The Falashas: A Jewish Minority in Israel By Dr Jaafar Hadi Hassan

Several thousand Ethiopian Jews demonstrated last year against the discarding of blood they had donated, an action carried out by the Israeli Ministry of Health in fear of its being infected with AIDS. The Ethiopian Jews who call themselves ‘Beta Yisrael’ and are called by other Ethiopians the ‘Falashas’, which in one of their languages, Ge’ez, means the ‘exiled, aliens’, number around 65,000 and were brought to the State of Israel (SI) in two stages. The Falashas have had to face many obstacles from the date of their arrival. This last protest was not a protest against the scandal of discarded blood only but a protest against all the other problems which they have had to endure.

Before we look at some of the problems faced by the Falashas we shall first briefly review their history, their beliefs and the state in which they were before arriving in the SI.

Many scholars believe that the Scottish traveller James Bruce was the first to meet and report to the world the existence of the Ethiopian Jews when, in the mid-eighteenth century, he published his book ‘Travels to Discover The Sources of The Nile’. Bruce spoke in detail of his discovery of the Jews he called the Falashas, their customs and habits and some of their history as related by them. But Bruce was not the first to have met and reported the existence of the Falashas, because the Arabs had done so more than two centuries before him when they contacted the Falashas and got to know them closely.

We shall report two such documented encounters. The first, Shihab ad-Diin Ahmad bin Abdel-Qadir al-Jizani, known as ‘Arab Faqih’ (d. c.1543), in his book ‘Tuhfat az-Zaman, Aw Futuh al-Habasha’ where he detailed the conquests of Imam Ahmad bin Ibrahim, as follows:

“The land of Sumain was owned by the Jews of Ethiopia, known in their tongue as the Falashas. They believe in Allah, but have no Prophet or Righteous Leaders. The people of Bahr’anba have enslaved them for 40 years, during which they used them to plough their lands. When the Imam defeated Archbishop Saul, the Falashas poured in their masses from all directions – from the caves where they used to live – and said to the Imam, ‘There has for the last forty years been an enmity between the people of Bahr’anba and ourselves. We shall fight the people of Bahr’anba now that you have defeated them and taken their castles. You stay in your place and we shall treat them as it may please you’. After the Imam had supplemented their army, they marched to the mountain and brought down the people of Bahr’anba in chains to the Imam who stayed there until he conquered Sumain”. [1]

The second is the historian al-Hami from the seventeenth century. He reported in his book ‘Sirat al-Habasha’ the following: “After seven stages, we reached the land of the Falashas which was formed by a great valley, called ‘aghna’, under a mighty mountain called Sumain. Sumain is the greatest of Ethiopia’s mountains and may even be the greatest of all the world’s mountains..… This tribe, called the Falashas, is the biggest of Ethiopia’s tribes following the Jewish religion and the Shari’a Law of the Torah. They used to be out of the control of the king who had often attacked them from all sides as their land was surrounded by Christian land, until he defeated them and brought them down from their castles, whereby they submitted to his authority and obeyed his orders voluntarily. The king handed over their land to his Wazir, and most of the Falashas became Christians except for a few”. [2]

Scholars are not in agreement on the origins of their Jewishness. Some believe that they are the descendants of the Jews who came from Yemen in the sixth century when the king of Aksum invaded the land of Himyar which was ruled by the Jewish king, Dhu Nawas. The Christians of Himyar had earlier sought the assistance of the Byzantine Emperor, Justin 1, to save them from Dhu Nawas. Justin called on the Ethiopian Christian king of Aksum to liberate the Christians. The king of Aksum occupied the land of Himyar and defeated Dhu Nawas in 525 AD. The king brought with him some Jewish prisoners. The proponents of this theory believe that the Jews of Ethiopia are the descendants of those prisoners, suggesting that Judaism had entered Ethiopia in the sixth century, following the adoption of Christianity in the fourth century. [3]

Some scholars believe that Judaism entered Ethiopia from Yemen earlier than Christianity through wars, trade or other routes, as Judaism was one of the religions of the Arabian Peninsula. [4] But the Ethiopian Jews relied on the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Torah) which was translated in Egypt (c 2nd century BC), and there is no evidence that this version was known in the Peninsula.

Yet others believe that the Ethiopian Jews constitute an ethnic and religious group descended from the lost Jewish tribes, of which large groups immigrated to Ethiopia and intermarried with the indigenous people. They argue in favour of this theory that the skin of these Jews is not as dark as that of other Africans and their features are distinctly non-African, which according to them is conclusive evidence that they could not have descended from an African origin. However, the colour and the features of the Ethiopian Jews generally are not different from those of the rest of the Ethiopian population. Furthermore the blood test carried out on the Falashas indicated that their blood groups are different from those predominant among the Eastern Jews. [5]

Some of those who believe that Jews immigrated to Ethiopia suggest that only a few Jews, and not thousands of the lost tribes, had entered Ethiopia before Christianity, and converted some of the inhabitants. Today’s Jews are the descendants of those early converts [6]

There are others who believe that Ethiopian Jews came from an island in the Nile situated opposite present-day Aswan and known in ancient Egyptian as ‘Yeb’, the name retained in Aramaic. The Greeks called it ‘Elephantine’ which is a true translation of the early Egyptian. The significance of this island is that it was the city of the God Khnum and was a military fortress to defend Egypt’s southern borders against the Nubians who used to attack the Nile valley. [7]

During the Persian rule of Egypt around 525BC Elephantine became a large military base inhabited by many mercenaries from different ethnic origins. Among those mercenaries were Jews who had their own “temple”, as is revealed from papyrus letters written in Aramaic from the fifth century. It is clear from these letters that some of their customs were different from those observed by other Jews in matters such as mixed marriages and sacrificial rituals.

