovitch’s sister Leah, who helped him establish a Falasha teachers’ institute in Addis Ababa.

Despite all their efforts, Faitlovitch and his colleagues did not succeed in focusing attention on the situation of Ethiopian Jews to the extent they had hoped. When Faitlovitch died in 1955, financial support from different sources soon dwindled, and several Falasha schools soon closed. Most Jews remained incredulous that a primitive African tribe could be authentically Jewish. Jewish concern in the twentieth century was concentrated on the Holocaust and its aftermath, the problems confronting Israel, and the grave situation of Jews behind the Iron Curtain.

Not until 1961 did the Falasha receive attention from Jews in other parts of the world again. The American Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress sent Norman Bentwich, a prominent British Jew who had acted as a legal advisor to emperor Haile Selassie during the Second World War, to Ethiopia to examine the Falasha. He concluded that they desperately needed assistance. While most refused to corporate, some Jewish organizations were persuaded to help supply medical and educational aid.

Inclusion in Israel’s Law of Return

The Falasha were not helped by the fact that the state of Israel did not view them as Jews and accordingly did not extend immediate citizenship to them under the 1950 Law of Return. In a widely publicized 1973 letter, David Zohar, the first secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, stated plainly that “Israel does not regard the law of Return as being applicable to the Falasha” and “is not enthusiastic about the prospect of Falasha immigration.” This remained official Israeli policy until 1975.

On February 9, 1973, Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi chief rabbi, issued a declaration recognizing the Falasha as authentic Jews. Yosef repeated the claim that the Falasha belong to the tribe of Dan and that as Jews they “must be saved from absorption and assimilation.” He further urged haste in bringing them into Israel as part of the effort to bring all scattered Jews back to their homeland, to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. Ashkenazi (Jews of East European descent) leaders disagreed, however, and since they controlled all the Israeli state organs, no action was taken. After two years of persuasion by lobbying groups, Shlomo Goren, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, finally agreed to Yosef’s position. Then the Ministry of Interior recognized that the Falasha were entitled to authentic citizenship.

Why the Israeli government was so unsympathetic to the situation of the Ethiopian Jews still is uncertain. One reason given is that Israel did not want to do anything to disturb the good relationship it had with Ethiopia during the reign of Haile Selassie, who was opposed to letting the Falasha leave and would have been offended by any Israeli request to do so. The emperor had even gone so far as to say that an exodus of Falasha from Ethiopia would be a “national disaster.”

Some have alleged that racism was a primacy factor. One source quotes Prime Minister Golda Meir as saying: “Don’t we have enough problems? What do we need these blacks for?” Abba Eban called the situation of the Ethiopian Jews “a very marginal problem.” The issue simply had no importance; until 1973 the Chief Rabbinate had not even decided that the Falasha were, in fact, Jews. No one could expect the government to put itself out for those whom the rabbis did not regard as Jews. If there was any negligence regarding the Ethiopian Jews, and evidence suggests that there was, it followed the 1975 decision to include the Ethiopians under the Law of Return. Haile Selassie, who severed diplomatic relations with Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, was overthrown in 1974 by a Marxist coup. The Marxist regime restricted emigration as severely as its predecessor. For several years, no concrete action was taken by Israel to facilitate a Falasha aliya, immigration to Israel, even though the 1975 decision had removed any doubts regarding their status. Although the government made some moves to bring some Ethiopians to Israel, the number was kept small.

If not for the efforts of activists like Graenum Berger, the subject of Ethiopian Jewry would have faded from sight. A long-time Zionist fund-raiser, Berger was incensed by the general apathy regarding their situation. In 1974 he founded the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, which vigorously encouraged the Israeli government to adopt a more enlightened policy. Their well-documented reports, combined with pubic protests, showed that despite the 1975 change in official policy there were still forces in the Israeli government intent on foiling any large-scale Ethiopian aliya. Berger’s organization also was involved in actually getting Falasha out of Ethiopia, thus demonstrating that Israeli claims regarding the impossibility of rescue were unfounded.

The situation changed, at least superficially, after Menachem Begin came to power in 1977. Begin claimed that the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry was of the highest priority. A secret deal between his government and Colonel Mengistu, the Marxist leader of Ethiopia, arranged for Israel to supply arms if Mengistu would overlook a limited emigration of Falasha. When Moshe Dayan revealed these secret arms deals to the public in February 1978, the operation was halted immediately. Ultimately, Begin’s government did not accomplish much more than previous governments, leading some to allege that he was no different than his predecessors; others claimed that his good intentions were thwarted by circumstance.

Even though Ethiopian Jewish support groups had grown in size and sophistication, their impact upon the general Jewish population throughout those years was still relatively small. Most Jews remained uninformed about the plight of the Ethiopian Jews.

Secret Rescue Efforts

The drought and famine that ravaged Ethiopia toward the end of the 1970s worsened in 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of refugees made their way to relief camps in Sudan. Many were Falasha who had been informed that Israel had planned rescue efforts for those in the refugee camps. Thousands of Jews left their homes in the Gondar and Tigre provinces of northwest Ethiopia and walked for weeks in the effort to reach Sudan.

Many died along the way, and many more died in the camps, where mass starvation and disease were rampant. They also faced hostility from Christians and Muslims in the camps, but the dream of going to Israel kept the camps filled with Falasha. Between 1980 and 1984, the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, secretly rescued close to seven thousand Falasha from the refugee camps. Assisted by several European countries, and with the cooperation of the Sudanese security service and certain government officials, small groups of Falasha were evacuated in a variety of ways. The world was still largely unaware of the situation.

