From Falashas to Ethiopian Jews: The External Influences for Change C. 1860-1960

By Semi, Emanuela Trevisan | Shofar, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

From Falashas to Ethiopian Jews: The External Influences for Change C. 1860-1960


Semi, Emanuela Trevisan, Shofar


From Falashas to Ethiopian Jews: The External Influences for Change c. 1860-1960, by Daniel Summerfield. London and New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003. 226 pp. $65.00.

The main purpose of this book is to show the construction and the development of the concept of an "Ethiopian Jew," starting from the action of Jacques Faitlovitch, the person who was instrumental and fundamental in creating a process of change of the Falashas/Beta Israel in Ethiopia.

The book presents a few introductory chapters devoted to the "discovery" of the Falashas and to the work of the protestant missionaries, starting from the first half of the 19th century until the arrival of Jacques Faitlovitch in Ethiopia in 1904. The book is devoted to Faitlovitch, the Polish Jew who studied Semitic languages in Paris and who as a follower of Joseph Halévi, organized many missions in Ethiopia, planning educational activities in favor of the Beta Israel of Ethiopia. The book deals with the impact of Faitlovitch's work on the Beta Israel on the background of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. The main thesis of the author is that the impact of education on Falashas was altogether limited, as can be evinced from the low figures of Beta Israel students enrolled in Faitlovitch's school in Addis Ababa, a school that had been opened in 1923 and that continued to exist until the end of Italian occupation in 1941. It is certainly true that there were few pupils in the Beta Israel school in Addis, especially because of its distance from the villages where the Beta Israel lived; however, its symbolic impact was relevant and full of significance to the extent that we can still find today proof of its impact among the Ethiopian elite in Israel. Another main argument which is developed in the book concerns the issue of the supposed persecutions suffered by the Falashas during the Italian occupation. Summerfield correctly claims that the sufferings of the Falashas during the Italian occupation (as in the case of the massacre of 33 Falashas in Mereba) depended not so much upon their being Jews as upon their work in favor of the Ethiopian patriots. The author writes that Falashas were divided into two groups during the Italian occupation, those who collaborated with the Italian authorities-and therefore who benefited from such a collaboration-and those who opposed the occupiers and who supported the resistance movement. Moreover, Summerfield claims that such a division among the Falashas occurred not so much along ideological lines as according to a geographical divide: in those areas controlled by Italians, Falashas supported the fascists. …

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