When the Persians were driven out of Egypt during the fifth century BC the position of those Jews was weakened and they started to complain of their treatment by the Egyptian priests who were pressurising and assaulting them. When their position deteriorated further, they left the island. It is believed that some of them went to present-day Ethiopia. To support this theory, its proponents cite the Greek historian Strabo, who lived in the first century BC. When writing on Abyssinia, Strabo referred to a settlement of Egyptians living on an island far up in the Nile who had gone to Meroe (Ethiopia) as “exiled by Psammetichus and are called Sembritae as being foreigners”. [8] This is the meaning of the word ‘Falashas’ in the Ge’ez language.

But the Ethiopist Ullendorff rejects this and says: “Even if this referred to the time of Psammetichus II (593-588BC), it would clearly be too early to have any connection with the Jewish military garrison at Elephantine”. He then puts forward the idea that the Falashas are “descendants of those elements in the AksumiteKingdom who resisted conversion to Christianity..…Their cult embodies a curious mixture of pagan-Judaic-Christian beliefs and ceremonies…..Their so-called Judaism is merely the reflection of those Hebraic and Judaic practices and beliefs which were implanted on parts of South-West Arabia in the first post-Christian centuries and subsequently brought into Abyssinia.” To support his theory Ullendorff mentions the fact that the Falashas do not know any prescription outside the Pentateuch: Mishna and Talmud are unknown to them. They have no knowledge of Hebrew, and the language of their prayers is Ge’ez as is the case with their Christian compatriots. The feasts mentioned in the Pentateuch are observed by the Falashas in a manner often materially different from that of Jews elsewhere. Post-exilic feasts are not celebrated by them. The Sabbath is observed with considerable strictness, and the prescriptions regarding ritual cleanness are practised with great zeal, both features which exist among very many other Ethiopians. In common with their monophysite neighbours the Falashas carry out circumcision on boys and excision on girls.” [9]

The Ethiopian Jews themselves believe that they originated in Palestine. They cite a story reported in ‘Kebra Nagast’ (Glory of the Kings: the Ethiopian national saga), a book which was written in the 14th century detailing the stories of the kings of Ethiopia. According to this book the kings of Ethiopia descended from King Solomon and Mekida, Queen of Sheba, who gave birth to a son called Menelik on her return to her land after her visit to Solomon. When Menelik grew up, he went to visit his father. Before his return to Ethiopia, King Solomon requested the heads of other tribes to send their eldest sons with Menelik. The High Priest Zadok declared Menelik a king in Ethiopia. When they departed to Ethiopia, Menelik and his companions took with them the Israelite ‘Ark of the Covenant’ from the Temple of Jerusalem and installed it in Aksum. The Ethiopian Christians say that after the Ark was moved the Holy Spirit left Israel and set down in Ethiopia. The Ark was placed in a holy site in Aksum known as the ‘Second Jerusalem’, where access is allowed to one priest only who serves the site. It is customary to see a model of this Ark in ordinary Ethiopian churches.

The priests of the Christian Ethiopian church believe that they are the descendants of Levi and so do the priests of the Falashas. They also believe that the Ethiopians, and not the Jews, are the ‘chosen people’ because they possess the Ark. [10] However, the Jews of Ethiopia say that they are the descendants of those people who accompanied Menelik from the kingdom of Solomon to Ethiopia. The origin of this last theory is traced to two references in the Old Testament where, in the First Book of Kings 10 1-13 and in the Second Book of Chronicles 9 1-12, the story is told of the visit by this Queen to King Solomon and his warm reception of her. In Kabra Nagast extra details, not present in the Old Testament, are added to show how the kings of Ethiopia were descended from King Solomon. Many scholars are doubtful of this theory because the kingdom of this queen had not been identified in the story. She had been called in the Old Testament ‘Queen of Sheba’, and the Qur’an calls the kingdom ‘Saba’, which is related to Yemen more than any other land.

I believe that the Ethiopian Jews took some of their religious beliefs and customs from the Jews who came to Ethiopia, not necessarily from Yemen, before the arrival of Christianity and then mixed their beliefs and original customs with them. They subsequently, on the arrival of Christianity, adopted some of its beliefs and finally on their contact with modern Jews during the last century their Jewish beliefs were strengthened.

The Judaism of the Ethiopian Jews distinguishes itself from that of common Jews in both belief and practice. Their Torah includes books that are not present in the Torah of common Jews, such as the Book of Enoch, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Book of Jubilees, Baruch, Tobit and others. These books are called “apocrypha”, and their inclusion makes their Torah consist of 46 books. They, like the Qaraites and the Samaritans, but contrary to common belief among most other Jews, do not recognise the Talmud. (The Samaritan Sect separated itself from mainstream Judaism before the compilation of the Talmud).

They resemble the Samaritans but differ from the rest of the Jews in that they offer sacrifices on the Passover and on other occasions. [11] Most Jews had ceased to offer sacrifices following the destruction of the Temple. The Ethiopian Jews pray seven times a day [12] and not three as the rest of the Jews do. They have their own liturgy, read in Ge’ez and not in Hebrew or Aramaic, and their place of worship is called a ‘Mesjid’, which means mosque in Arabic. [13]

They, like the Qaraites, do not celebrate Purim or Hanukkah which are feasts ordained for other Jews but not prescribed in the Old Testament. At the Feast of Tabernacles they celebrate without building booths. The religious ceremony of ‘Seged’ is peculiar to the Falashas. Its main feature is the ascent to a hill or a mountain led by their priests. They, like the Qaraites, do not practise the blowing of the shofar ‘trumpet’ at the beginning of the year and on other occasions and do not separate milk from meat. [14] The Falashas practise monasticism [15], unlike any other Jewish group today. According to some, this practice was introduced in the fifteenth century.