All this changed dramatically in the winter of 1984. Falasha so inundated the camps that the rate of starvation among them was higher than the rate of evacuation possible through the current means. Thus Israel began to plan a large-scale rescue effort. Code-named Operation Moses, the massive early morning airlifts began after a special deal was made between President Nimeiri of Sudan and the Israeli government.

This covert operation brought news of the Falasha plight to Jews the world over. A United Jewish Appeal campaign galvanized the American Jewish community into learning more about the Ethiopians and into pledging large sums of money to aid in the rescue. Although secrecy was crucial during the rescue, the UJA considered it necessary to collect money at this time rather than waiting until the operation was over. There was great excitement in the Jewish world—a feeling that a lost tribe was coming home.

Between November 21, 1984, and January 5, 1985, approximately seven thousand Jews were rescued from Sudanese refugee camps, joining the seven thousand brought out secretly during the previous four years. Both Israeli and the U.S. media knew of the airlift, but did not publicize it for fear of endangering the operation. Sudan, a Muslim country with close ties to the Arab world, could not be publicly identified as cooperating in any way with Israel.

Unfortunately, the story was leaked—in Israel of all places—and the rescue was halted. For reasons still not clear, the Israeli newspaper Nekuda broke military censorship and published an interview revealing that thousands of Ethiopians were then in Israel. The Israeli government then held a press conference to discuss the fate of the Falasha. The Sudanese authorities immediately halted the operation, while Jews still remaining in Ethiopia received word not to leave their homes. The Ethiopian government, officially an enemy of Israel, was very embarrassed by the whole incident and accused Israel of kidnapping Ethiopian citizens. The few hundred Jews left stranded in the Sudanese camps were later brought to Israel in Operation Joshua, through the intervention of the American CIA.

But an estimated seven to ten thousand Falasha were unable to leave Ethiopia, and an atmosphere of despair prevails among them. All have loved ones in Israel. The separation is very hard, especially for the elderly, who fear they will never be able to see their children again. Many were women with children too young to make the journey. The shortage of young men left in Falasha villages will result in a shortage of priests in a few years, and without priests there is no way to carry on Falasha traditions. This remnant endures a situation in which many of their religious and cultural traditions are proscribed. Teaching Hebrew is forbidden, Hebrew books have been burned, and Falasha schools and synagogues have been closed.

Arrival in Israel

A dispute of a religious nature surrounded the Falasha upon their arrival in Israel. The orthodox argued that during the centuries of separation from world Jewry, irregularities arose in Ethiopian Jewish practice. They were, for example, far less strict about accepting converts; thus certain rabbis felt there was significant risk of admixture of non-Jews into the tribe. The Chief Rabbinate insisted that the Falasha go through a symbolic conversion ceremony to remove all doubts about their Jewishness.

The Falasha were indignant, and most refused to go through with any such ceremony. After suffering for thousands of years an account of their Jewishness, they were astonished to be told they were not real Jews. As one Falasha man said in protest at the Rabbinate’s decision: “Our worst enemies never imagined such a painful way to hurt us as the wound inflicted by our own brethren.”

Under much public pressure, the Rabbinate dropped most, but not all, of the elements of the symbolic conversion ceremony. Demonstrations and street marches followed. Prime Minister Peres intervened, and finally, the Rabbinate backed down on its demand that all Falasha go through ritual immersion. They ruled that in cases of doubt—for those who cannot prove they have seven generations of Jewish ancestors—there must be a ritual immersion before marriage. But since this ritual is required of all women and many orthodox men before marriage, it does not carry the stigma of being part of a conversion process.

Although the Israeli religious authorities had their reservations, the general population for the most part welcomed the Falasha. During the secret airlifts, thousands of Israelis waited nightly at Ben Gurion Airport to let them know that after thousands of years they had finally come home. Those few Israelis who exhibited racial bigotry were dealt with swiftly by the government and the press. The Falasha were immediately given assistance from the Jewish Agency and the Israeli Dental Association. Individual citizens volunteered to teach the newcomers hebrew or to work with them in other ways, many adopted the orphans, and many donated large amounts of clothing. In the months after Operation Moses, the Ethiopians in Israel were seen wearing the strangest combinations of garments.

The Falasha who made it to Israel were thrust overnight from a primitive agricultural society into an advanced technological society. Most have adjusted very well. Israel is a multiracial society, and all signs indicate that the black Jews of Ethiopia will assimilate successfully. The Israeli government has allocated much manpower to speeding this integration process. Although a short while ago they had never seen objects the Western world regards as essential, today Falasha are found in all vocations, including the most advanced technical industries. Most adjusted easily to the schools and to the Israeli army. Yet problems of adjustment, particularly feelings of loneliness, have taken their toll. As a result of the severe depressions caused by family separation, a number have committed suicide, something heretofore unknown in their own culture.

The Falasha have indicated a clear desire to assimilate rapidly into Israeli society, even to adopt normative Judaism. Encouraged by Israeli authorities, they are also keeping their cultural heritage and crafts alive. An Amharic-Hebrew dictionary and Amharic prayer books have been published. Meanwhile, several Jewish organizations, mainly those in the United States and Canada, are working hard to reunite the broken families of the Ethiopian Jews, to complete the unfinished exodus.

Copyright © 2003 The World & I.