Ethiopian Jews

 

FRED DE SAM LAZARO, correspondent: Every day, hundreds of people gather in a makeshift worship center on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.They profess their Judaism in prayers, pictures, and words. They’re hoping to be heard most immediately by authorities in Israel, which they call the Promised Land. Many left spartan farm lives in the rural north of this ancient east African nation and moved to the city years ago in hopes that they, like thousands before them, would be taken to Israel.

Ethiopian Jew: Our members are suffering. They are destitute. They don’t have places to sleep.

Ethiopian Jew: I come to follow God’s word. He said, as I disperse you I shall bring you together. Because of that I want to go back to the Jewish home.

DE SAM LAZARO: Their pleas have fallen mostly on skeptical ears even though more than 75,000 Ethiopians, including many relatives of these people, were accepted in recent years into Israel.Their acceptance into Israeli society, however, has been difficult. Many in Israel’s religious leadership have questioned whether the Ethiopians are truly Jewish. Many were subjected to conversion rituals upon their arrival in Israel. In recent years, Ethiopians, particularly in the second generation, have taken to street protests.

Ethiopian Jewish Demonstrator: I think what we are looking here today is thousands of Ethiopians saying here to the Israeli society: no to discrimination, no for racism. All of us we came here to Israel to be equal with Israeli society.

DE SAM LAZARO: The Ethiopian Jewish tradition dates back hundreds of years—many believe more than 2,000 years.

MESFIN ASSEFA (Scholar-Activist): The origin of Ethiopian Jews dates back to biblical times when the Queen of Sheba or Magda first went to visit King Solomon, and she returned bearing a child conceived during this visit. The young prince, later King Melenik, went to Israel to meet his father when he was 20, and he returned to Ethiopia accompanied by 1000 members from each of the tribes of Israel.

Religious historian Getachew HaileDE SAM LAZARO: Other migrations followed from ancient Israel, he says, but this account has a number skeptics.

GETACHEW HAILE: It’s more of a legend than historical truth.

DE SAM LAZARO: Getachew Haile, a religion historian now in Minnesota, says there’s no evidence of any trail linking Ethiopia directly with ancient Israel.

GETACHEW HAILE: We have Greek inscriptions, Arabic inscriptions. There is nothing in the sort of Hebrew inscriptions.

DE SAM LAZARO: More likely, he says, Jews came here from the Arabian Peninsula or Yemen centuries later and settled amid certain isolated populations, helping convert them from the Orthodox Christianity that predominated.

HAILE: One possibility, this is a theory, is that some people might have migrated from over the Red Sea, come into Ethiopia, and converted them. The other is within the Ethiopian community, within the Christian community, who rejected Christianity.

DE SAM LAZARO: Through the ages, he says, some Ethiopian kings enforced a rigid conformance to the predominant Orthodox Christianity. Those outside this system, called falasha or foreigners have been marginalized.

HAILE: They are considered outcasts, and I have no doubt that they have been treated like that within the Ethiopian Christians.

DE SAM LAZARO: Thanks in large part to this persecution, the so-called falasha became Ethiopia’s poorest people, and this has complicated the transition for many who went to Israel from medieval poverty to a First World economy. Still, for the Ethiopians it is a huge improvement in the standard of living. Mengistu Kebede, who’d returned to Addis Ababa on vacation recently to visit family, gave us some perspective. It was a difficult adjustment to life in Israel, he says, but well worth it.

MENGISTU KEBEDE: It’s significantly better. Everybody wears shoes, they get enough pay for work, their clothes there are nice. Everything is much better.

Mesfin AssefaDE SAM LAZARO: As part of earlier groups who were airlifted amid Ethiopia’s famine and civil war in the 1980s and ’90s, Kebede received a relatively warm welcome under Israel’s law of return. Today, however, the issue of economic motivation has clouded the politics of migration.

ASSEFA: I understand that there’s a perception that people coming from poor countries, from Africa, are coming for the economic benefits. But the issue is it’s the national law of Israel as well as the religious law to allow all Jews to return to Israel. It’s what God promised. As far as we know, all who have applied are bona fide Jews, and while there are advantages, the true motivation is a religious one.