When a woman is menstruating she is kept in a hut outside the village until she is clean and allowed to return after dipping into flowing water. A similar treatment is given to a mother following childbirth who is kept in an isolated hut for forty days if she gave birth to a boy and for eighty days if she gave birth to a girl. After the expiry of that period she has to shave her hair and wash her body and clothes before she is allowed back home. The hut used for these women is called the ‘blood hut’ and is usually burnt after its use. [16]

In their country of origin the Ethiopian Jews lived in isolation from the rest of the Ethiopians and only contacted them in need. There are several reasons for this isolation. One of the main reasons is that they considered themselves better than the rest of the Ethiopians in their practices and faith and thus derided other groups. They usually lived in isolated areas close to flowing water. They did not enjoy travelling because they were very careful about their food, as they do not eat the food of the rest of the Ethiopians. They would wash if they touched a non-Jewish person.

This isolation which they believe is imposed by their religion has been aggravated by their undertaking of what the other Ethiopians consider to be mean professions such as pottery and smith craft. All this led the Ethiopians to become wary and suspicious. They came to call them the ‘Tib’ which means the evil spirit that reincarnates into another and hurts other people. [17]

The Ethiopians believe that the Falashas turn into hyenas at night, digging up graves and eating corpses; at one time the Ethiopians went out to hunt hyenas and ended up killing a large number of them. In some parts of Ethiopia they were considered as sorcerers and cannibals who would eat people in a very mysterious and magical fashion. [18]

The link between smithcraft and sorcery is not new. It is reported that one of the Ethiopian kings sentenced all the blacksmiths to death because he found them to be sorcerers. A similar fate was meted out in the seventeenth century. This belief has entered Ethiopian literature and prayers. And until recent times a blacksmith was considered a servant for everybody and when enlisted in the army he was not really considered as one of its members and had no opportunity of promotion. [19]

Among the popular beliefs in Ethiopia is that the Falashas were born in hell, spit fire and have to be isolated. Despite the attempts by the Falashas to dispel these charges they seem to be entrenched beliefs continuing to recent times, which the Falashas brought to the attention of Haile Selassie, the last Ethiopian king, in one of their letters (1958-59) saying: “We are falsely accused of sorcery and legerdemain and of turning ourselves at night into wild animals like the hyenas. The accusation is that we do not only kill our neighbours and eat them but that we dig out corpses and eat them.” [20]

The Falashas did not maintain a good relationship with the kings of Ethiopia. With some, especially those who forced them to adopt Christianity, they had real conflict. It is worth pointing out here that the Falashas were not persecuted for being Jews, because the kings of Ethiopia took great pride in claiming descent from King Solomon. Both Menelik the Second (d.1913) and Haile Selassie added the title of ‘Lion of Judah’ to their names. But the kings of Ethiopia oppressed all religious communities, especially those living in isolation, whose beliefs differed from the Ethiopian church. Among the groups persecuted were the Muslims, the Protestants, the Catholics and some other small Christian communities.

Jewish interest in the Falashas grew in the nineteenth century after they heard that missionaries had gone to Ethiopia following the publication of James Bruce’s book. [21] The Jewish Alliance posted Joseph Halevy, orientalist and a Semitic languages scholar, to Ethiopia to contact the Falasha Jews there. He left for Ethiopia in 1867 and lived among the Falashas for several months. When he returned he brought back with him one of their young men to study Judaism in Europe.

Halevy submitted a report about the Falashas and their condition. He estimated their number to be around 150,000 which was less than the number estimated by James Bruce. At the beginning of this century J. Faitlovitch, one of Halevy’s students, travelled on a mission financed by the tycoon Rothschild. He subsequently made several other trips to Ethiopia and carried with him much aid. He established a special Jewish school in Addis Ababa and several mobile schools. This had an adverse effect on the missionaries’ campaigns which were at their peak among the Falashas. Faitlovitch established a committee for the defence of the Falashas. [22]

After the death of Faitlovitch the Ethiopian Jewish leaders started writing and seeking the assistance of the Jews in the West. An American society was formed for the purpose of providing aid. When the SI was created this society demanded the transfer to the Falashas to it, but the Ethiopian government was not willing to let the transfer take place. Thus when some of the Ethiopian Jews asked an Israeli diplomat for his assistance he suggested that they should convert to Christianity to solve their problems. [23] Israel Yeshi’yahu, the Knesset speaker in the 1950’s, declared that it was best for the Falashas to convert to Christianity as it would please the Ethiopian government and benefit the Falashas. He was strongly supported in this by Israeli officials. [24]

In 1955 the government of the SI agreed to accept twelve of them between the ages of 11-17 for training, but made it clear that it was not a recognition of them by the government. When they arrived in Israel the religious establishment demanded their conversion to Orthodox Judaism because their Jewishness was suspect. They carried out the rituals of conversion to Orthodoxy and returned to Ethiopia after the end of their training course. [25]

The Israelis carried on refusing to transfer them to Israel. When Golda Meir was Prime Minister she said that the Falashas would live a miserable life in Israel and be a subject of ridicule and abuse. She expressed her fear that they might unite in solidarity with the Sephardim. [26] It is reported that she had said that “we have enough problems without needing those blacks.” [27]

In 1973 one Israeli diplomat said that “Israel did not recognise that the Law of Return applied to the Falashas. If any member of them wanted to visit Israel he would be treated like any other Ethiopian visiting Israel. The attempts of the Falashas to immigrate to Israel would be adverse to their interests as the Israeli government was not very enthusiastic to receive them.” [28]

When Ezer Weizmann, the then Israeli Minister of Defence, was asked, during a student conference in 1979, about the Falashas, he responded: “Do you want to trouble me also with the problem of the Falashas? Is it the most important problem we have to face today? [29]

Some Ethiopian Jews entered the SI as individuals and requested the government to assist their brethren in Ethiopia but were faced with threats of imprisonment. In 1979 Menachem Begin formed a committee to study the Falashas’ case, but the committee failed to reach any conclusions. However, the government changed its mind following the changes of international conditions and the growing need for more immigrants. Several thousand were transferred in December 1984 and January 1985 in ‘Operation Moses’. A second stage in the transfer took place in 1991 in ‘Operation Solomon’.

