The coercive eviction of Ethiopia’s Beta Israel community was an act of societal vandalism, whose stated justifications of hunger and religious discrimination are false. The treatment of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel has been at best shabby and at worst—as we now learn—outright scandalous. It is now time for both Ethiopia and Israel to apologize to the Beta Israel for how they have been treated and offer them the right to return to their Ethiopian homeland, with suitable compensation and guarantees on their personal and collective rights.
For millennia, Jewish communities were an integral part of Ethiopia’s social and cultural fabric. Over many hundreds of years, the three Abrahamic religions emerged in the fertile crescent, the Arabian peninsular and the Ethiopian highlands. 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. Ethiopians have every reason to be proud of our Jewish heritage.
Historians cannot agree on the origins of the Ethiopian Jewish communities, who called themselves Beta Israel and who were widely known as Falasha to other Ethiopians. Some claim that they were a lost tribe of Israel who migrated from Israel in the centuries before Christ. Others argue that there were numerous proto-Hebraic religions on both sides of the Red Sea, and some of their communities of followers embraced Judaism in historic times. Another explanation is that when Ethiopians adopted Christianity and started reading the Bible, they needed to find Jews who could fill that important role in the Holy Book, and so insisted that their Agaw neighbours, practitioners of these same Hebraic religions, were in fact Jews. Such stories of origin are all unproven, and none have any bearing on the devotion with which the Beta Israel practiced their faith.
There is no doubt that our Falasha communities were subject to discrimination, excluded from political office and often denied the right to own land. They suffered poverty and marginalization. However, their collective rights were respected and for the great majority of our history they worshipped undisturbed. And indeed there were many other minority peoples who suffered comparable or greater discrimination from the dominant highland peoples, including the pastoral nomads, Agaw groups such as the Qemant of northern Gondar, and the peoples of the western and southern frontiers who were historically subjected to enslavement.
One of the great achievements of the last forty years has been the decisive abolition of feudal and racial hierarchies in Ethiopia: we are all Ethiopian citizens, equal before the law. It is true that social attitudes can take longer to change, but the many formerly marginalized peoples are now respected by the constitution, and indeed given special rights for the protection of their languages, cultures and faiths. Had the Beta Israel remained at home, there is absolutely no question that they would enjoy protection under the constitution and all the rights extended to other minority nationalities and ethnic and religious groups. Their genuine grievances would have been redressed through the country’s post-1991 democratic renewal.
Historical accident dictated otherwise. In the 1980s, American Jewish groups searching for “lost tribes” discovered the Falasha. In a series of military-style operations, Ethiopia’s Jews were surgically extracted from their ancestral lands. In the mid-1980s, in the clandestine Operation Moses, Jews were encouraged to flee secretly 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 this operation, which collapsed following the overthrow of the Nimeiri government in 1985. Israel subsequently cut secret deals with the Mengistu regime, supplying it with weapons such as cluster bombs (which were used to bombard Massawa after it was captured by the EPLF), in exchange for allowing the Falasha to leave. Knowing just how useful were these Jewish hostages, Mengistu carefully maintained the exodus as a slow trickle, extorting arms in return. As the EPRDF closed in on Addis Ababa, thousands of Falashas congregated in Addis Ababa, and a central component of the American diplomacy that encouraged Mengistu to flee and recognized the Transitional Government headed by the EPRDF, was the melodramatic flight of these people to Israel on board airliners with their seats ripped out so as to accommodate larger numbers of passengers. A few hundred remained behind and the EPRDF quietly let them depart over the following months.
None of these movements were without suffering. During the famine of 1984, the Falasha lived in one of the few well-watered areas of the northern highlands, where the impact of the hunger was muted. But the trek to Sudan and the life in the Sudanese camps was a terrible experience and many died. Later on the conditions of the Jews encamped around the Israeli embassy in makeshift shacks was deplorable, and their rushed flights to Israel were surely traumatic experiences.
Israeli attitudes towards the Ethiopian Jews were at best mixed. There was fierce debate at the outset as to whether they truly constituted Jews or needed formally to undergo conversion to qualify. They were subjected to racist attitudes by many Israelis, especially those newly arriving from the former Soviet Union and eastern bloc countries. Many Falasha joined the army, where they earned a reputation for fierceness. It is sad to see how many young Ethiopian Jews have become brutalized in this manner.
Now we have learned, from investigations carried out by Israeli human rights activists, that racist treatment was far more disturbing than everyday discrimination. Beginning from the time when Falasha women were given medical examinations in Sudanese refugee camps, they were administered the contraceptive drug Depo Provera without consent. This practice continued after arrival in Israel. Ethiopian Beta Israel women, for whom childbearing is the mot fundamental right and also a priceless element of their self-value and social standing, were being forcibly prevented from bearing children. Members of the community had long suspected that something was wrong, as their birthrate was too low. We now know it was deliberate: an officially orchestrated programme to prevent births and keep their numbers low.
Parallels from modern history such as Australian programmes of preventing Aboriginal women from bearing children spring to mind. Lawyers will peruse 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 which does not need to be taught about the evils of such practices, are inflicting such violations on one of their own communities.
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.
The Ethiopian state also owes the Beta Israel and apology. While the most egregious excesses were committed by the previous government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the current EPRDF government has preferred to close its eyes to the issue. And irrespective of which government perpetrated the violations, the state has a responsibility to its current and former citizens. Ethiopia may not be in a position to offer financial compensation to the Beta Israel, but it can offer them citizenship, and the status of a specially protected minority under the Federal Constitution.
The Ethiopian Beta Israel should be welcomed home. 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. Ethiopia should seek a way to restore to them some of 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 remains a dark chapter in our history which we should not forget. As a nation we are poorer, deprived of their cultural and historical legacy. As a nation we are shamed by the cynical way in which our leaders exploited them for money and weapons. Most importantly, the Ethiopian Jews have become victims of this 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 their rights in the most sinister manner, betraying the trust that the Beta Israel put in that government as their protector, is a signal that this historic wrong needs to be righted. The Israeli government has the most immediate obligations to restore the Falashas’ rights.
The Ethiopian government also has its responsibilities to shoulder. As part of Ethiopia’s renaissance, the government should break its silence, should speak out on behalf of its own children in an adopted land, and should extend to them the right and opportunity of return.
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