DE SAM LAZARO: Amid the social, political, and economic challenges involving Ethiopian migration, Israel’s government has restricted the number it will allow in. In 2010 the government, in a move that it said should absorb all remaining Jews in Ethiopia, authorized visas for 8,000 new migrants. They’ll be allowed in in phases through 2016. Most of these worshipers did not make the cut. Deliverance to the Promised Land for these people, whose numbers are estimated in the low thousands, could take years, if it happens at all.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

  • Abi

    The so called Ethiopian historian do not now about the real Ethiopian history….. What a shame? I bet you if you ask them about the Russian revolution, France revolution he will tell you more detail about it. Is Getachew Haile… Know s about why Ethiopian observe and keep Saturday sabbath, Did he know why Ethiopian children have circumcision in the 8th day after birth? Did he knows that their are a lots of evidence and materials comes to Ethiopia from the king solomon temple? you can see it in the holy island of Tana. As far as I know their is no any other country than Ethiopia who can show more evidence the connection between Israel and Ethiopia. If this people are not from Amahara and Tigray tribes in Ethiopia they always try to put our history down to the drain. Just because we have a written history of Greek or Arab…. it doesn’t necessary mean that we are worshiping or have a way of life like greeks or arabs. Please know your history first before you open your mouth.

  • Ethiopian

    I agree with “Abi” above.

    The Historian is not an expert in Ethiopian history. I agree that there are a lot of practices in the culture that point
    to Judaism.

  • nancy

    I thought Moses marries a Cushite (Ethipoian) woman and had children with her. Isn’t that a Jewish connection.

  • Emanuel

    It is wise to see genetic studies made regarding Ethiopian Jews and it was found out that the genetic material of Ethiopian Jews is identical to that of the non Jews in Ethiopia. Would this speak volumes about questions of genesis ? They could be Jews but claiming ancestry on oral tradition needs an indepth study than meets the eyes.

  • vixim

    Abi,

    Actually it is you who doesn’t know Ethiopian History. When Getachew Haile said “there’s no evidence of any trail linking Ethiopia directly with ancient Israel”, he meant physical contact between the two people, like movement of people or tribal groups as a result of migration, trade, hostility or friendly relationship between the tow countries..

    There is absolutely no historical evidence to link the current Ethiopia with Ancient Israel of the 10th or 11th century BC. Besides the Ethiopia we know now didn’t exist at that time. Yes, there were people called Ethipians by Greeks, but those were really not us, those were the black people the Greek met south of Aswan, in Egypt.

    On the other hand we have abundant information to link northern Ethiopia with Yemenite Jews. if you knew Ethiopian history as you implied (or pretended), you would have known the various expeditions of Ethiopia (Axum) against Yemenite Jewish kingdoms. You specially remember the Massacre of Christian by the Jewish king of Dhu Nuwas of Himyar (Yemen) which prompted Ethiopia’s punitive expedition against that kingdom resulting in the death of Dhu Nuwas and in the occupation of the kingdom by Ethiopians for the next 50 years.

    That particular campaign was also know for its massacre and brutality against the Jewish population( who were for the most part recent converts to Judaism or pagans). Like all other wars of that period, the fate of the defeated army was slavery or permanent exile. Some no doubt might have been brought to Ethiopia by their conquerors, along with their faith.

    The Falashas looked and resembled the rest of the Agaw population of north Ethiopia. Except for their religion, they are compeletely indistinguishable from Agaws in every aspect. Until relatively recently they spoke Agaw languages.

    Theose Yemenite Jews who were brought to Ethiopia may have converted these indigenous Agaw people to Judaism resulting into Modern Falasha population. And I think that is why Getachew Haile said: “…, Jews came here from the Arabian Peninsula or Yemen centuries later and settled amid certain isolated populations, helping convert them from the Orthodox Christianity that predominated.”