Since the arrival of the Ethiopian Jews through ‘Operation Moses’ they have faced problems with the religious establishment. First among those was the non-recognition of their Jewish identity when they were asked to undergo the ritual of conversion to Orthodoxy. The Chief Rabbi’s office attempted to explain the reason for this request in that the Falashas had long been isolated from other Jews and had totally lost contact with Jewish laws (implying non-recognition of the Talmud). The consequences of this break had been that most of their marriage contracts were not recognised by Orthodox Judaism and so neither were their divorces. That also meant that they were ‘memzerim’ (illegitimate children) and consequently could only marry ‘memzerim’, illegitimate like themselves. [30]

It added further that in order to prevent problems in the future they had to convert to Orthodox Judaism. Among the requirements for conversion to Orthodoxy is circumcision, which the Falashas had executed but in a manner not recognised by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. There were other rituals which they had to undergo and observe. Some of them accepted and conformed to this conversion, but the majority of them rejected it and considered it to be insulting and humiliating. Some of them declared it to be pure racism that bore no relation to Judaism. They insisted that they had observed Moses’ laws for centuries as they understood them from the Torah. One of them is reported to have said: “We are Jews and have paid heavily in order to come to Jerusalem. Yet we have been treated with discrimination by the white Jews”. One of the Falashas’ Rabbis said: ” This is not a human treatment. It is a great shame that this kind of treatment is carried out in the name of Judaism.” [31]

Another is reported to have said: “We, the Ethiopian Jews, have isolated ourselves from the aliens more than any other Jewish group so that we do not get assimilated and lose our identity. We have struggled for long against problems and obstacles to keep our faith and apply the Torah to the extent that we sacrificed our lives for it. Until we discovered the Jewish world, we believed that we were the only Jews in the world. We still carried on with preserving with care the practice of our religious duties. We demand justice and equality because a man is either a Jew or a non-Jew. This humiliation must stop now and forever. All the Falashas must be respected like any other Jewish group.” [32]

Another had said: “When I came to Israel I felt I was a free Jew. It was a surprise for me to see the Jews driving their cars and listening to the radio on Saturdays. But despite these violations they ask me to convert to Judaism. When I was in Ethiopia I sought to feel like a Jew in everything. I practised all the rites according to the Torah, but they tell me that I am not a Jew. Then what good were all the years in which I practised Judaism in the past?” [33]

The Falashas threatened to demonstrate and to return to Ethiopia via Egypt to highlight their plight. [34] Some of them threatened to commit suicide. They complained to the government and met the then Prime Minister Peres when they told him that they had been Jews for centuries and asking them to convert, carry out purification, circumcision and other rituals was humiliating and degrading. They informed Peres that some members of their community had committed suicide. Peres promised to look into the matter and respond in a few weeks.

Peres met both Chief Rabbis in Israel to discuss the matter. After the meeting he announced that the purification ritual was not necessary, but that each case had to be studied individually. The announcement included the statement that religious courts should consult the Ethiopian Rabbis. However, immediately after the announcement one official in the Chief Rabbi’s office declared that every immigrant to Israel who wanted to get married must prove his Jewishness, which meant the Ethiopian Jews had to convert to Orthodox Judaism because the Rabbis had no proof of their Jewishness. The Falashas protested and demonstrated for one month in front of the Chief Rabbi’s office. They were supported by some other Israelis from among the reform Jews and the conservatives who are not currently recognised by the religious establishment. [35]

The Chief Rabbi’s office had informed them that it would recognise their Jewishness and all the rights that would follow from such recognition. The Falashas thought that their problem had been solved, only to be disappointed when the Chief Rabbi’s office issued orders to the registry not to register any marriage unless the applicant undertook to abide by the religious regulations and execution of purification by dipping into water and circumcision before the Rabbis. The woman would have to accept the religious regulations and dip her body into water before witnesses. If the applicant could show that he had been properly circumcised then he was required only to accept the regulations and dip into water. [36]

Peres had to intervene again to resolve the dispute. A new agreement was reached between Peres and the Chief Rabbi, but this agreement was similar to the previous one which had been rejected by the Falashas. It left the determination of the identity of Ethiopian Jewishness to the religious court but without the requirement of purification in water. But the Falashas wanted the determination in case of doubt to be done by their own Rabbis. The agreement also covered the establishment of an institute within the Ministry of Religion to study the affairs of the Ethiopians. Among the functions of this institute was advice on marriage and divorce. However, when the institute was established not one Falasha became a member of it. [37]

The religious establishment kept to its demands and the Falashas kept to their refusal to conform. They approached the Rabbis of the Reform Jews to supervise their marriages and divorces [38], but these Rabbis are not recognised by the establishment either.

The Falashas demonstrated again in 1992 in front of the Prime Minister’s Office. They called for improvement in their living conditions in the absorption camps which they said were in a dire state. They were met by two ministers who tried to convince them to stop their protest, but failed. Some of them tried to force their way into the Prime Minster’s Office. One of them said: “Those people treat us the same way they treat the Arabs. We want to be recognised as Jews of complete Jewishness according to our beliefs. The religious establishment has deprived the Ethiopian Rabbis of any authority. We do not understand the reason why the government and the public do not care for us.” Adisu Massala, who worked with the Jewish agency, says that in 1985-87 some 30 Falashas committed suicide due to the refusal of the authority to recognise their marriages. [39]

One of the biggest problems which the Falashas had to confront was that of housing. Several thousands of them still live in mobile houses. And until recently many of them were living in crowded hostels where families were packed in one or two rooms without any ventilation or cooking facilities.

