The Question of Jewish Identity and Ethiopian Jewish Origins

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"All families are presumed to be of legitimate descent ... if a man casts aspersions upon other people's descent, alleging that certain families or individuals are of blemished descent or calling them bastards, there is justified suspicion that he himself might be blemished or bastard...."

--Rambam, Mishneh Torah 19:17

Before the opening of the recent international conference on Ethiopian Jews held at the University of Addis Ababa, where I delivered the keynote address, * Ethiopia's Ambassador to Israel rightly highlighted to the media that Ethiopia and Israel are two ancient, interconnected lands. In fact, these two historic lands have an amazing array of cultural legacies in common. (1)

The questions of Jewish identity and of Ethiopian Jewish origins are both "hot topics" these days. How do they relate to each other? When offering answers, we ought never to lose sight of a guiding axiom. Attempts to define "Who Is a Jew" from a historical, halachic, or genetic perspective, and to apply these definitions to various Jewish groups, should not be allowed to distract from what as Jews--white, black, or brown--unites us: the central concern for the great revelation on Mount Sinai from which our common values ensue. We are one people, and let us be proud of our unity through the beauty of our diversity.

Huge groups that contend with each other over questions of religious identity, such as Sunnis versus Shiites, or evangelical versus mainstream Protestants, can afford this folly. But when the tiny Jewish population militates against itself in judging who is a genuine Jew and who is a counterfeit Jew, the noise of self-destructiveness pollutes the Jewish future. This is no Puccini opera. World Jewry cannot afford to go further down the road of separating Jews into real Jews and aspirational Jews--first and second-class Jews. Such a separation effort would have been a strange anathema to our Jewish prophets. Rambam/Maimonides considered it a transgression to subject a Jew to such identity examination.

The aliyah of Ethiopian Jews to Israel was a most remarkable event in modern Jewish history that heightened the sense of ingathering and Jewish unity. (2) The spectacle of pinkish-white-skinned Ashkenazim of postindustrial Jewish culture, light-brown-skinned Sephardim and Middle Eastern Jews of medieval culture, the varied but often medium-brown-skinned Yemenite Jews of late Second Temple period culture, and the coffee-brown-skinned Beta Israel Ethiopians of First Temple period culture all working together and sharing the burdens and exaltations of defending the Jewish homeland--all this deflated the pernicious international charge that Israel is racist. This extraordinary mosaic (or Mosaic!) was like some ancient prophecy coming true.

But human nature's ingrained xenophobia still threatens to tear apart this precious Jewish unity. Negative reports and pictures of Ethiopian Jews have in the recent years become all too familiar. The story of their ancient Jewish roots, their long history and culture, and their place within world Jewry have been presented as the chronicle of an anomalous or enigmatic people by those who know the subject of Ethiopian and Jewish history only superficially.

Even after the wave of those two great aliyot--Operations Moses and Solomon--the demands by Israel's Ethiopian community for complete recognition remain beclouded. The religious authorities have been forthcoming--witness the 1973 Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's historic responsa to Rasar Hazi Ovadia pertaining to the Beta Israel as well as the more recent strong letter in support of even the Falas Moira, converts to Christianity who want to return to Judaism, by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Amar. (3) Yet many secular academics and politicians, with half-baked theories about Judaism, have been studies in ambivalence and resistance.

What then can we legitimately say about Jewish identity in relation to the Beta Israel, the Jews of Ethiopia? …