In November 2015, Israel’s Knesset decided to bring the remainder of Ethiopia’s Jewish community on aliyah. But more than three years later, the State of Israel has not yet fulfilled its commitment. Activists in both Israel and Ethiopia are calling on the state to bring the remaining community – some 7,500 souls – home.
Some question their status as Jews: Are those still left in Ethiopia today really Jewish? Or are they just opportunists looking for a better life in the State of Israel?
In October, I had the opportunity to visit Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and see for myself.
As my plane was touching down, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just announced that 1,000 Ethiopians could make aliyah to Israel. For many, this is too little, too late.
Unfortunately, there is much misinformation, distortion, and “fake-news” about the Ethiopian community tossed about in the media.
What’s missing from the conversation is some important history and background.
According to one tradition, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had a child, Menelik I, King of Ethiopia. According to the legend, Menelik travels to Jerusalem to visit Shlomo, and the king sends him back with Jewish servants, who subsequently become the Jewish community in Ethiopia. While I Kings (10:1-13) and II Chronicles (9:1-12) describe the queen’s visit to Jerusalem and her interaction with Shlomo, there is no evidence that they had a child together.
The more popular tradition is that the Jews of Ethiopia are descendants of the tribe of Dan, one of the ten lost tribes conquered by Sancherev and the Assyrian Empire in the 8th Century BCE.
According to Eldad, the Jews of Ethiopia are the descendants of the tribe of Dan.
Following Eldad’s visit to the Jewish community of Kairouan, Tunisia, the community sends a letter to the leading authority, Tzemach Gaon of Sura, questioning Eldad’s account. Rabbi Tzemach Gaon replies that indeed his account is reliable, as are the laws he teaches.
But in his commentary to Shemos 2:22, the Ibn Ezra questions the veracity of Eldad’s accounts, as does Maharam mi-Rotenberg (Teshuvot Maharam 193).
Yet Eldad is cited by many of the major medieval authorities such as Rashi, Raavad, Rabbeinu Asher, Rashba, Semag and Maimonides’ son Rav Avraham among others, as a reputable source. Later authorities would likewise rely on his testimony and quote the laws he taught. Some even call him rabbi!
Twelfth century travelers Benjamin of Tudela and Prester John both record the presence of a Jewish community in Ethiopia.
And in letters to his family written while in Jerusalem, Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura affirms this tradition. In a letter to his father dated 6 Elul 5248 (August 15, 1488) he reports that while in Egypt, he saw dark-skinned Jews from Ethiopia who lacked knowledge of the Oral Law and its traditions. In a letter to his brother written 27 Elul 5249 (August 24, 1489), he reports that Yemenite Jews in Jerusalem confirmed that there are Jews in Ethiopia beyond the River Sambatyon, alluding to the rabbinic tradition of the place to where the Lost tribes were exiled (Avraham Yaari, Igrot Eretz Yisrael, pp. 132-133, 140-141).
WRITING IN the 16th century, the Radbaz, Rav David ibn Zimra, rules that the Jews of Ethiopia are indeed descendants of the tribe of Dan, affirming the account of Eldad ha-Dani (Teshuvot ha-Radbaz 4:219; 7:9). In another responsa he is emphatic that they are unquestionably of Jewish lineage according to Jewish law (ibid, 7:5). A student of his, Rav Ya’akov Castro issued a similar ruling (Erech Lechem, Yoreh De’ah 158).
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Christian missionary groups began aggressively targeting the Jewish community for conversion. Missionaries like Samuel Gobat, John Martin Flad and Henry Aaron Stern describe the Jewish community and document their missionary activities during this period in books they would later publish.
At the same time, there was renewed interest in the plight of the Jews of Ethiopia by Jews in Europe.
In 1864, Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer issued a call to action to counter missionary activity. In 1908, a letter signed by 43 prominent rabbis of Israel and the Diaspora encouraged the Beta Israel to be steadfast in their faith. Visits to Ethiopia by Jewish scholars and educators followed.
In 1912, Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook wrote a letter expressing his sincere support for sending teachers to Ethiopia to educate the community (Igros ha-Ra’ayah 2:432).
And, following the founding of the State of Israel, the status of Ethiopian Jews would once again be discussed and debated to determine whether they would be eligible to immigrate under Israel’s Law of Return.
In 1951, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog was asked by the Jewish Agency to rule on the status of the Ethiopian Jews. In a teshuvah written in 1954, Rav Herzog debates their pedigree, and due to a number of concerns concludes they would require conversion.