The Falashas marched in 1992 on foot from Ashkelon to Jerusalem to demonstrate against the miserable state in which they were living. People of all ages took part including the old, children and pregnant women. After some 20 km of marching when some began to show signs of exhaustion, they were met by the Minister of Absorption who tried to persuade them to call the march off. They complained about the deteriorating condition of their housing where the houses they lived in were no more than small suffocating cardboard boxes insufficient for a family of eight or more. The officials in charge of these mobile houses refused to assist. They asked for permanent houses and the Minister promised to solve the problem in three years’ time. One of the demonstrators told the Minister that if the problem was not resolved in three years the Falashas were going to explode in rebellion. He also informed the Minister that “we have not learned any lessons from the mobile houses of the 1950s (referring to the Yemenite Jews’ problems) and the people do not know the scale of the problems which our children have to face in schools because they are placed in separate schools for years on their own. There is so much discrimination against the Ethiopian Jews generally and there are many stories about their diseases.[40]

The Director of the Ethiopian Jews Society told the Jewish Chronicle on 2/2/1996 that the Ethiopian Jews are scattered all over the country in many isolated locations. There may be several thousands of them in one location without a place for worship near to them. He accused the government of spiritual negligence.

One of the main complaints of the Falashas is education, because of the discrimination against them in this field. From their first arrival in Israel the majority of their children were put in religious schools. They were not put in normal schools but had special classes made for them. The Director of the Ethiopian Jews Society said that around 80% of the Ethiopian teenagers study in special schools that teach Orthodoxy with a programme concentrating on the Hebrew language, which enables them to obtain lower jobs only. In these schools they have no opportunity to mix with other children. And when some other children are included in these special schools, they are usually from families which have problems and cannot cope with their children. This only goes to compound the problems of the Ethiopian children. Adisu Massala said: “The Ethiopian children are placed in the worst schools where they only meet underdeveloped children”.

When the Ethiopian children are put on a vocational course, they find real difficulty in getting into the job market. In 1992 some 35 boys graduated from the Hadassa Niorim school after three years of studying and training. They applied for work through the Ministry of Absorption. Three local authorities initially committed themselves to employing them but then retracted their offer.

The latest statistics issued by the Ethiopian Jews Society indicated that only 7% of Ethiopian students passed the high school general exam which is half the percentage of the Arab students. [41] This is the lowest percentage among all the Jewish minorities. One member of the society indicated that the government has failed in bridging the gap between the Ethiopian children and others in the field of education.

There are other social problems facing the Falashas, such as public discrimination against them. There have been many incidents which the Falashas regard as indicating this. Thus when in 1993 a plan was put to transfer the Falashas to a village called Nishir near Haifa, the inhabitants demonstrated violently and blocked the roads to prevent such a transfer. They declared that they strongly rejected the idea of settling the Falashas near them and complained that the prices of houses would drop if they were to be housed there. The Russian Jews also objected to housing the Falashas near them in the upper Uqnai’am. [42]

Some schools refused to accept Falasha pupils as had happened in Haifa in 1992, when the mayor refused to accept some Ethiopian pupils. The Director of the Ethiopian Jews Society summarised their relationship with the Israeli public in saying: “The Israelis say that they like us but they do not like us to live near them. They are disgusted with the smell of our food and hate the look of our African clothes. [43]

The Falashas also complain about the discrimination in the Israeli army which has resulted in some soldiers committing suicide. According to the Jerusalem Post International Edition (5.4.1997) ten Falasha soldiers have committed suicide since 1993. In one month alone this year, three more killed themselves. One of the, Alene Tamene aged 22, said to his niece a day before he killed himself: “Every morning when I get to the base, six soldiers are waiting for me who clap their hands and yell “the Kushi (Blackie) is here'”. According to Shlomo Mula, Secretary of the Ethiopian Jews Organisation, when Tamene complained to his commander about the name calling he was told: “What’s the matter, don’t you know you are Kushi? What are you complaining about?” Mula said of the recent suicides: “This is terrible. I can’t believe this could happen. Every week we go to funerals.”

Also this year an Ethiopian soldier, Avi Asemere, was denied treatment in an army medical clinic by a Russian-born Israeli Major who told him it was “off limits to Kushim”. Adisu Massala – who is now the only Falasha Kenesset member – said that he had received numerous complaints from the immigrants in the army about racist remarks and mistreatment.

The Falashas also protested recently against awarding the Israeli prize for journalism this year to the Ma’ariv columnist Shamuel Schnitzer, claiming he is racist. Scnhitzer said in an article in August 1994 entitled ‘Importing Death’ about the Ethiopian Jews brought to the SI, that they are “thousands of apostates carrying dangerous diseases”. When he was asked to apologize he replied “I am not going to accept a prize with conditions attached. I am not sorry about a single word I wrote and I am not prepared to lie”. (Jewish Chronicle 11/4/1997)

Among the entrenched social problems faced by the Ethiopians is unemployment. A large proportion of them live on social benefit and unemployment reaches 50% among some sections of them, such as in Ashkelon. As the social benefit is not sufficient to live on some of the Falashas have converted to Christianity in order to be supported by the missionaries. The Jerusalem Report reported on 10/8/1995 that seven Ethiopian families from Upper Nazareth had converted to Christianity in order to save themselves from the misery they were in.

Divorce among the Falashas is two to three times as common as among the Israelis. One of their problems was the enforced separation between members of the same family resulting from the break in ‘Operation Moses’. Many of those left behind were asked to wait in Addis Ababa for a short period. However, the delay lasted for six years. It is reported that half of the children became orphaned during that period. Many women who arrived without their husbands gave birth later to illegitimate children who were not registered owing to the objection of the religious establishment. [44]

Among the problems faced by the Ethiopian women had been the custom of dipping into a river following menstruation and giving birth. It has not been easy for them to find a river to execute this ritual. [45]

The Ethiopian Jews are warning against further deterioration in their social conditions. Shlomo Mula, who is now the Secretary of the United Ethiopian Jewish Organisation, asserts that if there is no real and rapid change, the Ethiopian Jews will resort to what the Blacks do in the US. [46]

Vasel Lagasa, one of the leaders of the Ethiopian Jews Society, said: “The social problems are increasing and worsening. We are facing a state of explosion because the number of those disenchanted is increasing. It is sad that after several generations of dreaming of coming to Israel, many of our young men are deserting their roots”. [47]

This last comment relates to the fact that many young Ethiopian Jews are shunning Judaism in general and Israelis in particular and have begun looking for a culture of a mixed African and Caribbean type to identify with. They began to cut their hair Rastafarian-style; make it into twists and dress in similar colours. They have begun to talk about Black Nationalism, stating their belief in that rather than in Judaism. Many of them frequent a place in Tel Aviv, called Seweto, where they come from all over Israel to meet and dance. They say that this place gives them a feeling of being at home where they are masters, as they have discovered in it some links to their African culture. [48]

It is believed that this behaviour is a reaction to the failure of Israeli society to absorb the Falashas and assimilate them. The Ethiopian Jews are attempting by this behaviour to fill the vacuum created by uprooting their traditions and replacing them with religious education which they were forced to accept.

There is a possibility that the disappointment of the Ethiopian Jews with the Israeli government and society will in the future manifest itself in more violent and bitter protests against the government, especially after Israel achieves its peace with its Arab neighbours and the external threat disappears which has been used by the SI to prevent the emergence and surfacing of such problems.


  1. p.344


3.D. Kessler, The Falashas, The Forgotten People of Ethiopia, p.64

  1. D.Ross, Acts of Faith, p.153
  2. J. Quirin, The Evolution of the Ethiopian Jews, p.8
  3. Ibid, pp.8-9
  4. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Elephantine
  5. D. Kessler, op.cit. pp.46-47
  6. E. Ullendorf, Ethiopia and the Bible, pp.116-117
  7. T.G. Wagaw, For Our Soul, Ethiopian Jews in Israel, p.7
  8. W. Leslau, Falashas Anthology, p.xxvi
  9. D. Ross, op.cit. pp.148-149
  10. D. Kessler, op.cit. p.68
  11. Ibid. pp.68-70
  12. W. Leslau, op.cit. p.xxv
  13. D. Kessler, op.cit. pp.69-70
  14. T.G. Wagaw, op.cit. p.20
  15. J. Quirin, op.cit. p.142
  16. Ibid. p.145
  17. D Kessler, op.cit. pp.151-152
  18. H. A. Stern, Wandering among the Falashas, Introduction
  19. S. Messing, The Story of the Falashas, p.197
  20. J. Quirin, op.cit. p.195
  21. R.S. Feuerlicht, The Fate of the Jews, p.206
  22. L. Rappart, The Lost Jew, pp.196-197
  23. M. Waldman, The Jews of Ethiopia, pp.66-68
  24. R.S. Feuerlicht, op. cit. p.206
  25. L. Rappart, op. cit. p.195
  26. D. Ross, op.cit. p.160
  27. R. S. Feuerlicht, op. cit. p.208
  28. T. G. Wagaw, op. cit. pp.112-113
  29. T. Parfitt, Operation Moses, p.129
  30. Ibid. p.130
  31. D. Ross, op. cit. p.160
  32. T.G. Wagaw, op. cit. p.114
  33. Ibid. p.115
  34. Barrie Shemesh, ‘Suqut Israel’, p.242
  35. T.G. Wagaw, op. cit. p.180
  36. Ibid. pp.118-119
  37. Jerusalem Post (International Edition), 29.8.1992
  38. Jewish Chronicle, 2.2.1996
  39. Jerusalem Post (International Edition), 16.4.1993
  40. Jewish Chronicle, 8.12.1995
  41. T. G. Wagaw, op. cit. pp.87-88
  42. Ibid, p.88

