CCAR Journal, Winter 1973
TEN YEARS AGO I attended a service in the Coptic church of Jerusalem, Rehov Hachabashim. At the end of the prayer I talked with one of the monks and asked him about the meaning of the word Falasha in the Amharic language. He told me that Falasha means exiled, or banished.
The Ethiopians use this word to designate the Jews who live in their land, which was conquered by the Queen of Sheba on her return from Jerusalem after her famous meetings with King Solomon (I Kings, X). According to an ancient local tradition, Menelik, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, left the Land of Israel at the time of the First Exile and went to Axum, the ancient capital of Queen Sheba in Ethiopia, with many followers - Judeans, ancestors of the Falashas. The actual Ethiopian Empire bases its dynasty on the same legend, the Emperor calling himself "The Lion of Judah". These Menelik Jewish followers became part of the local population, the Tribe of Agau, and converted many of the people. Eventually they became a powerful kingdom, and they fought frequently against the neighboring Christian Empire, which finally in the Sixteenth Century vanquished the Falasha Kingdom through both massacre and conversion and subjection of this famous Judean black tribe.
Although I remembered all these things from my seminary studies in Paris, my conversation with the monk created a greater interest in the Falashas themselves.
In the nineteen fifties I traveled to various countries of Africa and Asia and the Far East, and on many occasions I tried to meet our Jewish brethren. For exemple, I visited the B'nei Yisrael in New Delhi and in Bombay, India, and also Jewish congregations in Tokyo and in Kobe, Japan. I had previously visited the Jews of Jerba (a small Tunisian Island) and the Jews of Rhodes, who left Greece in 1941 to settle in the Belgian Congo, and also groups of Litvak Jews in Rhodesia and South Africa. But it was not until this year that I satisfied my curiosity by visiting the Falashas.
During the Omer period I decided to travel to Ethiopia, where I spent four weeks, although it is one of the lesser developed countries. There are only two universities to serve a population of twenty-four million, and in the primary schools there is only a ten per cent registration. There are only four hundred physicians, three hundred and fifty of them foreigners, who are responsible for the general hygiene and national health - a ratio of one physician for every 60,000 persons. I had not expected to meet any Jews except Falashas in Ethiopia, but in fact I met many Israelis in Addis Abbaba, the capital, and in Asmara in the North, and also in the port of Massawa on the Red Sea and in Awassa near the Lakes of the South. Nor had I imagined that I would find even one synagogue in this very large African country; nevertheless, I attended a Friday evening service in a little synagogue in Addis Abbaba, located on the second floor of a house, in a patio; and on Lag b'Omer I attended services in the small and beautiful synaogue built in Asmara about forty years ago. The members of these congregations are all Jews of Aden. Among them I met the family of Aharon Cohen, the president, who invited me to dinner, and also Menahem Sholem and Zion Finhos. I felt as though I were in one of the Yemenite synagogues in Jerusalem.
"But where are the Falashas?" I asked the Israeli Ambassador in Addis Abbaba, Mr. Hanan Eynor. With great courtesy he phoned their spiritual leader and most important representative, Mr. Yonah Bogalei, whom I subsequently met on a Sabbath morning. We talked about the mode of existence and the very bad situation of our brethren Falashas.
When we met again in the israeli Embassy on Yom Haatzmaout, I was told that there were only about 25,000 Falashas in all Ethiopia, dispersed at the east and the center of Gondar near Lake Tana and in the northern Simyen Mountains. Their settlements are located in about fifteen very poor villages: Ambober, Tadda, Woleka, Uzawa, Ankoverer, Madeha, Winiye, Bakar-Dar, Saramle, Woglo, and a half-dozen others. Comparatively, the poorest quarter of Jerusalem is like a royal palace. I visited four of these very remote hamlets.
Physically there appears to be no difference between Falashas and other Ethiopians. Most of the Falashas work in the melds, weave, or make pottery under very primitive conditions. To all those whom I met I brought Shalom greetings from Jerusalem. I talked mostly Hebrew with them. Many of them asked me to help them migrate to the Land of Israel.
In the villages that I visited I dropped in on the very poor schools, whose teachers are called Debterat. One of them, a Falasha named Jair ben Uri, serves in Woleka also as chazan, mohel, and shochet. He is a religious young man with yarmulka, beard, and taleth qatan. When I arrived in the village, he was teaching Hebrew in a one-room class to thirty or forty pupils ranging from six to ten years of age.
