The coercive eviction of Ethiopia’s Beta Israel community, Falasha, from Ethiopia into Israel some 34 years ago was an act of social vandalism.
Both Israel and the United States of America justified the forced relocation of African Jews to Israel on calculated and false accusations of hunger and religious discrimination suffered at the hands of fellow Ethiopian Christians and Muslims.
Years later, the treatment of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel itself has come to light and it has been shown that it is at best racist and at worst—as we now learn—outright scandalous.
For millennia, many African Jewish communities were an integral part of Ethiopia’s social and cultural fabric.
The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, emerged in the Root of Africa (now called the Ethiopian Highlands), the Fertile Crescent, and the Arabian Peninsular.
The people of the Book coexisted and established a rich tapestry of culture and faith: they were part of the core of the historic highland society. Many of these Africans have every reason to be proud of their Jewish Heritage, which they happen to share with many in Israel.
But why uproot such ancient African communities only to re-plant them in Israel?
Israel decided on March 14, 1977 that the Israeli Law of Return applied to the Beta Israel as well in its fullest interpretation of the Law. Hence the Israeli and American governments together mounted Aliyah Operations worldwide to relocate Jews who wanted to return to the homeland.
But again, why relocate the Falasha when Israel was not their homeland? The homeland of the Beta Jews has for millennia, even before there was Israel, been the highlands of Ethiopia.
To this end a short summary of Jewish history as it relates to Africa is warranted since the actions taken by Israeli and American forces in the relocation of the Beta Jews is founded on the false history that Beta Jews emigrated from Israel to Ethiopia. A New York Times Editorial (3/2/1984) went as far as describing some of Africa’s Jews as “a lost tribe that has kept its identity for more than 2,000 years in a remote corner of Africa.”
Historians cannot generally agree on the origins of African Jewish communities but two historical records put the issue at ease. For many in Africa it is not a debate.
First, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Jews themselves “were a race of Sudanese [Black] origin.” Secondly, the Bible itself classifies Africans and Jews together, “Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians [old name of the Sudan] unto me, O children of Israel? saith the Lord” (Amos 9:7). Paul, a black man from the Sudan, is also mistaken for a “Kermite [Old Egyptian]” and declares himself a “Jew” (Acts 21:37-39, 22: 2,3).
That the Jews got their language, religion and culture from the Canaanites and Sumerians through Babylon, is well documented by historians. The original ancient Hebrew alphabet is identical to the Phoenician. And “Semitic languages” are really dialectical variants of some of Eastern Africa’s languages.
Is Israel’s interpretation of their Law of Return correct? Probably. But in the case of the Beta Jews of Ethiopia it was completely unwarranted. If anything at all Africa is the unquestionable homeland of the original Jews.
But in the 1980s, American Jewish groups “discovered” the Falasha and in a series of military-style operations, African Jews were surgically extracted from their ancestral homelands in Ethiopia.
In the mid-1980s, in the clandestine Operation Moses, the Falasha were encouraged to flee secretly from Ethiopia to Sudan, from whence they were airlifted to Israel. The CIA and the Israeli secret service paid millions of dollars to the Sudanese security services to facilitate these operations.
In 1985, following the overthrow of the Nimeiri government, the operations collapsed only to resume in the 1990s which included the major Operation Moses and Operation Joshua. The scariest amongst them was Operation Solomon from Addis Ababa itself.
Why the trouble?
It is worth noting that The Cold War, often dated from 1947 to 1991, was sustained during the same period that the United States was aiding Israel to relocate the Falasha of Ethiopia.
Israel was declared a state on May 14, 1948.
During the 80s, political and military tension between powers in the Western Bloc, dominated by the United States with NATO among its allies, and powers in the Eastern Bloc, dominated by the Soviet Union along with the Warsaw Pact had peaked.
At this time, America was also fighting an ideological battle with the USSR on how for example Africans and people of African descent were perceived in the rest of the world and in America itself.
On the one hand the USSR and its communist government had banned and made racism illegal. On the other hand, the United States while policing the rest of the world with democracy was at loggerheads with its African American populations who felt the shackles of slavery, segregation and institutional racism were still alive and kicking.
To continue to entrench the Statehood of Israel by garnishing worldwide approval of its existence, which the United States has every right to, and to portray an American Society free of racists to the rest of the world, the Falasha, who at the time were being neglected by the Ethiopian government, became easy target for the United States and Israel.
Falasha communities in Ethiopia at the time though were excluded largely from political office and often denied the right to own land never had their collective right taken away. It is true they suffered poverty and marginalization.
However, their collective rights were respected and for the greater part of Ethiopian history they worshipped undisturbed. And indeed there were many other minorities who suffered comparable or greater marginalization from the dominant highland peoples in Ethiopia.
But the situation in Ethiopia made it easy for Israel and the United States to make the case against the Ethiopian government in order to abuse the defenseless Falasha and use their story as propaganda for their own parochial means.
Meanwhile the Falasha in Israel have not been exempt from the supposed ‘horrors’ they had been forcefully relocated away from.
Israeli attitudes towards Ethiopian Jews were at best mixed. There were fierce debates at the outset as to whether they truly constituted Jews or needed to formally undergo conversion to qualify.
African Jews were subjected to racist attitudes by many Israelis especially those newly arriving from the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries. Many Falasha who joined the army where they earned a reputation for fearlessness were still discriminated against.
Investigations carried out by Israeli human rights activists show that institutional racism in Israel was far more disturbing than any form of marginalization they may have experienced in Ethiopia.
Falasha women were given medical examinations by Israel officials and administered the contraceptive drug, Depo Provera, without consent in Sudanese refugee camps prior to arriving in Israel.
This practice continued even after arriving in Israel. Jewish African women, for whom childbearing is the mot fundamental right and also a priceless element of their self-value and social standing, were forcibly and deliberately prevented by Israel Officials from bearing children with Provera.
Parallels from modern history, such as the Australian Programes for preventing Aboriginal women from bearing children, spring to mind. Lawyers would have to peruse through instruments of international law to see which conventions prohibit systematically preventing births among ethnic or racially defined groups.
It is particularly shocking that Israeli Jews, a nation that does not need to be taught about the evils of such xenophobia, are inflicting such violations on one of their own relations because they are black and African!
The Israeli government, without doubt, owes the Falasha community a formal apology and compensation. There should be an official inquiry and those found to be responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. If Israeli domestic law is not up to the task, there are international courts available.
More importantly, the Ethiopian Beta Israel should be welcomed back home to Africa. Those who wish to remain in Israel are of course perfectly entitled to do so. But those who wish to resume Ethiopian citizenship, or to acquire dual nationality, should be able to do so.
Israel and Ethiopia must find a way to restore the Falasha to their former villages and synagogues, and should commission legal experts to explore the best way of ensuring that their individual and collective rights are fully protected under the constitution.
The extraction of the Falasha from Ethiopia to Israel remains a dark chapter in African history, which will not be forgotten. As a continent we are poorer, deprived of their cultural and historical legacy. As a nation, Ethiopia must be and should be shamed by the cynical way in which her leaders marginalized them.
Additionally, Ethiopian Jews have now become victims of this horribly rushed relocation, at best unwitting, at worst coerced. It is not surprising that people who have undergone such an uprooting are traumatized and prone to become social casualties.
The revelation that the Israeli state has systematically violated the rights of the Falasha in the most sinister manner, betraying the trust that the Beta Israel put in that government, is a signal that this wrong needs to be righted.
The Israeli government has the most immediate obligations to restore the Falasha to their original homes with dignity.