The ‘Beta Israel’ – as the Jews of Ethiopia refer to themselves – have lived in Ethiopia for many centuries, but their origins are uncertain. They traditionally claim they are descended from the lost tribe of Dan.
The Beta Israel settled in the Northern part of Ethiopia, particularly in the Simien mountains, and around Lake Tana. An independent Jewish kingdom existed in the Middle Ages, but was eventually defeated by a Christian dynasty. When the Christian empire set its capital in Gondar in 1636, many Beta Israel took up employment opportunities as metalworkers and craftsmen for the court.
The early nineteenth century saw contact between European Christian missionaries and explorers and the Beta Israel, and from about 1850 European Jews made contact and began to record some of Beta Israel's cultural and religious practices.
Over the next hundred years, however, the condition of the Beta Israel worsened in the face of regular famines and conflict. During this time some converted to Christianity and came to be known as the Zera Israel, or Falash Mura (a derogatory term).
THE JEWS OF ETHIOPIA
The Beta Israel are those Ethiopian Jews who have continued to practice Judaism without a break. It is likely that all of this community is now in Israel. Most departed in the two main airlifts: Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991).
The remaining practising Jews, who live for the most part in Gondar town, are descendants of the Zera Israel whose ancestors converted to Christianity under duress but who have since returned to Judaism. Many of them are closely related to Beta Israel families. Although they were not permitted to leave with Operations Moses and Solomon, new arrangements were agreed in the 90s to allow gradual emigration to Israel.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
The Zera Israel are not eligible to go to Israel under the Law of Return, but they are allowed to come under the law of entry, with special permission from the Israeli government. They must spend a year learning Hebrew and Judaism and then to convert to Judaism after which they receive Israeli citizenship. The process is very slow and some families have been waiting for over twenty years to emigrate. Mostly those remaining are of patrilineal descent, which has always been the custom in this community as it was in Biblical times. This, however, has delayed their recognition in Israel which follows the Rabbinic matrilineal line.
The majority of the over 5,000 Zera Israel now living in Gondar Town moved there from outlying villages, many skilled in farming and agricultural practices. They have found it difficult to find good work and are living below the poverty line.
They were supported by NACOEJ (North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry) until 2008 and then by the Jewish Agency. In August 2013 the Jewish Agency also withdrew its support, leaving the school, synagogue, medical support and feeding programmes temporarily halted. Meketa began its work with the community in Gondar at this time, focusing on educational and livelihoods programmes.
Israel has periodically renewed its commitment to taking the Zera Israel and the Jewish Agency works with the community to prepare them for Aliyah. However no one knows how long this will take. Our work is needed more than ever to improve skills and education so that the community can make the best of life whether in Ethiopia or in Israel when they settle there.