Almost twenty years later, in February, 1973, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that the Beta Israel – the group which clung strongly to their faith for thousands of years – should be accorded full legal status as Jews. Rabbi Yosef’s ruling helped set in motion a chain of events that would change the government’s attitude and policy towards the Ethiopian Jews, and eventually lead to the dramatic airlifts of Operation Moses and Solomon.
IN 1975, the Beta Israel community was officially recognized as Jewish by the State of Israel under the Law of Return, and in 1977 they began to arrive as olim (new immigrants).
In a subsequent responsa written in 1985, Rabbi Yosef addresses Rabbi Herzog’s ruling and writes, “I did not want to differ from the authority of Rabbi Herzog… But in point of law, I do not agree, and it is my opinion that one should rely upon the aforementioned rulings, that the Falashas are Jews in every respect and are in no need of conversion, even out of stringency” (Yabia Omer, Even ha-Ezer 8:11).
In a letter dated 26 Sivan 5644 (June 26, 1984), Rabbi Moshe Feinstein rules that the Beta Israel need to undergo a conversion to remove any doubts, “and we shall consider them like all Jews, and assist them and support their needs, both physically and spiritually.” Feinstein concludes and writes that: “I suffered great anguish because I have heard there are those in Israel who are not drawing them close in spiritual matters and are causing, Heaven forbid, that they might be lost from Judaism. And it seems to me that these people are behaving so only because the color of their skin is black.
“It is obvious that one must draw them close, not only because they are no worse than the rest of the Jews – and because there is no distinction in practical application of the law because they are black – but also because perhaps they are considered converts, and are therefore included in the mitzvah, ‘You shall love the convert.’ And I conclude with the hope that the situation will improve, and in the merit in observing all the mitzvot, we should all soon merit to the ingathering of the exiles by our righteous Moshiach.” (See also Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 4:41).
Similarly, rabbis Eliezer Waldenberg, Menachem Shakh, Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Yitzchak Weiss all required that they undergo conversion (Tzitz Eliezer 17:48).
The official position of the Chief Rabbinate is that the Beta Israel have a strong presumptive status as Jews, but require conversion to rule out any doubts.
The community that remains today in Ethiopia numbers approximately 8,000 souls: 2,000 in the nation’s capital Addis Ababa, and 6,000 in Gondar in the North. They sit and wait while the government of Israel reaches a final decision regarding their immigration. Dubbed the derogatory “Falash Mura,” many of them are descendants of those forced or pressured to convert to Christianity a century ago. They currently live as sincere, practicing Jews and will all undergo a full conversion upon making aliyah.
ARRIVING EARLY on a Sunday morning, I joined the community for morning prayers at the Tikvat Zion Synagogue. On an ordinary Sunday morning, almost 200 people – men, women and children – filed into the synagogue and prayed in Hebrew and Amharic for almost two hours – something that would put most synagogues in Israel to shame!
It was inspiring to see their passion and commitment.
In the afternoon, there was a meeting of the local chapter of Bnei Akiva, the National-Religious youth movement. Young people gathered to study Hebrew in preparation for a life in Israel. I had the opportunity to teach, sing and interact with the youth. But as much as I could teach them – they taught me so much more.
Visiting with the community in Addis Ababa, I was surprised to learn that they all have family already in Israel – many of them immediate family – that they long to be reunited with. Today, mothers are forced to decide whether to stay with children in Ethiopia, or be reunited with children already in Israel.
I was also surprised to learn that the community members are not originally from either Addis Ababa or Gondar. They are from rural farming villages scattered throughout Ethiopia and Eritrea, having moved to these major cities in recent decades in hopes of making aliyah. They have made tremendous sacrifices, leaving their homes and everything else behind.
Today, they suffer silently as refugees as they wait in congested cities, living in poverty with a lack of opportunities. They are mistreated by their gentile neighbors, and seen as outsiders by their society. Their quality of life is very poor. They are hungry and don’t have access to proper healthcare. On the wall of the synagogue hangs an embroidery with names – in English and Amharic – of members of the community who died while waiting to make aliyah.
What I found in Addis Ababa was a community deeply committed to the Torah of Israel, the People of Israel, and the Land of Israel. They are waiting to reunite with their family and their ancestral homeland.
Anyone who questions their sincerity just needs to visit Ethiopia and see for themselves. My opinion – and my life – was forever changed.
The author lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as rabbi of Har Nof’s Kehilat Zichron Yosef.