The Revolutionary History of Ethiopia’s Jews

A new study reveals that Beta Israel were active in the Marxist-inspired armed struggle to overthrow the regime

New Ethiopian immigrants on an Air Force Boeing jet en route from Addis Ababa to Israel during Operation Solomon
Nathan Alpert/GPO

The Jewish community in Ethiopia, labeled in the past as Falasha or Beta Israel, is perceived in Israel as a traditional-religious community which, while in Ethiopia, conducted its life in isolation from its inimical neighbors and from the processes unfolding around it, with all its aspirations focused on immigrating to Israel.

A new study, which I conducted, reveals that men and women in this community were political activists and members of Marxist underground movements during the revolutionary years and civil war in that country (from the 1970s until 1991). Acquaintance with the role of Ethiopian Jews in these movements may change the commonly held image of this community in Israeli eyes. (The study is published in the Hebrew book, “The Other Journey: Life Stories of Ethiopian Jews, Activists in the Ethiopian Civil War 1974 – 1991.”)

New immigrants from Ethiopia just after arrival at Ben Gurion Airport during "Operation Solomon"
Nathan Alpert/GPO

In the first half of the 1960s, it seemed that the Ethiopian empire was more stable than ever. Emperor Haile Selassie and his right-hand man Aklilu Habte-Wold charted the state’s path through the troubled waters of African politics, navigating the rivalry of the superpowers as well as the upheavals in the Middle East. The fact that an Eritrean struggle for independence, a string of local uprisings in other areas of Ethiopia and a coup attempt in 1960 did not manage to shake the throne contributed to an almost mythic view of Haile Selassie, indicating that he may rule for many years to come, contingent on his health.

Things began to change dramatically starting in the mid-1960s, when students at the Haile Selassie University (later the Addis Ababa University) began organizing and protesting against the ossified regime. Gradually, under the influence of students who had studied at foreign universities (mainly in Western Europe and North America), they started taking interest in Marxist ideas, subsequently becoming more radical. Their demands included education for all, democratization, equality and the right of self-determination for diverse ethnic and linguistic groups, a demand which conflicted with the imperial policy of giving supremacy to Amharic. They also demanded the distribution of land to farmers who were working them in practice (in contrast to a quasi-feudal control of the land which was common in many areas in the days of the emperor), as well as other demands.

Logo of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP)
EPRP
Logo of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party
The Sign 1998

From 1968 these protests gathered steam, becoming larger and more tumultuous after revelations of famine in northern districts of Ethiopia in 1973. This was exacerbated by a serious economic crisis caused, among other things, by the rise in oil prices that followed the embargo imposed by Arab states following the war with Israel that year. The students started organizing into parties, with the aim of leading Ethiopia into a post-imperial future. The most prominent party at the time was the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), which by setting up small and secretive cells and by the distribution of manifestos and newspapers managed to recruit hundreds of thousands of men and women. However, despite the EPRP’s and the student movement’s dominance it was (mainly) mid-rank military officers who set up a revolutionary council, called the Derg, and took control of the state. They ousted the emperor and slowly began consolidating their rule.

Members of the EPRP refused to accept the Derg’s dominance and began a conflict with the military regime. The response of Derg, headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, was particularly harsh: a “red terror” campaign lasting until 1978 led to the deaths of tens of thousands of promising young Ethiopians. Attempts by the EPRP to wage a guerilla campaign failed, and the party disbanded in 1980.

At the same time, another underground movement started operating in 1975. This was the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the TPLF, which gradually acquired military experience, in collaboration (which saw ups and downs) with the veteran Eritrean underground movement, the EPLF. It started scoring victories against the more numerous and better-armed Derg forces, who were equipped by the Soviet Union. In 1991 the victorious TPLF forces entered Addis Ababa, marking the beginning of a new era in Ethiopia. This was accompanied by the breaking away of Eritrea as an independent state.

The saga of Ethiopia’s revolutionary period, led by students, and the ensuing civil war, still occupy the minds of Ethiopians. However, one story was missing in the discourse and memories of this period and that was the part played by Beta Israel communities in these historic events. Reading the copious literature about this community before it came to Israel, one gets the impression that its members played no part in the political struggles and prolonged fighting, focusing only on their own livelihoods, their spiritual-religious life and their desire to go to Zion-Jerusalem.

Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, the last emperor of Ethiopia
American Colony / Library of Congress

But this was not the whole picture. Male and female members of the community, mainly the young ones, joined the EPRP and TPLF when these operated in Gondar and Tigray, respectively. They participated in all the activities these groups carried out at the time: they joined their non-Jewish compatriots in secret cells, read revolutionary texts and discussed them, recruited new members, wrote and disseminated propaganda, tried to win hearts among the rural population and participated in the armed struggle against their enemies, mainly the Derg.

In interviews with veterans of these underground movements now living in Israel, it’s clear that they, like many among their cohorts in Ethiopia, were swept up by the Marxist ideology of equality, progress, justice and democracy (in its revolutionary version). They were willing to sacrifice everything for these goals. Like their non-Jewish friends, Jewish members of the EPRP fled to Sudan after their organization disbanded in 1980. There they became active in Jewish and Israeli organizations trying to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, before immigrating themselves. TPLF members typically continued to work for that organization until 1991, after which they served in the Ethiopian army, partly in administrative jobs. They were later demobilized and came to Israel.

It’s difficult to assess how many members of the community were involved in the struggle (this becomes more difficult given that the issue of who is a member of the community is a complex and controversial one in itself), but there is no reason to assume that the proportion was lower than in the rest of the population, as described by one of the women interviewed for this study: “It was the fate of all young people then…there was no difference between Christians, Muslims and Jews. It was the fate of everyone.”

The conventional wisdom regarding the community and its life in Ethiopia includes these ingredients: their isolation from the hostile Ethiopian (mostly Christian) surroundings; their spiritual/mental/intellectual world that was limited to holy scriptures; their only political aspirations were the ancient ones of going to Yerusalem, their name for Jerusalem. Ostensibly, such a historical narrative should have worked in their favor. It should have helped them blend in with the national ethos of the host society. But there’s a fly in the ointment: It fixed their image as a pre-modern religious community, isolated from current ideological and political currents. This narrative did portray the community as a Zionist one, but at the same time as one which was frozen in time. A disconnect between the community and its history joined other elements that enfeebled the community in Israel. The story of those Jews who were partners in contemporary revolutionary movements undermines this image and presents a richer and more complex picture, thereby empowering the community.

Dr. David Ratner is a sociologist and historian studying contemporary events in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. He recently published a book on Ethiopian Jews and their part in the revolutionary struggle in that country.