46.Jewish Chronicle, 8.12.1995

  1. Barrie Shemesh, op. cit. p.235
  2. Jerusalem Report, 15.12.1999

The Middle East Book Review Vol 6 Nos 1&2 1997

Israel Airlifts Thousands of Falash Mura By Dr Jaafar Hadi Hassan

At the end of the last century Israel transported tens of thousands of Falashas who claim to be Jews and call themselves “Beita Yisrael” from Ethiopia to Israel in two operations – Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. Their numbers in Israel today are estimated to be about one hundred thousand. There is another Ethiopian group, called the Falash Mura who practise Christianity, go to church, marry Christian women, and wear crosses. Some of them are even Christian Orthodox priests. The Falash Mura claim to be descendents of the Falashas whom Christian missionaries converted to Christianity in the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The Israeli government has been quietly transporting these people to Israel since the 1990s. Almost every month a few hundred Falash Mura arrive in Israel unobtrusively. Their numbers in Israel now amount to twenty thousand and there are thousands more who have been gathered together by the Jewish Agency and other Jewish and Christian organisations in Gondar and Addis Ababa. The number of these people who have been living at the expense of these organisations while waiting to be airlifted to Israel is estimated to be about twenty thousand. This year the Israeli cabinet decided to speed up their transportation to Israel. This decision it seems was prompted by the report which the head of the Jewish Agency presented to the International Interdisciplinary Centre in Hetzellia, at its annual conference, in which he stated that the number of Jews in the world is decreasing. According to this report, fifty Jews are lost to the faith every day. The report also stated that the number of immigrants to Israel, particularly from countries of the former Soviet Union, is shrinking. The decision was made in the light of this background. As many Ethiopian nationals feel resentment about this operation, Israel decided to take these people gradually. According to the Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, “The Israeli government does not want to embarrass the Ethiopian government by taking its citizens”. But the Ethiopians say that what Israel is doing is damaging the history and the heritage of the country and say if Israel wants to really help these people she can do so where they are. The Ethiopian government for its part has objected to what it views as provocation in its internal affairs and has also cast doubts on the number who are willing to convert to Judaism. In fact some of the Falashas in Israel have disputed the claim of the Falash Mura and have also objected to their transportation to Israel. They maintain that these people are Christians who simply want to escape the life of poverty and destitution in which they live. Even some rabbis have refused to accept their claims. Some members of the Knesset have also objected to bringing so many Christian people to Israel, because they think that so large a number will affect the Jewish character of the country and will harm the fabric of society. But the head of the Jewish Agency has defended the decision to bring them to Israel and said that “The decision was right from humanitarian, Jewish and Zionist points of view and that Israel is not bringing them in accordance with the Law of Return but in accordance with the Family Reunion Law”. In fact some officials say that whether these people are of Jewish origin or not they are going to be converted to Orthodox Judaism on their arrival. Besides the Falash Mura, Israel is also bringing another Ethiopian group called the Qawara who live in the north east of the country. They claim that they are of Jewish origin and want to live in Israel. A few thousand of them are already living in Israel and thousands more are also being transported there by the government. An additional Ethiopian group are called the Gomez whom the Qawara bought as slaves from the Amhara people and converted them to their religion and became part of them. It seems that the transportation of these people from Ethiopia will not be the last one according to the Jerusalem Post newspaper whose correspondent went into the countryside and villages in Ethiopia to investigate. The correspondent found thousands of Ethiopians who claim to have connections with Judaism and want to be taken to Israel. Israel continues to bring these Ethiopians despite the problems those already settled in the country are having such as discrimination and poverty. A recent survey shows that 60% of the Falashas live in poverty and that unemployment among them is at a high rate. In fact it is the highest among Israeli groups. The rate of suicide among this group is also the highest in Israel. Besides, they have begun to reject the culture of Israel and to aspire towards that of Africa and the Caribbean. Some of them have begun to avoid serving in the army. All this it seems is a kind of protest against the discrimination they claim to have experienced. According to a recent survey 43% of Israelis would refuse to marry an Ethiopian or allow their children to do so. Besides the groups from Ethiopia, Israel is planning to transport some tens of thousands of people from tribes living on the borders between India and Myanmar. These people claim to be descendents of Menessah (son of Joseph, son of the patriarch Jacob who founded the Israeli tribes). Israel has already taken a few hundred of these people and put some of them in settlements in the Occupied Territories. Some Israeli rabbis have been sent by the chief Rabbinate to prepare them for immigration. The search for the so called Lost Jewish Tribes by Israel and Jewish Agencies stretches from Latin America through Africa to Asia. But the decision which will open the door wide for immigration is that of the Jewish Agency which allows any Jew by choice (non-Jewish person converting to Judaism) to emigrate to Israel. But Israel of course looks at immigration as an important source of strength in any negotiations with the Arabs and Palestinians. It also wants to offset the demographic expansion of the Palestinians whose numbers, according to statistics, in historic Palestine will be greater than the Jews in a few years time.

This article was published in the Return Review, 2005

Makuya: A Japanese Christian Zionist Sect By Dr Jaafar Hadi Hassan

The Christian population in Japan is small and does not exceed two and a half percent of the overall population of almost one hundred and thirty million people.

Christianity is not new in Japan but has, in fact, been there for centuries.  It is possible that because of the difficulties the missionaries faced the number of people who converted to Christianity was not large.  As the missionaries were from different denominations so too were the converts.

Many of these Christians are of Protestant denominations and some of them were influenced by Protestant ideas which emerged during the nineteenth century.  One of these ideas is the belief in Jewish Zionism ie gathering the Jews together in Palestine.Those Christians who believe in this are called Christian Zionists. The modern Christian Zionist movement flourished in the United States during the nineteenth century and reached Japan through Japanese students who went to study in the United States and returned to Japan bringing Christian Zionist ideas back with them.

Members of this movement number millions of people in the world nowadays but they mostly live in the West and mainly, in fact, in the United States. Those Japanese who adhere to this religious ideology are followers of a sect called Makuya.  This sect was founded in Japan in the middle of the twentieth century, by a person called (Abraham) Ekuru Teshema (d.1973). Makuya is now the most famous and also the most active Christian sect in Japan and it is estimated that it has over seventy thousand followers and 100 centres which are scattered between California, South Korea, Taiwan and Hawaii.

There is little information available about the founder of the sect.  According to the information that we do have about him he was a merchant and joined one of the Christian movements of the time and became active within it.  He embarked on a trip during the Second World War and went to China and Korea. This trip in fact remains a mystery. No one knows for sure what the purpose of this journey was.  It is possible that he went there as a Christian missionary but we do not know for certain. There is also another mystery about his life that when he came back from his trip he was sought by the Americans who were occupying the country at this time, and to avoid capture he went up to the mountains and hid himself there until he felt it safe enough to come out of hiding.

It is reported that when he did come out of hiding he claimed that he had heard a mysterious voice telling him to call for the reform of the teaching of the scriptures.  He decided to devote himself to this mission and duly abandoned his business. He gave an importance to the Old Testament as well as to the New. As a result he gave much attention and respect to ancient Israel and the God of Israel and called on Christians to go back to the Hebrew origin of Christianity and to give respect to the Jews.  He said in the introduction to one of his books “It is necessary that we give a fitting respect to the Jews if we want to understand the true Christianity”. He also called for a deeper understanding of the Jewish faith and Jewish history because he said that it is necessary for a complete understanding of the scriptures. Ekuru Teshema had met some Jewish philosophers like Marrin and had also read Abraham Hatchel, the Jewish philosopher.  These philosophers had an influence on him as did Jewish symbols and rituals.

As a result, the sect began to use the Menorah (candelabrum) which is the symbol of the state of Israel, together with other symbols of the Jewish faith.  They embroider this symbol on the clothes they use during their ceremonies and they also place it in a prominent position during their worship. The Makuya also celebrate what they call Simhat Makuya similar to Simhat haTorah (the Joy of the Torah) which is celebrated by Jews yearly after they complete the reading of the Torah (Old Testament).  The Makuya also sing Israeli popular songs particularly the one called Golden Jerusalem which is related to the occupation by Israeli troops of the city of Jerusalem which they call “liberation”.