Once in the very simply constructed classroom, I asked many questions in Hebrew of the pupils, who answered me in good Hebrew, and very intelligently. They sang prayers and Israeli folksongs.
At the end of the lesson, the teacher brought me to the synagogue, which turned out to be a simple hut, like their tukul or wudjo. On the top of the roof there is affixed a Magen David. Inside, in what serves as the Holy Ark, there is a little printed Sefer Torah, such as we can find in many bookshops in Mea Shearim; but the Falashas have no parchment Sefer Torah.
In Ambober and in the other villages that I visited, the Torah or Orit (Oraita in Aramaic) is written in the ancient Ethiopian language of ge'ez and contains not only the books of Moses but also Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. There, in Ambober, I talked with three teachers (Debterat) : Ruben Rachamim, Yaakov Elyahu, and Yosef Zevadiah, whose father Geta Zevadiah is the High Priest of the region. Yosef is also employed as a health officer for the fifteen hundred Falashas of the village. This young man looks forward to his Aliyah to Israel. Six months ago, indeed, he began his arrangements and requested a passport from the Ethiopian government and a visa from the Israeli authorities, but so far without success.
All the pupils and the teachers of this school expressed to me their hope and wish to emigrate to Israel, but told me of the great difficulties in the way of their reaching their goal. They emphasized how dangerous is the influence of the many missionaries who have already converted thousands of Falashas, telling them: "The Jews, and that includes the Israelis, refuse to accept you as Jews; and here you suffer in your situation of Falashas among Christian, Coptic, Moslem, and other Ethiopians. But if you accept baptism, everything will be in order and advantageous to you and your families."
At the beginning of this century there were more than one hundred thousand Falashas in Ethiopia, and now there are only twenty-five thousand. All of them want to go to israel, but they cannot obtain this Aliyah either from here or from there. The Minister of the Interior and the religious establishment in Israel do not recognize them as Jews, although they are circumcised and observe the Sabbath and the Festivals and kashruth and believe in the monotheistic God, in the Torah of Moses and in Israel, and even though they suffer precisely for being Jewish Falashas in Ethiopia among the various religious sects of their country.
In fact, the Falashas sanctify the Name of God - and yet we, the Jews of the world, do hardly anything to help bring them out of their bondage and to permit their Aliyah to Israel, although this is their most cherished hope. All of us remember the B'nei Yisrael affair eight years ago, and also the problem of the Karaites. The latter are not yet recognized as pure Jews by the Israeli religious establishment. We cannot forget that the same religious establishment also does not recognize our Reform rabbis or our religious rights - and to those who discriminate in this way, we are all of us in the same category as Falashas.
On my visit to Ethiopia, I came to the conclusion that the State of Israel has the duty to proclaim that the Falashas are Jews, and that we must help them, so that the day may come when their wishes will be realized and they will be able to join all the peoples of the Exile who have come to be integrated in Israel. The Falashas are even more unfortunate than the Jews of certain other countries who cannot immediately emigrate to Israel, but who at least are recognized as Jews by all of Jewry.
The presently pondered question : "Who is a Jew?" should specially be applied to the status of the Falashas. They do not worship strange gods, nor are they Christians nor Moslems nor of any other religion but the original religion of Moses and Israel. The truth is that the Falashas do receive a small portion of help in education from the Jewish Agency, and minor financial support from the Jewish Colonisation Association in England - proof that there are official Jewish bodies that recognize the Falashas as Jews.
More than one hundred years ago the Jewish French Orientalist Joseph Halevi went to Ethiopia, sent by the Alliance Israelite Universelle. In the early decades of this century, his famous pupil, Jacques Faitlovitch, devoted many years of his life to the Falashas, whom he visited regularly for long months at a time, and on whose behalf he organized many European and American pro-Falashas Committees. Through his efforts a number of Jewish schools were established for the Falashas, and their young men were trained to be teachers. Fifty years ago, for example, he made it possible for Mr. Yonah Bogalei and the late Mr. Tamrat to go to Frankfurt, Germany and to Jerusalem to study Judaism and the Hebrew language.
In Jerusalem, Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook of blessed memory was interested in the Falashas and recognized them as Jews, according to what Yonah Bogalei told me in Addis Abbaba. In the nineteen fifties, many young Falashas trained in Israel, in Kfar Batiah, in order to teach their fellow Falashas on their return to Ethiopia.
