Digging deeper in Ethiopia
ADDIS ABABA - In the old Falasha village of Ambober, 15 kilometers outside Gondar, there are only Christians living today. All the village's original inhabitants left for Israel at least 17 years ago. The old ORT school which used to serve the Jewish community is now a government school. Opposite is the compound of the local synagogue. In the Beita Israel custom, there are two separate buildings, and while the women's synagogue is still the original tuckul, made from lathe walls of mud and wood, someone has made a donation and redone the men's synagogue as a sturdy, stone-walled building. No one prays there but it is one of the main stops on the routes of Jewish and Israeli groups who tour the Gonder region. Inside, there is a wooden bookcase that contains the siddurim (prayer books) and Hebrew books that served the community decades ago. They all bear the stamp of the religious services department of the World Zionist Organization. Among the dusty and time-eaten prayer books, bibles and Hebrew primers, I found one slim tome that seemed a bit out of place. It was a treatise on the laws of shehita printed by the famous "Brothers and Widow Rohm" Printers of Vilnius, in 1896. The incongruity of finding such a title in a Falasha village, a community with its own distinct laws of ritual slaughter, so different from those practiced by Orthodox Jews in late 19th Century, is incredible. The owners' scrawl inside the cover leaves little doubt this book used to reside in the private library of a religious Jew somewhere in Eastern Europe before the Second World War. How did it find its way to the Horn of Africa?
The most likely answer is that many holy books that, unlike their owners, somehow survived the destruction of the Holocaust, were sent to organizations like the WZO in Jerusalem in the hope that someone might find use for them. It probably lay in storage for years until someone assembled a shipment of books for the Falashas, and without thinking also chucked in the shehita book. It is unthinkable that anyone in Ambober ever found any use for the book - it probably lay there unopened until the Jews left for Israel - but just think about the passage it made. From the devastation of Jewish life in Europe, to Jerusalem and from there to Ethiopia, only to be forsaken again when another Jewish community ceased to exist. No one has read it for at least 70 years, but what a romantic voyage.
One has only to spend 24 hours in Ethiopia to understand that logic simply does not apply when trying to understand the Jewish story of this land. You can only comprehend it from a romantic perspective. When you review the serious research done on the origins or the Beita Israel, it is almost impossible to escape the fact that there is no real historical evidence connecting this group with the scattered branches of the people of Israel. It is just as much, if not more, plausible that they were simply a sect of the ancient Ethiopian Christian civilization, one of the oldest churches in the world, who believed at the same time that they were the children of King Solomon's first-born son Menelik. The last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, the "Lion of Judah," believed himself to be a direct descendant.
The Star of David with a cross in its center is ubiquitous on buildings throughout Addis Ababa, and the Ethiopian "Bible," Kebra Nagast (The Glory of Kings), which chronicles Menelik's voyage to his father in Jerusalem and back to Ethiopian carrying the Ark of the Covenant, contains entire chapters that directly paraphrase the Old Testament. Seeing the Falashas as an outcropping of this culture - believing that instead of Zion moving to the ancient city of Aksum, the children of Israel should return to the original Zion - makes much more sense than imagining a section of the tribe that got lost for a millennium or two in Africa.
And yet the idea is so romantically appealing that normally levelheaded politicians, academics and rabbis just want to believe in it. After all, we are such a small and urban people, just imagine if there were indeed primitive tribes, scattered in exotic places around the globe. It would make being Jewish feel a lot less claustrophobic. That's why Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose Halakha (Jewish law) rulings are usually based on a wealth of evidence, recognized the Beita Israel's Jewishness in 1973 as the lost tribe of Dan, on the basis only of a ruling of a 16th-century rabbi who in turn based his on the writings of a mystical ninth-century figure, Eldad Hadani, a man who probably never existed, and even if he did, it is highly questionable whether Eldad had anything to do with the Falashas anyway.
In the same way, the current Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, widely seen as Yosef's anointed successor, ruled that the Falashmura, the members of Beita Israel who converted to Christianity, were "definitely" Jews. But how could he make such a sweeping ruling? Surely this should be a matter for individual judgment. Jewish leaders and activists were quick to sound the alarm on threats facing the Jews of Ethiopia, even when these were far from certain, out of real concern but also because a generation still traumatized by the Holocaust wants to feel as if this time around, it is saving Jews from the jaws of mortal danger.
Israel airlifting 14,000 Jews from Addis Ababa in 1991, at the height of the Ethiopian civil war, felt for many like the closing of the circle. The Jews of the world had been powerless to help their brothers in Poland 50 years earlier, but now had an air force and sufficient funds and influence to organize the airlift overnight. Whether or not the rebel army posed a threat to the Jews is immaterial. However, for the last 17 years, the question of the Falashmura has been anything but romantic. The lack of a clear government policy, combined with the machinations of various lobby groups and unhealthy measure of political interests has abused the whole process of bringing the Falashmura to Israel.
The government now wants to stop them from arriving, in two months. But if they are eligible according to previously-agreed criteria, why can't the thousands of Falashmura in the Gondar compounds come to Zion? And if this is not enough for them to eventually become Israeli citizens, then why has Israel allowed at least 26,000 of them in so far, at a huge financial and social cost? Shouldn't someone be called to account? It is about time reality intruded on the romantic dream.