Peter Oliver writes -- “A little known fact is that some 9,000 Jews (who prefer to be known as Beta Israel, as the term “Falasha” is derogatory) still live in Ethiopia. The majority live in Gondar, a former royal capital in the northern Amhara region, while some are based in Addis Ababa.
In the 1980s and 1990s, most were air-lifted to Israel, where their community numbers some 135,000 today. Those who remain in Ethiopia (the “Falasha mura”) are descended from Jews who converted to Christianity under duress, but they have now reverted to Judaism.
Since the early 1990s, Israel has blown hot and cold, sometimes admitting small numbers and sometimes blocking immigration altogether. As from 2016, Israel has accepted one hundred Jews per month – so most of them have several more years to wait.
Not only do these people share the abject poverty of their Christian neighbours, but they also suffer discrimination. Many in Gondar gave up their livelihoods in distant villages years ago to register for emigration to Israel – but instead of setting off immediately as they had hoped, they found their path blocked.
Some IJC members will recall Rabbi Sybil Sheridan who officiated at an IJC Shabbat in 2014. Together with a friend she has set up a charity, Meketa (“support” in Amharic) to help the Jews of Gondar establish a school, support community businesses and provide for the synagogue.
Every year in November, Rabbi Sheridan organises and leads a trip to Ethiopia. In addition to giving Meketa some financial assistance, Philippa and I had the good fortune to join her group two months ago.
Needless to say, the highlight was our stay in Gondar, seeing the local Jewish school and attending an erev Shabbat service in the synagogue = a corrugated iron structure brightly daubed in the Israeli national colours.
We also had the opportunity to become acquainted with Ethiopia’s unique and ancient culture, including four UNESCO World Heritage sites. Last but not least, we had the chance to catch a glimpse of some of the country’s remarkable flora and fauna, and made a day trip to the majestic Simien mountains near Gondar, which were once home to over a hundred thousand Jews.
Over and over again, we felt as though we were transported back to biblical times. Altogether it was a magical experience, it was tinged with sadness at the poverty of the local population and the plight of the “Falasha mura”. But there is room for cautious optimism on both counts.”
Peter Oliver is an IJC Board Member