    I agree with Getachew Haile. But I don’t think Orthodox christianity was predominant in the Falash areas at the period in discussion. The Falashas may have been converted to judaism around the 6th century AD, long before Orthodox christianity became the dominant feature in Gondar. The orthodox dominance in northern Ethiopia started after the arrival of the “nine saints’ from Syria, after the 6th century AD – even though christianity was introduced in the country early in the 4th century.

    De Sam Lazaro made a common mistake that was invented by either the Falashas themselves or some historians, when he said, “Falasha or foreigners have been marginalized”, But the word “Falasha” doesn’t mean “foreigners”. The word has its origin in the old Geez language which is directly related to the Amharic root word “Felese”. And the way they used it in those days, when some one orders you to “Filset”, you are being ordered to leave your land and go else where. That means you are no longer wanted in the community. It was exactly what was done to the Falashas. They were forced out of the rich lands of their ancestors. They settled in remote and poor lands of the country, not desired by the Christians.

    Finally, I don’t think the Falashas have anything to do with that myth in the book of “Kibra Negast”, which is presented as a historic evidence to the origins of the Fallasha people by Mesfin Assefa and Abi.

    For starters, it is just a legend, or as Getachew Haile said, a “Myth”. That legend was compiled by a priest from Debra Damo, who was actually trying to ingratiate himself by flattering the new Amhara Kings of Ethiopia, after the restoration of the so called “solomonic dynasty”, in the 13th Century. Besides the legend itself says, those Israelis who came back to Ethiopia with Menlik I (son of Solomon and Sheba) following his visit to Jerusalem were the forefathers of the Kings and priests of the semitic speaking people of Amhara and Tigre, not Falasha.

    I am not sure why people are so insecure about their origins. But I hope the new and future generations of Falashas in Israel, faced with daily discrimination in Israel, would be want to seek the truth about their true origins.

  • tirsit mogus (Tiye)

    I agree with Emmanuel. I think such issues should be resolved based on evidence and clear definitions of important terms cinsidered.
    What makes a Jew? My practics or my genetics?
    If I converted to Judaism today and my children and their descendants practiced it for generations; are we Jews?
    If I have genes that connect me to one of the tribes of Israel but practice Christianity, am I a Jew?

    What are the roots of the practices Abi mentioned above; what do written texts say and in architecture (example: engravings on rock hewn churches)? Did our ancient eighbors share similar practices?

  • amara

    Getachew Haile is OLF historian. Among other things they claim Ethiopian history is 100 years old. I might be wrong, I think this guy also proposed we should build monument for Ahmed Geran.

    He is not a scholar but hate historian.

  • Bisrat

    There are lots of Judaism in Ethiopian Orthodox practices and Ethiopian culture, I mean Ethiopian proper not Ethiopian Jews. Labeling this connection as “legend” is ignorance of the overwhelming evidences on the ground. The problem is there are no proper studies of this connection as white Jews are shy and reluctant to see the connection with black African country or black people, a racist guiding principle that distort views and perceptions of the entire Middle Eastern Countries about Africans.

  • Donna Rowe

    If they practice Judaism, are they not Jews?

  • wuhibus

    Thank you Professor Getachew for at last telling our confused brothers and sisters Ethiopian Jews of the bitter fact that they are as Ethiopians by blood and DNA as the rest of their Ethiopian brethren. Ethiopians need to calm down and be proud of themselves than being opportunistically claiming to be something else. Its a heroic act by Dr. Getachew to confront the popular fairy tale with the fact that nobody wants to hear. It is a true responsibility act by a Scholar for the sake of truth.

  • Dehab

    These Felashas, I guess are always misfits.

    They have been misfits in Ethiopia, because they were Jews.

    They are now misfits in Israel, because they are either poor or dark-skinned.

    Would they also be misfits before their God?. ….NO!

    Shalom Bet-Yisrael!

  • Marcello

    A Rabbi once told me that even a recent Jewish convert “is as Jewish as those who followed Moses through the desert”. I’ve been to Ethiopia, and the Jews I met there are very knowledgeable and sincere about their faith. They have the kind of wisdom that can only be passed down through generations. I wish them well, wherever they may be.