Why did this movement not continue? Why,in our social and political action and in our religious meetings, do we not now deal with the problem of the Falashas in the midst of our more serious cares?
I have to confess that, during my long stay in various parts of Ethiopia I asked myself often what the solution could be - how could we make it possible for the Falashas to emigrate to Israel, as they wish with all their hearts to do. And I remembered our own Jewish story of four thousand years, since the days of Abraham, to whom God said : "Get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred father's house to the land that I will show thee" (Genesis XII). And, the Bible tells us: "So Abraham departed as the Lord had spoken to him." Perhaps, then, our brethren Falashas could come to Israel if they would obey in the depths of their hearts the word of God : "Get thee out."
The modern Jewish saga since the days of Leo Pinsker (1880) has taught us the meaning of auto-emancipation, and our contemporary history with regard to the Russian Jews has proved to our people, as Theodore Herzl said: "Im tirzu ein zo agada." Similarly, our brethren Falashas must first re-inforce their will for Aliyah - then they could bring about their departure from their present country and their integration into the Jewish life in Israel. But we must help them in this supreme undertaking and remind them that the help from outside and from God will come whenever they help themselves.
But what about the recognition of their religious affiliation as Jews from the rabbinical point of view? We, Reform and Progressive Jews, have to proclaim the equality and the rights of the Falashas as Jews. We Reform Jews must now repair the failure and the neglect of the past almost twenty years since the passing of Faitlovich in 1955. I think that this challenge is now ours. I therefore suggest the following six-point course of action to reach this sacred goal :
1. Alert world Jewry, and give complete information about and attract attention to this very old Falasha community, which, although isolated and separated from the rest of Jewry by external circumstances, has fought for many centuries to the point of martyrdom to preserve its Jewish identity;
2. encourage all Jews wherever situated to visit Ethiopia and its Falasha villages;
3. help the Falashas themselves to multiply their contacts with World Jewry and, in particular, to cement their relationship with the State of Israel and its social and educational institutions;
4. increase help for the Falashas' Jewish education and culture in their own homeland and raise their miserable standard of living, in order to render arm their will to be integrated into the modern world of Jewry;
5. begin a financial action to help, in Ethiopia itself, the development of Jewish community centers, schools, social help, and out-patient clinics, and to train the necessary administrative stay in the Diaspora and in Israel;
6. undertake a political action vis-à-vis the Ethiopian and Israeli governments, to influence them to permit the Falashas to emigrate to Israel and to be integrated into the Land of our fathers.
The establishment of the State of Israel has created the possibility for the Falashas to return to the land of their legendary origin. We hope that special official and private committees will be appointed in Israel and in the Diaspora in order once again to recognize the Falashas as Jews and to help them to emigrate to the land of their fathers, as they long to do. Thus the prophecy of Hosea (II) will come true: "Yet the number of the Children of Israel shall be as the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And it shall come to pass that instead of that which was said to them : 'You are not my people' it shall be said to them: 'You are the sons of the living God.'"
The letters that follow were received from Ethiopia by Rabbi Zaoui:
Dear Rabbi Zaoui:
It gives me pleasure to know that you enjoyed your visit in Ethiopia, particularly at our village: Woleka. I hope your journey was a good one.
Thank you very much for sending me a copy of your article and for explaining the prevailing condition in Israel on our issue. We Falashas are not too much concerned at the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's trying to exclude us, because we believe that people are not able to judge the purity of other people; only God can sanctify people. Thus, as the people of God, we invest our hope in Him.
It seems evident to me that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has forgotten the Biblical phrase describing the Jew who was a slave in Egypt. It should be made clear to all who hold the same notion that we Falasha Jews are not pretenders to Judaism, but that we have full confidence that our Judaism was derived from God and that we shall con be saved by it. The only obstacle that has prevented us from becoming well educated has been not the refusal of the Jewry in Israel to accept us, but our own poverty.
On behalf of all my Falasha People, I would like to express my gratitude to you and to other Liberal Jews who are trying to have us included officially as Jews who may return to Israel as of right. I was also very pleased at your statement that you would like to help some of our students to go to Israel to study. It will be a great help to our community when they come back well educated.
Abebe Beshan(Abebe BESHAN is a teacher of Falasha youngsters in Woleka, Ethiopia.)