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The Ethiopian Jewish History & Experience as Blacks in Israel

Updated: May 3, 2023

Over a 15-year period beginning in the mid-1970s, over 40,000 Ethiopian Jews emigrated from Africa and resettled in Israel. The ingathering of Black Jews to Israel is one of the most unique phenomena of modem day Black history for two reasons; first, the Jews of Ethiopia are the only group of Africans practicing Judaism and second, they are the only group of Africans who have migrated to a predominately White society for religious reasons.

The religious history of Ethiopian Jews traces its beginning back over 2,000 years to the migration of Jews from Egypt during biblical times. Ethiopian Jews believe themselves to be the remnant of the lost tribe of Dan, one of the 10 tribes of Israel captured by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., which later vanished into history (Safran, 1987). Some believe themselves to be the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Kessler, 1985).

No one is really sure of their origin; however, they lived in the mountains of Ethiopia, isolated from the Jewish community at large, for over 2,000 years, practicing a traditional form of Judaism (Safran, 1987). When Ethiopian Jews had their first encounter with Europeans, they were surprised to find that there were White Jews, as they believed themselves to be the only Jewish people in the world (Waldman, 1985).

Unlike other Jewish groups, Ethiopians found it difficult to gain recognition for the purpose of returning to Israel until 1973, when Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef officially declared them bona fide members of the Jewish community and thus eligible to return to Israel as citizens under the Law of Return (Goldberg & Kirschenbaum, 1989). Having suffered anti-

The Crisis of Religious Identity Among Ethiopian Immigrants in Israel

We the Ethiopian Jews have secluded ourselves from gentiles and gentile customs far more than any other Jewish community to avoid dilution of our Jewishness. We have struggled against all odds to preserve our faith and carry out the Torah to the extent of sacrificing our lives.

And until reunification with world Jewry, we thought we were the only remaining Jews in the world, yet we continued to be diligent in our observance of the Torah. We demand fairness and equality: one is either a Jew or not a Jew. This humiliation must stop once and for all. Ethiopian Jews deserve to be respected as Jews returning to their homeland like any other Jewish community. —An Ethiopian immigrant, as quoted by Parfitt, 1985, p. 130

Racism in Israel: The case of Ethiopian Jews ( Falasha )

Sifan Zelalem Published 2015

The case of Ethiopian Jews in Israel is a complex situation with many factors that are hard to describe without looking briefly at the history of both countries: Ethiopia & Israel. The story of how a group of people in remote parts of the horn of Africa came to exist in modern day Israel is interesting to say the least.

The shift from a 3 world African country to a racially divided and economically more stable part of the world is a journey by itself. One of the major and integral parts of this interaction between ethnicities is the religious side to this debate. The policies that allowed the current situation (Ethiopians as citizens in Israel) are fundamentally based on the religious affiliation of the Ethiopians, although Jewishness as a concept is multi-dimensional in itself as it can refer to the practice of Judaism or the biological ethnic distinction passed on maternally.

The issues of discrimination towards this group of immigrants is widely documented, the processes by which race has come to play a major part in these people’s lives is complex in a Middle Eastern context. There are many facets to this form of racialization which is not only expressed overtly by outward racism from citizens but on a more structural level, the way in which institutions are working.

The socio-economic conditions of the Falasha is one factor that makes them a disadvantaged group, they faced many physical & psychological challenges on their journey to the ‘promised land’, as well as facing increasing problems due to their skin colour and practice of their own style of Judaism as citizens in Israel.

The lives of other immigrants is a good point of comparison as it highlights the apparent contradictions in Israeli policy as well as raising other covert issues such as underlying racial prejudices embedded in Israeli society. The Falasha are a unique case in contrast to other immigrant groups in Israel, such as Palestinians who have a very long history, and other African immigrants who do not have the same rights as Ethiopians due to their ‘illegal’ status or on the count of them not being Jewish: a core aspect of what it means to be an Israeli citizen.

A final dimension that chronicles the lives of this group of people is beyond their day to day lives and explores how they are becoming a part of the society. The integration of the Falasha into mainstream society is an ongoing struggle for the marginalized group; it may come in different forms such as actively or passively resisting or conforming through assimilation.

For the future of this ongoing co-existence there are still many unanswered questions about the state of their integration process. Recent trends may point towards a bleak future for the absorption of this small group of Africans in a predominantly white state.

Discrimination claims

Controversy regarding the treatment of Ethiopian Jews began as early as the 1980s. Early that decade, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate put a policy in place that required immigrants to go through a ritual conversion ceremony, accept Rabbinic law, and - for males - be re-circumcised, with the stated goal of facilitating their assimilation to Jewish culture in Israel.

By 1984, Ethiopian Jews opposed this policy, which they argued disregarded their religious practices as Jews. Many immigrants began to refuse to undergo conversion ceremonies and re-circumcision. In early 1985, the Chief Rabbinate changed the policy so that only Ethiopian Jews who wanted to marry as Jews in Israel would have to undergo the process.

However, the Ethiopians still opposed the policy, which no other immigrant group in Israel had to undergo, and launched a strike on September 4, 1985. The strike aimed to achieve recognition as Jews without formal conversion or circumcision. Strikers also demanded that Ethiopians who wanted to marry as Jews should be dealt with on a case by case basis, and with the involvement of Ethiopian elders.

The Ethiopians set up their strike in Jerusalem, outside the office of the Chief Rabbinate. Located next to the Great Synagogue, this was a prime location because people walking to and from synagogue everyday could see the protest. Eventually, non-Ethiopian Israelis began to join the protest.

The strike continued for a month, into Rosh Hashanah. Anxious for the strike to end before Yom Kippur, the Chief Rabbinate began to negotiate with the protesters. The protestors denied the compromises, and once Yom Kippur was over, the Chief Rabbinate stopped negotiating with the protestors.

The protestors realized their demonstration was taking a step back, so in order to avoid humiliation they decided to accept a deal presented to them weeks prior to the end of the strike. The Ethiopian Jews and Israeli officials agreed that in order for Ethiopians to marry in Israel, they would need to apply with their local registrar. The registrar would take testimony from Ethiopian elders into account, and those who could prove Jewish lineage could get married without the conversion ceremony.

Birth control

According to a TV program in 2012, female Ethiopian immigrants may have been given the Depo-Provera birth control drug without full explanation of its effects, although the Israeli health ministry has instructed all health maintenance organizations not to use the treatment unless patients understand the ramifications.

Ethiopian Jewish women awaiting aliyah were given birth control while in transit camps. The drug has existed for around thirty years, but only about five percent of women elect to use this method of birth control in the US. The effects of Depo-Provera last for three months.

The practice was first reported in 2010 by Isha le'Isha (Hebrew: woman to woman), an Israeli women's rights organization. Hedva Eyal, the report's author, stated: "We believe it is a method of reducing the number of births in a community that is black and mostly poor." Haaretz criticized the coverage, alleging that there was no plan to deliberately reduce the birth rates of Ethiopian Jews, and there was no evidence of coercion.

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