Estranged People

Bete Israel

The Bete Israel lived isolated from most of the world, and from other Israelites, until the past century. They were first made known to the Western World by British missionaries in the 1860s. Soon after that a Jewish scholar, Joseph Halevy, went to see them for himself. He found a people who observed the Biblical commandments such as the Sabbath, feasts, dietary laws, purification, sacrifices and separation of menstruating women. They found it hard to believe that Halevy was Jewish, since he was white! But once he mentioned Jerusalem, they excitedly asked him many questions about the holy city. Like Jews all over the world, they looked forward to returning to the Holy City!

Skipping to 1984, massive airlifts were operated bringing Ethiopian Jews to their ancient homeland, Israel. Operation Moses and Operation Joshua flew almost 9,000 Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan. The Jews had fled to Sudan to escape the famine, massacres and government persecution that they were experiencing in Ethiopia. Operation Solomon in 1991 flew over 14,000 Jews out of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to Israel. This group of Bete Israel had left the mountainous country area of Gonder, where they had lived for centuries, to go to Addis for this airlift.

Since the airlifts, Jews from the Bete Israel community in Gonder have continued to migrate to Addis, close to the Israeli Embassy. They do this expecting to go to Israel like many of their family members have. According to Israel’s Laws, they have the legal right to move to Israel, both because they are Jewish and because many of them have family members already in Israel.

These families of the Bete Israel community have moved into very primitive dwellings in Addis. The one room structures can only hold two beds and have small remaining space. These dwellings are sub standard even by Ethiopian standards. They were willing to live in these conditions temporarily because they believed that they would soon be going to Israel. But these temporary living conditions have lasted up to 13 years for the members of the Bete Israel community in Addis Ababa. The adults of this community are not trained in employable skills for the city. This leaves a community of people that have either no income or a very low income, that are living in really poor conditions with little hope of getting out. This web site is offering them an opportunity for an income that will help.

Bete Abraham

The Jewish people in Kechene (a section in Addis Ababa) are now called the Beta Abraham. They separated from the original Bete Israel community, which lives in Gonder, several hundred years ago. The fact that they are descendants of the Bete Israel is documented by many historians.

In the late 1600s a leader emerged in Ethiopia that started an empire in the area that is now the Kechene section of Addis Ababa (the capital city of Ethiopia). The land was mostly forest area that needed to be cleared and farmed. This leader realized that the Bete Israel’s tool-making and farming skills would be very helpful to developing his empire. He convinced many of the Jewish people to come work for his empire for in return for land of their own. He also required that they convert to Christianity.

These Jews had the choice of continued persecution and lack of rights versus the offer to be appreciated, respected and rewarded with land owning privileges. Many Bete Israelis accepted the offer to work for this ruler in return for land. They left the Gonder area to live and work for this leader.

Like the Jews of Spain, some did abandon their Jewish faith. But like the Marranos of Spain, many kept their Jewish faith and practiced it secretly. Today there are 15 secret Jewish congregations in the Kechene area of Addis Ababa. They are the descendants of those who continued their Jewish faith and practices in secret.

The elders of the Bete Abraham community continue to practice their Judaism in secret despite the new government’s tolerance of all religions, just as Marrano descendants also do today in Portugal. But some of the younger generation of devout Jews have asked, “Why should we continue to practice in secret when our religion is now legal and accepted by the government?” (although still prejudiced against by some). They have separated themselves completely from faking Christianity and practice their Judaism with pride.

When they initiated their attempt to be more open about their faith, they found themselves shunned by their own Jewish community. They are learning to find a balance between their zeal for practicing their freedom of religion with respect for the practices of the elders. These individuals call themselves Zionists, and besides practicing their faith more openly, have also started an organization to help their fellow Jews called EZRA (Ethiopian Zionist Rehabilitation Association) and birthed the idea of this web site to accomplish that!

Who Are the Ethiopian Jews Waiting for Emigration to Israel?

The Jewish Ethiopians, or Bete Israelis as they are commonly known, have lived in the mountains in the northern part of Ethiopia for at least two thousand years, in an area called Gonder. They were farmers, blacksmiths, potters and weavers, selling their products to their neighbors and people in the surrounding areas.

As has been the history of Jews all over the world, the Bete Israel experienced prejudice and unjust persecution from the people around them. They were not allowed to own land nor were their trades looked upon favorably, despite the obvious necessity of their products to those who purchased them. Derogatory terms and false accusations abounded for them not only because of their trades, but also because of their devotion to their Biblical traditions that separated them from those around them.

In the 1860’s, some of these Jews migrated to the Addis Ababa area (capital city of Ethiopia). Others migrated to Addis Ababa more recently and some still remain today in the Gonder area.

So today, there are two distinct groups living in the capital city of Ethiopia that trace their lineage to Gonder area Ethiopian Jews: