Are you not like the people of Ethiopia to me, O Children of Israel? Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt… ? (Amos 9:7, NKJV).
It shall come to pass in that day that the Lord shall set His hand again the second time, to recover the remnant of His people who are left, from Assyria and Egypt, from Pathros and Cush (Ethiopia), from Elam and Shinar, from Hamath and the islands of the sea (Isaiah 11:11, NKJV)
Then Miriam and Aaron spoke of the Ethiopian woman whom [Moshe] had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman (Numbers 12:1, NKJV).
From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, My Worshipers, the daughter of My dispersed ones shall bring My offering (Zephaniah 3:10, NKJV).
And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority … had come to Jerusalem to worship … he was reading Isaiah the prophet (Acts 8:27-28, NKJV).
I was 14 years old. I was driving with my mom, accompanying her while she worked. It was summer time. While driving, my mom verbalized what seemed to be a hidden family identity. “We are Jews!” She said. As soon as she said the words her face was filled with relief as if a thick cloud had been lifted from her. Those few simple words caught me off guard, jamming my mind with a storm of questions and answers that made me speechless. “Who? Us? Jews? How? Oh, that’s why our relatives made their homes in Israel, and why we ate Matzah (unleavened bread) during Passover.”
Three years later I made aliyah to Israel. Some of the questions I had remained unanswered, yet one thing was sure, I had to come to Israel to study my family history and get reconnected to my roots.
My story is not typical of the stories you may have heard regarding the Ethiopian Jews. While most Ethiopian Jews lived in rural areas, almost secluded from the mainstream of the Ethiopian society, I was born in the city. I was raised and integrated into the rest of the society without an overt emphasis on my Jewish identity. My Christian-born father and my Jewish-born mother had decided not to emphasize our Jewishness to my siblings and me in order to avoid persecution. I say this to clarify and to affirm the diversities within the Ethiopian community.
A great deal of misinformation revolves around the Ethiopian Jews. If they were Jews, then how did they end up in Ethiopia? How are they to be recognized as Jews if they don’t have certificates documenting their Jewish status? While others have supposed that they are the lost tribe of Dan, the Ethiopian Jews, commonly known as Beta Israel, regard themselves as the descendants of Menilik I, who ostensibly was the son of Solomon and Sheba. However, these assumptions are yet to be proven true.
Encircled by Christians, the Ethiopian Jews for generations have endured great persecutions. Furthermore their remote geographical location in their own villages resulted in isolation from the world of Judaism. Some of them converted to Christianity, for fear of losing their lands in times of persecution. By doing so, they influenced Ethiopia’s own unique blend of Orthodox Christianity. Because of the fact that they hadn’t possessed the Talmudic scriptures their religious life was based on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. For instance there was a kosher diet and observance of the Sabbath and Jewish traditions like the rites of purification. Major Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succoth, Shavuot, and Passover were kept. Hanukah and Purim were not celebrated due to the fact that they occurred after the history recorded in the Scriptures then in Ethiopian Jewish possession.
Nevertheless, Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 11:11), around 740 B.C., testifies to the existence of a recognized Ethiopian Jewish community. What’s more, the fervent practice of Judaism as it was prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, showed Ethiopian Jews to be one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. As cited in the opening of this article, any devout student of the Scriptures could not deny the strong link that the Bible makes to the existence of Jews in Ethiopia. I for one feel proud and blessed to belong to this community.
The Beta Israel community made the headlines in the 1980s and early 1990s when thousands were airlifted miraculously to Israel. As history states, Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991 were the two largest mass airlifts staged to bring Jews home.
Today the Ethiopian Jews have divinely been reunited with their long-awaited land and people. They find themselves immersed in a society which is made up of vastly diverse people groups from Russian to Moroccan, from South African to Yemenite, and from secular to ultra-Orthodox. Although not so very different, physically or geographically from the Jews from Yemen, for instance, Ethiopians are perceived by some as the most marginal group.
The question of Jewish Identity has long been a cause for many hot debates and controversy. Meanwhile Jews from different parts of the world who have come back from the Diaspora have inevitably broadened the social fabric and dynamics of Israel. Much to their dismay, the Ethiopian Jews have witnessed various obstacles regarding their Jewish status due to their lack of up-to-date documentation and their more basic, ancient Jewish practice. But beyond this, their third-world background and their noticeably dark skin color have been the cause of subtle marginalization from the locals.
“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil?” Jeremiah 13:23, NKJV). God, through the Prophet Jeremiah, attributes the color of the Ethiopian (or anyone else) to the Creator. Those who are accustomed to judging others based on physical appearances are going to miss what God Himself is focusing on – the quality of the inner person. He has created us different and diverse, and never has He withheld His blessings or His promises based on the way we look. The challenge before us as God’s servants is to be able to see a person’s heart, beyond his skin. That will be possible if we pray daily that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened. He desires to use our differences creatively for the expression of His beauty because we all equally bear the splendor of His divine image.
Let us all rejoice and take pleasure in our racial inheritance and seek ways to have a genuine change of heart according to His likeness. Then I believe we will be able to comprehend and to manifest the height and the depth, the width and the length of our Creator’s love for each of His children.