What American Jews Owe their Ethiopian Brethren

Werner Cohn


Any visitor to Israel has seen them:  striking young black-skinned men, working as guards at the Kotel, or giggling, fashionably dressed young women, shopping in Tel Aviv.  Back in the States, Ethiopian Jews are sometimes mentioned by your friendly UJA solicitor, or in strident missives from aggressive advocacy groups.  But with all that, little seems to be known about Ethiopian Jews by American Jews, beyond the most superficial impressions. A deeper understanding, in my view, is a debt that has so far remained unpaid.

Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) are no longer the object of intra-Jewish bickering.  Everyone supports their aliyah to and absorption into Israel, and everyone, or almost, deplores the financial and bureaucratic hurdles that have made this the process slower than we would wish.  And, perhaps most important of all, there also seems to be agreement in the American Jewish community that American Jewish money, mainly through UJA channels, is crucial to the tasks of aliyah and absorption in the years ahead.

And everyone, or almost, knows some of the salient facts:  there are about 100,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin in Israel; there may be some 50,000 left in Ethiopia, of whom about 20,000 would like to make aliyah.  Of those still in Ethiopia, most appear to be Falash Mura, people who had at one time been converts to Christianity but have now returned to the practice of Judaism.  Moreover, on the whole, the absorption of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, despite all the cultural, political, and financial problems, has been much more successful than anyone had a right to expect.  (A very good summary description of the Beta Israel appears in Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia).

So there is consensus on the brute facts and what to do about them financially and administratively.  But it is not clear whether there is any great sense of urgency or of great excitement.  After all, here is a new and important phase of the ingathering of our people, but much of the American Jewish public seems preoccupied with Darfur and the fate of various Africans who are not Jewish.  To me it seems that, by and large, the American Jewish public has failed to grasp the significance and importance of Ethiopian Jewry.

The Debt of Understanding

Not surprisingly, few American Jews know much about the history or the culture of either Ethiopian Jews or Ethiopia.  Not surprisingly, there is a gulf between what scholars have taught us about Ethiopian Jews on the one hand, and the understanding of the Jewish man in the street on the other. The difference is at least partially due to an ethnocentrism of the uninformed lay mind.

Our current scholarly understanding of Ethiopian Jews is, in the main, the work of three great scholars, all still active: Steven Kaplan of the Hebrew University, Kay Kaufman Shelemay of Harvard, and James Quirin of Fisk University.  All three have undertaken profound studies of the history and traditions of the Beta Israel.  All three have, as a matter of course, a profound knowledge of Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, and of Ge'ez, the language of Ethiopian Jewish (and Christian) scriptures.  All three have written book-length studies about Beta Israel origins.  The most accessible work is probably Shelemay's charming account of her fieldwork in Ethiopia, A Song of Longing, University of Illinois Press, 1994.

For the Ethiopian context of Ethiopian Jews, there is a very comprehensive survey of the available ethnography and historiography in Greater Ethiopia; The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society, Second Edition, by Donald N. Levine, University of Chicago Press, 2000.

All these scholars, and their students, have given us an account of Ethiopian Jews that places them and their origins squarely in the context of Ethiopian history and Ethiopian culture.  The result is a Judaism that differs in many ways from the essentially European Judaism of the great majority of modern Jews; and, not coincidentally, it also shows an Ethiopian Christianity that differs from the essentially European Christianity of the bulk of the world's Christians.  This Ethiopian understanding of Ethiopian Jews shows our Ethiopian brethren to be in no way less Jewish than we are, despite the radical differences in origins.

In contrast to this scholarly understanding of Ethiopian Jews, there is an understandable but nonetheless faulty view that imposes a European paradigm of Christian-Jewish relations on the religious history and culture of Ethiopia.  By and large, this European paradigm pervades much of the agitational world of the self-described partisans for Ethiopian Jews.  Letters of solicitation arrive in our mailboxes full of photographs of attractive Ethiopian youngsters decked out in the paraphernalia of Ashkenazic Judaism ­ yarmulkes, talesim,  and all the rest.   Worse, the great scholars of Ethiopian Jewry are quite often the targets of political, strident, ignorant criticism.

A quick Google search reveals a gratifying wealth of Sephardic studies at both Jewish and secular universities in the United States.  Given the relative population figures, we could not expect as rich an offering for Ethiopian Jewish studies.  But as far as I can see, there is just about no such effort at all, despite the availability, on American soil, of at least two of the greatest scholars in the field.

So this is what I suggest.  Let our great centers of Jewish adult learning ­ the lecture programs at the Jewish seminaries, for example ­ bring these scholars to a wide audience of intelligent Jewish laymen.  This would not exactly discharge the debt of understanding that I have mentioned, but it could be a meaningful down payment.

 December 7, 2006
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