  • Channah

    The biggest problem the Ethiopian Jews have, once they reach Israel is their acceptance as Jews. The Ashkinazim mostly do not accept them, whereas the Sephardim do. I only wish that all of them could be gotten into Israel. Oh—–I am a Sephardim.

  • CherryPicker

    They are obviously Jews, and racists bring great shame to our people. Remember that Jews were orginally dark-skinned, not white like me.

  • Beverly

    I am a Black American with a Jewish last name, on many occasions I have been told the original Jew was black.
    in reading the above and just recently speaking to Black Americans who traveled to the Holy Land, have been
    called the N word. I am in shock. They said they were treated as though they were in the deep south.. ONe was even detained even though he had a US Passport. It was implied that he obtained it outside the law..

    Well, I will never visit two places in the world, Israel or England. The horror’s put upon people of color no matter what religion by people without pigmentation so called christians and others won’t have a place before GOD. Check your DNA and see where it leads, to the land where all life began Africa not Europe.

  • Mark

    I have not heard of a hystorian by the name Getachew Haile. Ethiopia has always been in constant contact with the ancient Israel, and this is clearly there in the Bible itself. I am very sure he has got some personal poletical interest. Scholars may not believe in God existance, but they still use the bible as reference. Ethiopian Orthodox itself is essentially Judiac, as can be observed from various holidays and traditions. No country preserved the original ancient Jewish tradition like Ethiopia. The recent finding of the book of Enoch, ancient artifacts in Tana Kirkos, and the tradition of the Arc of Convenant in holidays are apparent just in Ethiopia.

    Yes, we love Ethiopia, but Ethiopia is actually the continuation of the ancient Israel after Solomon, and haplotypes like EM-34 and J1c3d are highest and second following Jordan. Tell me Getachew, where did we get EM-34, EM 84 and J1c3d? They are most recent. Pls keep your personal interest for just yours.

  • habesh

    not many people know this but we do. the dominant population of Tigrinya,Tigre and probably Amharinya are of Agew origion. My father still believes that our long time fore fathers were Jews. He knows nothing about Bete Israel being from agaw lands and spoke Agew. He knows one thing that his fore fathers came from a land in Ethiopia called Dembya and that they were Deki israel (sons of Israel) But I say since he daily Goes to church He is not a jew or son of Israel any more. But Bete israel were and are faithfull to Hashem and so are jews. so I say don’t question that that they are Jews.

  • habesh

    not many people know this but we do. the dominant population of Tigrinya,Tigre and probably Amharinya are of Agew origion. My father still believes that our long time fore fathers were Jews. He knows nothing about Bete Israel being from agaw lands and spoke Agew. He knows one thing that his fore fathers came from a land in Ethiopia called Dembya and that they were Deki israel (sons of Israel) But I say since he daily Goes to church He is not a jew or son of Israel any more. But Bete israel were and are faithfull to Hashem and so are jews. so I say don’t question that that they are Jews. one thing though! I completelly disagree with the kibre negast and the Idea that Judaism in Habesha came with queen makda(saba) Time to embrace a different truth and look west to sudan. and then Egypt. may be the migration was not in an instant and just in one time but the most notable evidence relates to king taharaka of kush and 130,000 jews who acompanied senacherib to invade taharaka and were defeated and lost in the mountains of Darknes. Think about it.

  • Mark

    @habesh

    “so I say don’t question that that they are Jews. one thing though! I completelly disagree with the kibre negast and the Idea that Judaism in Habesha came with queen makda(saba) Time to embrace a different truth and look west to sudan. and then Egypt. may be the migration was not in an instant and just in one time but the most notable evidence relates to king taharaka of kush and 130,000 jews who acompanied senacherib to invade taharaka and were defeated and lost in the mountains of Darknes. Think about it”

    Interesting and I agree with you. However, the Kebra Negest can not be disregarded as we need to disproove that. Recent DNA studies on Ethiopian people, by American Jornal of Human Genetics, have come to a conclusion that Ethiopians are more closer to Israel, Syria and Egypt, than to the neighbouring Arebia. Also, they estimated the actual semetic mixing and found to be 2800 years before, supporting the legend time of King Solomon’s time. By the way the Original Kebre Negest was written before 6th Century A.D. in Coptic language (As per Walis Budge). Also, the finding of EM-34 highest in Amhara (23%) plus J1c3d (33%) and the age of these haplotype was prooven to be 2800 years in Ethiopia, along with the expansion of semetic language. There are several evidences that Ethiopians trace their origin from King Solomon but with Ethiopian Mother.