These people also consider Saturday as a rest day as the Jews do and light candles and eat a kind of Keshrut (food allowed by Jewish law).  They also use a Jewish prayer book and have learned to speak Hebrew, and, perhaps, in order to facilitate their Hebrew studies have compiled the first Japanese-Hebrew dictionary.  Members of the sect also use Hebrew personal names as well as their Japanese ones.

The founder of the sect Ekuru Teshema visited Israel for the first time in 1961 and a year later he took some of his followers with him and they stayed in one of the settlements.  Since then his followers go there regularly every year. Some of them stay there for quite some time to learn about agricultural techniques and they also learn the Hebrew language.  While they are there they put on a garment coloured with blue and white (the colours of the Israeli flag) and go around the streets in Jerusalem holding up the Israeli flag and singing Israeli songs in a way that attracts the attention of passers by.

On one of his visits to Israel Ekuru Teshema met the former president of Israel, Zalman Shazar, and explained to him how he had come to the conclusion that the Japanese are the descendents of the ancient lost tribes of Israel.  He wrote a book on the subject called “The Ancient Diaspora of the Jews and the Tribe of Hada” in which he identifies the ancient Japanese tribe of Hada with the Jewish tribe of Judah and he suggests that they came to Japan during the third century AD.

During the Israeli-Arab war in 1967 Ekuru sent some of his followers to fight on the side of Israel and one of them was wounded during this war.  After the war Ekuru went to Israel with a delegation to offer his congratulations to Israelon its victory and he and the delegation went round Jerusalem singing and praising Israel and carrying a banner with the words “Congratulations on a Greater Jerusalem”.  They said that their joy was beyond description because of the conquest of Jerusalem. In this year Ekuru Teshema’s name was inscribed in the Israeli Golden Book which contains the names of people (usually non Jews) who have helped or help Israel in different ways.

Several times the sect has invited General Uzi Narkees who led a military unit to the east part of Jerusalem during the 1967 war to visit Japan.  They call him the liberator of Jerusalem. Every year they also go to Israel to celebrate Independence Day together with the Israelis. They organise demonstrations from time to time in support of Israel and when the Japanese Red Army attacked Ben Gurion airport killing and injuring several people, Ekuru Teshema went at the head of a delegation to offer his condolences.  In 1972 Ekuru had thousands of his followers demonstrate in Tokyoin support of Israel. This was the first demonstration of this kind in Japan.

During the years when Israel was demanding that the former Soviet Union let Jews leave the country, members of the Makuya sect were praying in their churches which face Russia for the release of the Soviet Jews.

Although this sect is basically a Christian sect it still practises some rituals which are not common in Christianity.  One of these rituals is walking on fire bare-footed, which they call hiwatari. Although this is something practised by other Japanese groups, the Makuya sect gives it a different meaning.  It says “It is an expression of sincerity towards the God of the Torah (Old Testament) and as such the fire does not hurt the people who walk on it and does not burn them because their faith is strong and their belief is solid.  While they are performing this ritual they gaze at a huge Jewish Menorah (Candelabrum) which is normally placed in a prominent position and they also sing songs of the Zionist Palmakh gang (the gang which fought the Arabs before the establishment of Israel).  This is one of the aspects of the influence of Zionism on them.

The other ritual they practise which has no connection with Christianity is standing under freezing water for some considerable time.  They read Hebrew prayers while performing this ritual which they call Mesauji. This ritual is also practised by other Japanese people and it may be of Japanese origin.  This practice, it is said, lifts the spirit and purifies the mind.

The members of the Makuya sect usually marry among themselves and do not marry outside. These people are probably influenced by their belief that they are descendents of the so called lost tribes of Israel and so are following Jewish practice.  On this subject the founder of the sect has written a book as we have mentioned above.

It is worth mentioning here that this belief is not unique to Ekuru but some other prominent Japanese Christians also believe in it.  Among them is Ashimoro Kanzo (d.1930) who was a priest and graduate of an American university. Kanzo was also a Christian Zionist who wrote many books and articles on the subject.  Nikada Juji (d.1939), also a Christian Zionist, was likewise a priest who founded a small Christian sect. In one of his books he said that Japan would help the Jews to occupy Palestine.  This sect gave help to some of the Jewish refugees who went to Japan during the Second World War.

Among other prominent Christian Zionists who have all written books on aspects of the subject are Oyabe Zenichiro (d.1941) who had a Ph.D from the United States, Yanibara Tadwa (d.1961) a disciple of Kanzo who was a former president of Tokyo University, Yoshiro Sikay (d.1965) who was a graduate of Oxford University in Semitic and Eastern Languages and Anasa Weji (d.1970.)

It is possible that these people were influenced in their idea of the relationship between the Japanese and the Jews by the Scottish missionary Norman McLeod who wrote a book on this subject which was published in 1875 with the title “Epitome of the Ancient History of Japan”. The book found popularity among some Japanese who believed its content and among whom were the priests and scholars I have mentioned above.

The belief of Christian Zionists in Japan in the Jewish origin of the Japanese people still has adherents in that country and in more recent times a prominent Japanese scholar, Arimasa Kubo, has written many articles on this subject and has also created a website devoted to it. He has also translated “The Biblical Hebrew Origin of the Japanese People” by Joseph Eidelburg which is the latest book to be published on this theme.  This continuing belief among these Japanese scholars in the Jewish origin of their people shows how enduring this idea actually is, as this desire to trace and identify the lost tribes of Israel has extended as far as those distant islands.


1-Parfitt,Tudor, The Lost Tribe of Israel:The History of a Myth,London 2002

2-Eidelberg,Joseph,The Biblical Hebrew Origin of the Japaness People


3-Encyclopedia Judaica,Year Book 1977-8,Makuya