The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Lecture - Thursday 14th July 2011
Are there still Jews in Ethiopia?
Given by - Sybil Sheridan
Reviewed by - Jean Broadbent
The influence of Judaism in Ethiopia's long history is an intriguing and complex issue, much of which we will never fully understand. However, I did think I knew the answer to the question posed by the title chosen by Rabbi Sheridan. I well remember my first visit to Wolleka, the Falasha village just outside Gondar, in 1997 - the small cluster of tukuls, the synagogue with its Star of David, a magnificent beehive and the clear information from the guide that the Jews had all gone to Israel, save for a handful of elderly folk who preferred to live out their lives in Ethiopia. Our attention was then promptly directed to the pottery project across the road, intended to improve the quality of objects on sale to tourists with a view to generating income for those Orthodox Christians who were now resident in and around Wolleka.
On another occasion, travelling by air to Gondar, we met a young woman with an Israeli camera crew in tow. She was visiting Ethiopia for the first time and en route to see the place where her forebears had lived until they were airlifted from Sudan in 1984, when some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were transported to Israel. She did not expect to find any relations, nor any Jews still living there. This young woman had clearly made a good life for herself in Israel and wanted to explore her roots, evidently an experience of sufficient interest for Israeli TV to make a programme about it.
Therefore as we arrived for Rabbi Sheridan's lecture, I felt the Ethiopian Jews had all left Ethiopia, but I soon found out that I was wrong, or at least on the basis of the current interpretation of who the Israeli Government class as a Jew, I was mistaken. I take some comfort from the speaker herself opening her lecture by explaining that she was of the same view until very recently when, by fortuitous word of mouth news, she heard about the community in Gondar which is now a large group of Ethiopian Jews preparing to leave for Israel, some 7,000 people in fact. I found this figure staggering. Who were these people? Where had they been for the last 30 years? Why have I never seen a synagogue anywhere in Ethiopia?
Rabbi Sheridan was able to explain, with clarity and objectivity, the answer to this mystery. The departure of the Bet Israel community of Falashas is by no means the whole story of the final departure of Black Jews from Ethiopia. Over the last hundred years there have been other communities of Jews who have changed their religion to Orthodox Christianity for various reasons - to gain access to food during the famines at the end of the 19th century; to access employment and other equal treatment during the reign of Haile Selassie; to avoid persecution generally. These Jews, known as the Falash Mura, have been living as Orthodox Christians for several generations, but have now come forward seeking to take up the right of all Jews to return to Israel.
Notwithstanding the marked differences in the biblical practices of Jews in Ethiopia to the rabbinic practices of most other Jewish communities around the world, the approach now taken by the State of Israel is to acknowledge that these differences are due to the Ethiopian Jews living in isolation for very long periods. Consequently the evolution of Judaism has passed them by. This situation is not unique to Ethiopia but perhaps it is most marked here. The end result is that those Jews whose circumstances forced them to convert can still seek to move to Israel under the Law of Return. The procedure is complex. The applicants have usually been following the Orthodox faith all of their lives and must now satisfy the Israeli authorities that through 7 generations on the maternal side, they are of Jewish descent. In Ethiopia the rule has been to follow the descent on the paternal side, so immediately there is another group presently disqualified from the process and who must now wait to see if they will eventually be allowed to go to Israel as a third tranche of Black Jews.
The community in Gondar comprises those families who have gathered here to undergo the bureaucratic process and to re-adopt their Jewish faith. Many of the older people are illiterate but they undergo a learning process carried forward by the younger generation and with considerable help from American and Israeli charities. It was in the context of a volunteer that our speaker has spent time in Gondar working with these people. Her photographs showed us what a busy place it is! First the blue and white painted corrugated fence for the compound, the training activities for the adults, the teaching for the children and of course the synagogue and everyone's religious training. The prayer book has one page written in Hebrew and the opposite one in Amharic.
One might think such a system was doomed to failure, or at least very long delays. However some 1200 people transferred to Israel last year and another 500 at least should follow this year. Rabbi Sheridan dealt with the social consequences of this influx of people into Israel very frankly. The social consequences of this policy within Israel are huge and the ending is not always a happy one for the individuals involved. Some Ethiopians decide to re-convert to Orthodoxy, and to the credit of the Israeli authorities, they are at liberty to do so; indeed there are missionaries on hand to help with this. The individuals can remain in Israel. Extended family members in Ethiopia can apply under the Law of Entry on the grounds of family re-unification. Thus we could all see the difficulties facing both sides of the relationship. However our speaker's conclusion was that the younger generation were well served by the move, even though their parents might find it hard to adjust.
This was a very interesting and instructive lecture. The Society is very fortunate that speakers such as Rabbi Sheridan are willing to come and share their knowledge and experience with us. Yet again we discover another fascinating aspect of Ethiopia's past and of Ethiopia's present.