History: Falasha Village

History: Falasha Village

The earliest reference to the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews), or Falasha appears in the chronicles of the emperor Amda Seyon, who ruled in the first half of the 14th century. Although it seems likely that there were Jews in Ethiopia at an early date, there is no evidence that the kings of Aksum displayed the fascination with Israelite customs or even Israelite descent that becomes so powerful under the Solomonid emperors. Given that almost all their literature is Christian in origin, that they preserved customs such as monasticism that cannot be found among other Jews, and that they were ignorant of Hebrew until quite recently, it seems that the Beta Israel are not an ancient Jewish community in origin, but a dissident Christian community. When the Solomonid emperors placed such emphasis on ancient Judaic custom, one way of resisting their pretensions may have been to adopt an even more Judaic identity.


In the fifteenth century, the Christian emperors began to wage war against the Beta Israel, who became increasingly estranged from the Christian state. It is at this time that their distinctive identity begins to emerge as a way of developing and strengthening a unique sense of their own identity. Their estrangement from the state meant that increasingly they became artisans, and undertook crafts such as metalwork that were generally despised or regarded as unclean.

In the 16th century, the chronicle of the emperor Sarsa Dengel describes the great bravery of the Beta Israel who fought against the emperor in the mountains of Semien. At the beginning of the 17th century, the emperor Susneyos began a fierce persecution of Beta Israel living between Lake Tana and the Semien. While his son Fasiladas was less hostile, the position of the Beta Israel in the following centuries was always precarious.

In 1904, the Beta Israel came into increasing contact with international Jewish communities. This led to dramatic changes, especially the disappearance of monasticism, the introduction of a calendar of festivals observed by Jews elsewhere, and an increasing use of Hebrew. In late 1984 and early 1985, Operation Moses brought thousands of Beta Israel to Israel itself, where a bitter debate began about whether they were really Jews.

By Roderick Grierson

Source: PBS


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