Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Jews of Ethiopia

In May 1991, Operation Solomon transported 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. This was the third great rescue mission of the Ethiopian community (Operation Moses, 1984 and Operation Joshua, 1985).

The origins of the Beta Israel, as the Ethiopian community is known, are subject to debate: The lost tribe of Dan? The descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba? Ancient converts to Judaism? What is agreed, however, is that their community, and its isolation, goes back to the time of the First Temple.

A Very Brief History: The Beta Israel lived in relative peace in the Gondor region of Ethiopia and were semi-autonomous until the early 1600s, when they were fiercely persecuted and denied the right to their own land. In the 1970s, dictator Colonel Mengitsu Haile Mariam’s Marxist policies led to an increase in both poverty and anti-Semitism. In response to these events, rescue efforts began, ended and began again with the above-mentioned operations.

The Acceptance of the Beta Israel: A great many questions were raised about the authenticity of the Beta Israel’s Jewishness. Having been separated from the greater Jewish community for so long (before the codification of the oral law in c.525 C.E.), their observances varied from traditional Jewish practice, yet were still recognizable. Citing the 16th century Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Avi Zimra's (Radbaz) statement of firm belief in the authenticity of Ethiopian Jewry, Israel’s then Chief Rabbis (Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef - Sephardi, and Rabbi Shlomo Goren - Ashkenazi) declared the Beta Israel to be Jews and were thus entitled to come to Israel under the Law of Return.

Not all religious authorities, however, are in agreement, and it has become customary for the Beta Israel to undergo a symbolic conversion --with immersion in a mikvah and a declaration of acceptance of traditional rabbinic law.

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