By Miri -
Today, there are about 130,000 Ethiopians living in Israel, of which more than 38,000 are Israeli-born. In the following we shall briefly outline the origins of these communities, their journeys to Israel and their status within contemporary Israeli society.
Origin and History of the Beta Israel
|Beta Israel community in Ethiopia, ca. 1955|
The Kebra Nagast, the Book of the Glory of Kings, describing the Ethiopian history and probably stemming from the 14th century asserts that all Ethiopians are descendants of Israelite tribes who came to Ethiopia with Menelik I, reportedly the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. According to the Kebra Nagast, the Beta Israel descended from a battalion of men of Judah who fled towards Ethiopia after the breakup of the united Kingdom of Israel in the 10th century BCE.
|The historical region of Beta Israel|
During the 19th and 20th century there have been further various attempts to convert the Beta Israel to Christianity. Under the guise of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, an estimated number of 2000 Beta Israel members converted to Orthodox Christianity and thus became known as the Falasha, or Falash Mura. The Beta Israel consider Falasha to be a wrong translation and a derogatory term meaning "foreigner" or "stranger", which should therefore not be used to describe them.
Ethiopia's history as a whole, as well as the lives of the Beta Israel within it continued to be turbulent. For the same reason, after the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, more and more Ethiopian Jews considered to leave their home country, a notion that then Emperor Haile Selassie opposed fiercely and refused to grant them permission to leave the empire. However a small number of Beta Israel illegally immigrated to Israel in the 1960s and 1970s and managed to raise more attention and support for their communities at home.
Migration and Life in Israel
After a dispute between different chief rabbis, the Beta Israel were recognised as a descendant tribe of Israel and its members therefore became eligible to migrate to Israel under the Law of Return. With the outbreak of the Ethiopian civil war, the concomitant increasingly anti-Jewish sentiments under the military regime, but specifically after a series of severe famines shaking Ethiopia as a whole, Israel prepared to bring and absorb large numbers of the Beta into the Jewish State. During a number of operations starting in 1979 and aided by the Mossad, Israel's national intelligence service, tens of thousands of Beta Israel, as well as Falash Mura, were brought to Israel where they settled down. In the 1980s an estimated 4,000 people died one their way to Israel walking on foot through Sudan.
Today there are about 130,000 Ethiopians living in Israel, of which more than 38,000 are Israeli-born. The integration of the Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society has not and does not continue to run smoothly. One reason for this is that the integration approaches by the different Israeli institutions has always emphasised the so called "national interest", which is basically defined by Israel's dominant group, i.e. Ashkenazi Jews, whose origins and therefore also diaspora experience was located in Central Europe.
Many of the first wave Ethiopian immigrants recount experiencing cultural shocks upon their arrival in Israel. While many Israelis would deny the idea that Jews could be racist towards other Jews, the experience of the Beta Israel proves the contrary in basically all dimensions of life.
In 1996 this notion caused a public outcry in Israel and beyond when an Israeli newspaper revealed a policy of Magen David Adom, Israel's national emergency medical, disaster, ambuland and blood bank service, which had secretely disposed of all blood donations received from native Ethiopian immigrants and their offspring. Up until today Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, together with other people from Sub-Saharan Africa are considered to be high risk groups and have to further undergo mandatory HIV screenings, regardless of their intention to donate blood
|Religious authorities of the Beta Israel in a ceremony|
Stemming mostly from rural areas in their home country, the big majority of first generation migrants from Ethiopia lacked the experiences, the education and the training suitable for an industrialised economy and up until today the socio-economic status of the Beta Israel still lags far behind the Israeli average. According to a research conducted by Bar-Ilan University, issued in 2012, members of the Beta Israel earned 30%-40% less than Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, who obviously constitute an underprivileged group themselves.
|A group of Ethiopian kids outside a protest in Jerusalem, 2012|
There is however one big difference between the first and the second generation of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. While the generation of their parents thought it a privilege to come to Israel and therefore did not dare to complain, Ethiopian activists say, the younger generation of educated adults who have grown up in Israel, do speak out and against the discriminatory treatment of their communities: "The time has come to fight to be Israelis".
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