Ethiopian Jews, Tricked Again

The new Israeli cabinet resolution to recognize the heritage of Ethiopian Jewry is actually just another step in the slow and cynical erasure of the Ethiopian spiritual leadership

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Ethiopian religious leaders as part of a ministerial committee working to integrate Ethiopian Israelis into society.
קובי גדעון / לע"מ

All the lofty words surrounding the cabinet resolution to recognize the heritage of Ethiopian Jewry (such as, “For the first time since Operation Solomon, in a historic step the government recognizes the heritage of Ethiopian Jewry”) are an insult to the intelligence of Israelis in general and the Ethiopian community in particular. Already in 1992, the cabinet passed a resolution (477) to appoint 57 kesim (spiritual leaders in the Ethiopian Jewish community) and 16 rabbis for the Ethiopian immigrant community. The latest resolution is technical, and certainly isn’t historic.

In 1992 the government also adopted the recommendations of the interministerial committee on regulating the status of kesim and declared that kesim would be included on religious councils in communities with concentrations of Ethiopian immigrants. This was aimed, inter alia, at making it easier on the institutions absorbing the Ethiopian immigrants and on the immigrants themselves, even though it was only a partial solution.

But the recent announcement, issued by the Prime Minister’s Office spokesman, says, “The approved plan includes historical recognition of the kesim (the priests of Beta Yisrael) as the spiritual leaders of Jews of Ethiopian origin, and thus regulates their status as part of the religious services system. This step constitutes recognition of the ancient and unique heritage of Ethiopian Jews in the field of religious services.”

Rabbis within and outside the community, as well as the kesim themselves, argue that the cabinet resolution, described by the media and by political stakeholders as “a historic step,” is nothing more than a quantitative-technical step that adds more positions under the same 1992 resolution. In 2010 6.5 positions were added to employ 13 kesim part-time (Resolution 1562). The purpose of that resolution, however, was in fact to eliminate the institution of kesim: “The government sees in this the end of the process and from now on there will be no more positions approved and no additional kesim authorized in Israel. Religious services will be provided by municipal rabbis, as is customary.”

The story of the kesim is buried within the broader story of the great power of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. In 1984 it was decided that the positions of municipal chief rabbis would not be renewed with the death of the rabbi, though at the same time the rabbi cannot be fired. Rabbi Yosef Hadane, “The chief rabbi of the Ethiopian community,” is not a chief rabbi, but at best a senior government functionary. We know what government clerks are, but a chief rabbi for the Ethiopian community? Apparently God only knows what that means.

What’s interesting is that 20 kes positions have gone to the grave, together with the 20 kesim who held them. Instead of using the vacated slots to serve the Ethiopian community, the new cabinet resolution states that the rabbis are permitted to fill the positions or not to fill them, as they see fit, within five years. In other words, the religious councils will be the ones that decide if and how to maintain these slots beyond five years.

So we are not talking about a historic event, but about positions that were already in the Ethiopian community’s hands and were simply restored to it. It’s just another step in the slow and cynical erasure of the Ethiopian spiritual leadership, which rubs salt in the wound and yet is accompanied by the loud applause of people who are foolish and naïve at best, and misleading the public at worst.