Falashas of Ethiopia

Alternative names: Ethiopian Jews, Beta Israel
Location: Gondar province, Semien mountains, Tigray and Wollo provinces
Population: 28,000 before mass emigration; today about 7,000 remain in Ethiopia with remainder in Israel
% of population: 0.065%-0.015%
Religion: Judaism
Language: Agau dialect, Amharic

The Ethiopian Jews, more commonly known as the Falashas, are a people of ancient Cushitic descent numbering about 28,000, most of whom lived until recently in Gondar province and the Semien mountains in the north of Ethiopia. They are a branch of the Agau people, some of whom adopted the Jewish faith around 300 BC receiving it from either south-western Arabia or Elephantine in upper Egypt, both of which had important Jewish communities at the time. Jewish tradition claims that the Falashas are descendants of the lost tribe of Dan exiled to Mesopotamia; according to another tradition they are descended from the Queen of Sheba.

The Jewish Agau came to be known as Falashas, a term thought to derive from an ancient Ethiopie or Ge’ez word meaning exiles or strangers. They established an independent kingdom in the mountains of north western Abyssinia where they managed to resist conversion or assimilation but fought several wars defending their political independence, which was finally lost in 1616. Since that date the numbers of Falashas have gradually declined. In the early nineteenth century evangelical Christian missionaries found many Falashas eager to accept the coming of the Messiah and there were many conversions.

The Falashas suffered greatly from prejudice at the hands of neighbouring peoples and were believed to practise witchcraft. There was opposition to Jewish schools, the first of which had been opened in 1924, with the help of Jacques Faitlovitch, a French Jew who devoted much of his life to the Falasha cause. When the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935 the anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany brought about a form of apartheid directed largely at the Falashas. Although they fought with Ethiopian guerrilla forces to liberate the country from the fascists during World War II, Falashas continued to face discrimination, violent attacks, eviction, and extortionate rents and taxes after the war.

Contact with Israel was established in 1954 when the Jewish Agency established a school in Asmara. Falasha leaders communicated with leading Jewish agencies asking for recognition as Jews, financial assistance and intercession with the Emperor for the right to emigrate. Initially the Israeli Chief Rabbi would not accept them as Jews, a position which was reversed in 1973, to the extent that in 1975 automatic Israeli citizenship was granted to Ethiopian Jews. Falasha hopes of resettlement in Israel were dashed, however, when Ethiopia first severed diplomatic ties with Israel in 1973, and then in 1974 underwent a violent revolution which overthrew the Emperor. Emigration under the new Marxist regime was as severely restricted as before.

During the early years of the Marxist regime the equality of all minority groups was proclaimed, and full participation of Ethiopian Jews was invited; however the eradication of tribal differences and minority cultures soon became a priority and during the period 1977-79 the Falashas, caught in the cross-fire of contending parties, became the victims of both right and left-wing groups, and many Jews were killed. Conditions steadily worsened and small groups of Falashas started fleeing into the Sudan where they joined the thousands of Ethiopians in refugee villages. Those caught trying to escape were treated as political prisoners and imprisoned without trial. In late 1983 however, the Ethiopian authorities altered their policy towards the Falashas. Certain reforms were introduced and synagogues and schools re-opened.

From the late 1970s political disturbances and, later, famine in Ethiopia caused large-scale population movements. While some Falashas were badly affected by the famine, many used the mass movements to mask their escape from the country; being highland people, however, they were unprepared for the heat in the plains. Water was scarce and many became ill and had no resistance to disease. It is estimated that at least 10% of those who left Ethiopia died from the rigours of their journey to the Sudan, and many more died in the refugee camps, leading some escapees to return to their homes.

Menahem Begin, who became Israeli Prime Minister in 1977, was committed to the idea of the “return” to Israel of the black Jews. He and President Mengistu arrived at a secret agreement according to which Israel continued to supply Ethiopia with arms in return for a limited emigration of Falashas. This policy was short-Jived, however, and once it became known that a Marxist, anti-Zionist state was dealing in this way with Israel the legal emigration ended. Begin started to move Falashas to Israel by alternative means, and between 1979 and mid-1984 some 6,000 had made their way to Israel, some by sea and others by air.

It was now becoming increasingly difficult to deal with the large numbers of refugees, and with the tacit agreement of Sudan’s President Nimeiri an airlift started in late 1984 with more than 7,000 Falashas being lifted to Israel in just over a month. This operation too was doomed to be short-lived, as it soon became known that an Islamic country was aiding Jews to leave Ethiopia; however the migration continues on a reduced scale, and by 1985 only 7,000 to 8,000 Falashas were thought to remain in Ethiopia, of whom most, if not all, were expected eventually to leave.

Since arriving in Israel the Falashas have been given every assistance in settlement, despite a certain amount of bigotry. They successfully fought a call for their “symbolic conversion”, protesting that as they are fully Jewish such treatment is both unnecessary and insulting. They are likely to remain poorer than other Israelis for some time and it remains to be seen whether or not they will in time become fully integrated into Israeli society.

(See also Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Middle East and North Africa; Oromo of Ethiopia; Tigrayans)