Ethiopian Jews

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Beta Israel


     Between November 1984 and January 1985 nearly 8, 000 Ethiopian Jews were rescued from Muslim oppression and brought to Israel. It had been the intention of the Israeli government to rescue another 15,000 Jews. This became no longer possible because the United Jewish Appeal placed full page advertisements into several American newspapers which alerted the Arab nations to the exodus. The Arabs thereupon pressured the Ethiopian government not to allow any more Jews to go to Israel. They also demanded that the Sudanese not allow any Jews to cross into the Sudan for flights to Israel. Those who did so and were captured were tortured and killed by the Arab hate mongers.

     Then, in 1991, the dictator of Etheopia, Mengistu, was overthrown. During the resulting confusion, the government of Israel sent 34 El Al jumbo jets and Hercules C-130’s to Ethiopia. These planes allowed 14,324 Jews to escape.  Subsequently, numerous additional Jews came to Israel from Ethiopia, so that now there are about 36 thousand Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

     The black Jews of Ethiopia may well be the descendants of Jews who fled to Egypt after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. Although the Sudan is situated between Egypt and Ethiopia, it is by no means impossible to travel from Egypt to Ethiopia. It is also possible that some Ethiopian Christians converted to Judaism some centuries ago or that they are the descendants of king Memelek I of Ethiopia. Memelek was the son of King Solomon and the “Queen of Sheba,” i.e., Ethiopia.

     The Christian and Muslim majority in Ethiopia called the Jews “Falasha,” meaning foreigner, although the Jews had been in that country for centuries. Hence, the Ethiopian Jews suffered the same fate as all Jews in Muslim-Arab countries. They were accused of all kinds of “crimes,” shunned by the majority, and the target of every kind of cruelty known to the Muslim community.

     The Jews of Ethiopia called themselves “Beta Israel,” i.e. the House of Israel. These Jews practiced a pre-Talmudic Judaism which was based on the Torah and preserved many of the customs associated with Israel before the Romans destroyed the country in 135 C.E.

     Before the rescue of the Beta Israel there were a number of politicians in Israel who did not want the black Jews to come there. In fact, the Director General of the Jewish Agency’s Department of Immigration, Yehuda Dominitz, refused to let his agency rent buses to allow Ethiopian Jews to travel to Jerusalem. He publicly said that he was not in favor of bringing these Jews to Israel.

     Since then there exists an American Association for Ethiopian Jews founded by Dr. Graenum Berger. There is now also an Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.

     For centuries the European Jewish communities knew nothing of the Beta Israel. It wasn’t until 1769 that a Scottish explorer, James Bruce, discovered their existence as he was looking for the source of the Nile. Nevertheless, these Jews were largely forgotten until the 1950’s. They did not use Hebrew in Ethiopia, but a language called Ge’ez which is also used by Ethiopian Christian denominations.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Criminal Justice System (2010).

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