The Great Ethiopian Divide

Published in Haaretz

The Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel is divided between the Beta Yisrael and the Falashmura (some of whose leaders prefer they be called She’arit Yisrael – the Remnant of Israel ). Most Israeli ferengi, as Ethiopians term any lighter skinned non-Ethiopian, do not distinguish between the two groups, and government policies relate to Beta Yisrael and the Falashmura as a single entity. For better or worse, therefore, they share a common fate in Israel.

Falashmura now comprise more than half of the Ethiopian community in Israel, up to 60 percent, according to some estimates. However, the Beta Yisrael claim greater legitimacy. They won recognition of their Jewishness from Israeli authorities, were not required to undergo conversion, and their past is not “tainted” by association with Christianity. The Beta Yisrael largely completed their aliyah in the early 1990s. The Falashmura comprise the majority of those who have come ever since. Their aliyah should be completed within the coming year.

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The tensions between the communities involve enormous mutual pain, guilt, anger and hatred. Some Beta Yisrael see the Falashmura as traitors, as Jews who embraced Christianity for their own advancement before returning to Judaism only in the last few decades, or as collaborators who helped the enemies of the Beta Yisrael during their exodus to Israel. There are charges that Christian proselytizing by Falashmura among Beta Yisrael continues to this day, and that Falashmura exaggerate their suffering in Ethiopia to justify their past and elicit sympathy. The enmity runs deep.

Falashmura, for their part, are frustrated that the Beta Yisrael do not fully acknowledge their return to Judaism, or appreciate the suffering they endured due to their pariah status among Ethiopian Christians – i.e., that they too were never accepted and continued to be discriminated against as Jews by the Christian majority. Falashmura resent Beta Yisrael efforts to discount them, for example, when they refer to their exodus through Sudan (which has become central to the Ethiopian narrative in Israel, but does not include Falashmura ), as a way to signal their exclusion in public discussions, or treat food prepared by Falashmura as un-kosher. Falashmura argue that their embrace of Christianity took place under extraordinary duress. In any case, they have forsaken that life and returned to Judaism, and are desperate to be accepted.

The Falashmura’s return to Judaism has been shepherded by emissaries from Israel’s Ashkenazi Orthodox community, who established synagogues, ritual baths and Jewish studies programs in Ethiopia. The Judaism practiced by religiously observant Falashmura is informed by Ashkenazi practice more than by Beta Yisrael tradition, and in certain regards, leads to greater acceptance by the local religious establishment than that accorded to Beta Yisrael, who preserve their own traditions.

This history leads to thorny questions about cultural continuity and influence. For example, what will conformity with Ashkenazi rabbinic norms mean for the future of Ethiopian practices that diverge from them? And what about intermarriage between the two groups?

Or take the uniquely Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd, which, following an extended campaign by activists, now appears on the state’s official calendar. Many schools that have a concentration of Ethiopian students conduct a school-wide or community-wide Sigd celebration. But consider a school in which all or most of the Ethiopian students are Falashmura. They have not been celebrating Sigd for the last few generations, and their parents don’t have memories of trekking to the mountaintop, looking north to Jerusalem and listening to the prayers of the Kessoj (the Beta Yisrael priests or cohanim ). The Sigd school holiday celebration is intended to honor Ethiopian Jewish culture, but whose? When the Ethiopian students are not Beta Yisrael, should Sigd be celebrated?

There are other internal hierarchies that ferengi don’t even know exist – such as the fact that “red” skin is considered superior and more desirable than “black” skin – or the regional and linguistic prejudices held by Amharic speakers and Tigrit speakers about one another.

In her graduate dissertation, my colleague at the Israel Center for Educational Innovation, Shula Mola, who also serves as chair of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, documented the negative impact of both the external and the internal prejudices within the Ethiopian community on the self-image of Ethiopian students. Ethiopian Israelis are careful to hide the friction between Beta Yisrael and Falashmura and these other internal fissures from outsiders, for fear that they could damage the community’s public image, or that the discovery of internal biases – which all groups have – would legitimize the racist attitudes that already exist among outsiders. Whenever something uncomplimentary comes out, outsiders use it against them to show they are backward or that the problems are with the Ethiopians themelves, not the racists.

It is not for an outsider to tell the Beta Yisrael and Falashmura that they must or should reconcile. It may be premature, but there is clearly a price to pay for not addressing these issues directly. Today, there are leaders in each community, young and old, who want to overcome the rift, but for the most part, the two communities are subject to tactics of divide and conquer by government agencies. And if they want to determine their cultural identity, to make decisions about the preservation or renewal of their traditions, rather than allowing someone else to make those decisions for them – they will need to begin an honest dialogue.

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