  • Jasi

    There was a new papers (Variation in Y chromosome, mitochondrial DNA and labels of identity in Ethiopia – Christopher Andrew Plaster) revealed that J1 & E-M34 is more deeper than what published in earlier papers.
    The highest frequencies were with the Omotic speakers , then Cushtic , and the lowest frequencies were with the Semitic speakers , the author said:
    Additional genotyping of J clades in the five ethnic groups of the Ethiopian Ascertainment panel samples revealed that the majority of J samples were of the J1 sub-clade. With the exception of the Afar (where J1 was the only observed J haplogroup), the J2 subclade was also observed, albeit at lower frequencies than J1, in all ethnic groups, and a single Maale sample was observed to have a J haplotype that did not belong to either of the two known derived sub-clades of J. J samples were at highest frequency (52.0%) in the Omotic speaking Shekecho ethnic group, located in the north-west SNNP region, but were also observed in other linguistically diverse and widespread groups, including the Omotic speaking Kefa and Yem (38.3% and 31.5% respectively), the Cushitic speaking Afar and Agew (25.9% and 22.3% respectively) and the Semitic speaking Amhara and Gurage (25.8% and 21.1% respectively).

  • Vince

    Very odd discussion. German and Polish (Europeans) of the Jewish faith claiming that Africans aren’t Jewish, when they are the ones who aren’t really Jewish, as in connected to the ancient Hebrews. Who are they fooling?

  • VonVictor Valentino Rosenchild

    Tuesday, July 23, 2013

    Brooklyn, NY 09:05 AM EST

    I find this very insightful, and I have to admit, that I need to do more research about it before I make any critical comment. I do believe that in the 21st century, which we live in today, people should set aside all the racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, nationality, etc., differences and embrace all humanity as belonging to only one species, the Human Species. The small things that make us different are the things that make our species all the more special. No part or group within the Human species is better than another.

    When I see and or hear of the ignorance of racism, prejudice, hate, etc., of the past being held in honor today, I shake my head and wonder if Humanity as a whole will ever truly advance on a social level. If humanity advanced on a social level as quickly as technology advances, we probably would have star-ships by now, and Star Trek would be more of a reality than a Science Fiction show.

    Kindest regards,

    VonVictor Valentino Rosenchild

    U.S. Navy Veteran

    (Cryptologist; U.S. Intelligence sector)

    New York, NY

    Email: vonrosenchild@gmail.com

  • alec taylor

    well the ashkenazi edot is descended from sephardic and italkite,jews who migrated to central ,and later eastern europe in the middle ages and early modern era. Significant population genetic studies done by many different researchers and universities have shown that these groups are far more closely related to each other and to the various mizrahi communities as well as other ethnic groups in the Levant especially Druze, cypriots, and samaritans, than to non-jewish groups they have long lived amongst. Plus they left a pretty extensive paper trail documenting their migrations over the last 2 thousand years and strenuously avoided exogamy and proselytizing. On the other hand reliable accounts of the beta israel only date back to the middle ages and population genetic studies have not shown a significant difference from other Ethiopian groups or a significant ancestral link to the levant. This does not change the fact that beta israel believe themselves to be descended from jewish migrants and consider themselves to be related to other jews.

  • alec taylor

    well, they were swarthy, like most people from around the mediterraenean (and most jews for that matter), plus light skin/hair/eye coloring is not a specifically european trait, it’s relatively common throughout the middle east, certainly not as common as in northern europe, but definately not unusual, as the gene (or gene set) most likely developed in the middle east and most of the ancestors of modern europeans migrated to europe from the middle east during the neolithic era