A Family Affair as Ethiopians, Israelis, Jewish-Americans Celebrate a Shared History

December 1st, 2008 | by addis portal |
Israel Topics - Isaac and JCC

The scene might have been a bar mitzvah: smiling guests circling the dance floor in a frenzied hora to the sounds of Hava Nagila. But there were clues—both big and small—that suggested otherwise. A dreadlocked keyboard player singing alternatively in Hebrew, English and Amharic. The smell of Ethiopian food wafting through the room. Yet, this was no bar mitzvah, but a recent event held at the Embassy of Ethiopia to celebrate the sub-Saharan country’s ties to Israel and the Jewish people.

“Ours is a shared history that goes back an extraordinary number of years—all the way back to Biblical times,” said Ethiopian Ambassador Samuel Assefa to the assembled guests. “From those ancient days until today, the branches of our family tree continue to weave themselves together.”  

In wide-ranging remarks, the Ethiopian representative retraced that unique heritage shared by Ethiopia and the people of Israel. According to legend, the founder of the Ethiopian Empire, King Menelik, was a product of the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Centuries later, Ethiopia was ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie, who traced his lineage directly back to Menelik and was known as the “Lion of Judah.”

The invasion by Italian troops in 1936 forced Haile Selassie to flee Ethiopia and find refuge in Jerusalem. When he returned to Ethiopia in 1941 to drive out the Italians from the capital Addis Ababa, Selassie did so with the help of British Officer Major Orde Wingate and his Jewish troops. 

The Origins of the Family Tree
The true origin of Ethiopia’s Jewish population continues to remain a mystery. One explanation is the one given by Ambassador Assefa: that Ethiopia’s Jews are the descendents of Menelik—son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Another explanation is that they are one of the 12 tribes of ancient Israel—the lost tribe of Dan. Other scholars believe that Ethiopia’s Jews may be descendents of Jews who fled Israel following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E, or the descendants of Ethiopian Christians or pagans who converted centuries ago. 

For thousands of years, Jews in Ethiopia maintained their commitment to upholding the laws and precepts of Biblical Judaism. Known by their fellow countrymen as falashas, which means “exiles” or “strangers” in Amharic, Ethiopia’s Jews passed down Jewish oral traditions, observed the Jewish Sabbath, and read from Judaism’s holy Torah scrolls. As Ethiopian scholar Dr. Ephraim Isaac noted during a lecture at the Embassy event, were Jesus to return today to the earth, he would find Jewish life most closely resembling that of his time not in Israel, but in Ethiopia. Because Ethiopia’s Jews were never exposed to the centuries of rabbinical interpretation or the Talmud, Jewish life in Ethiopia among the Beta Israel—House of Israel—has remained close to the Judaism practices in ancient times.

Certified Kosher
The issue of whether or not Ethiopia’s Beta Israel could be considered Jewish was a long-standing point of contention that today is irrelevant given the near-universal acceptance of the community members as Jews. In 1908, the chief rabbis of 45 countries made a joint statement declaring that Ethiopia’s Beta Israel were, in fact, Jewish.  In 1972, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi declared them Jews, a position that was followed by the 1975 recognition of Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi. Later that year, Israel’s government formally recognized Beta Israel as Jews under Israel’s Law of Return, paving the way for their immigration to Israel.
 
Ethiopian Immigration to Israel   
During the 1980s, a communist regime known as the Derg ruled Ethiopia. The practice of Judaism was made illegal, Jewish leaders were imprisoned as “Zionist spies,” and members of Beta Israel were refused the right to emigrate. Between November 1984 and January 1985, Israel secretly airlifted 8,000 Jewish Ethiopians to Israel during Operation Moses. This was followed by another covert plan later in 1985—Operation Joshua—that brought another 800 to Israel.

In 1991, with Ethiopia on the verge of a war that would mark the end of its Communist rule and the beginning of a transition to democracy, Israel coordinated Operation Solomon. Over a mere 36-hour period, more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in a spectacular logistical feat reminiscent of other Israeli mass rescues.

Since then, sporadic immigration to Israel by Ethiopia’s Jews has continued, although Israel’s Interior Ministry announced in December 2007 that it was ending its efforts to repatriate Ethiopian Jews. It announced that only 1,500 Ethiopian Jews remained, but that number was disputed by Ethiopian immigrant associations who placed the number at 8,500. Following protests in Israel, the government reversed course and has announced its intention for immigration to continue.

For Israel, the challenges of absorbing immigrants from Ethiopia do not stop with their mere arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. At absorption centers such as Mevasseret Zion on the outskirts of Jerusalem, new immigrants live in government-provided facilities where they are given intensive Hebrew instruction as well as lessons for how to seek out employment and other life-skills. For most Ethiopian immigrants, their new lives in Israel involve not just learning a new language, but leaving behind the developing world for life in a modern, Western-style country. Today, Ethiopian youngsters are among the most stylish and acculturated of the nation’s many ethnic groups.

Celebrating the Ties
The recent Embassy of Ethiopia’s event celebrating its ties to Israel and the Jewish people was co-hosted by the Embassy of Israel, the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, the American Jewish Committee and U.S. Friends of Tebeka.

Hundreds of members of the Jewish and Ethiopian communities gathered for the festivities, which included remarks from Ethiopia’s Ambassador Assefa, Israeli Embassy Minister Counselor Rafael Harpaz, and Ethiopian scholar Dr. Ephraim Isaac.

A musician named Alula Tzadik provided music for the evening. His own identity as a Jewish Ethiopian-American was the embodiment of the ties that unite the three groups.

The evening’s speakers invoked the words of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon upon the occasion of a 2004 visit to Israel by Ethiopian Prime Minster Meles Zenawi. At a joint press conference, Sharon spoke of the diplomatic relations that stretched back to the time of King Solomon, and how “the ancient legacy of both our peoples has constituted a sound basis for our relations.”

“That legacy,” said Ambassador Assefa, “lives on tonight and will live on forever.”

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