Are Falashans (Black Ethiopians) Jews? or Native Ethiopian tribe?
Ethiopia is an extremely complex web of different societies, ruled by ancient traditions. Its modernization has long been denied by the endless rule of Emperor Haile Sellassie and is still in its early start. The Falashas, whose role in Ethiopian history is well known, never presented themselves as Jews before some missionaries and European travellers got interested in them and their religious particularism, from 1860 onwards. Physically similar to other Ethiopian highlanders, the Falashas once spoke an Agaw language of the Kushitic stock of which Galla and Somali are also part; they dropped it around the XVI-XVII centuries and adopted the Amharic language, of Semitic origin, spoken by the Christian aristocracy and used in government business. The only liturgical language they know is Geez which happens to play the same role in the Ethiopian Christian Church. The Falashas completely ignore Hebrew or Aramean as well as the Mishna and the Talmudic tradition which are the framework into which all historical Jewish communities developped. On the other hand, besides the Old Testament (in Geez), they own Apocryphal Books which are, or have been part of the body of the Sacred Books of the Ethiopian Church, before the XII century and King Zara Yaqob XV century religious reforms. These books are also found in other Oriental churches. The Falashas add to them many other beliefs of typical Ethiopian origin, including female excision. They are obviously "separated" Christians (falasha means separated) who extended their rigorous observance of the Old Testament precepts to the point of rejecting the New one. They are obsessed by purification and consider regular Christians as abjectly impure. Outside of the Books, they maintained a religious organization close to the Church one, including priests (who are not rabbis) and monks. That would make the only one instance of a Jewish monkhood.
No one knows exactly in what particular circumstances Falashas started to grow a singular identity with their own brand of religion. It probably happened between the X and XII centuries at the outcome of a long dynastic crisis, in the particulars of which I shall not enter here; one may note it coincided with the political decline of the peoples who carried Agaw culture. They did not altogether disappear since several Agaw-speaking groups of various religious denominations are still in existence. It is common knowledge that, from among all Christian Churches, the monophysitic Church of Ethiopia is the closest to the Old Testament tenets; this led many authors to call it "judaizing".1
The Negus (Emperor) always claimed the direct ancestry of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Falashas, having entered into a struggle against the Church which was the backbone of the State (our Middle Age called it the Kingdom of Prester John) returned to a narrow understanding of the Old Testament, thus inventing for themselves a judaism which they probably held as having disappeared from the face of the earth. If they had meant to identify with the real Jews, it was easy to get acquainted with the Talmud by borrowing it from the Jews settled in neighboring Yemen. They were only doing what happened so many times in the history of Chritianity, a return to "orthodoxy". Everyone of course claim to maintain the real one. As a consequence, the Falashas are not Jewish, historically speaking: they are schismatics geared onto the Old Testament. They are neither the first nor the last to take that road. The Reformation itself has something to do with it.2
Evangelical missionaries and travellers fond of exoticism are mainly responsible for the invention, at the end of the last century, of the story of the "Black Jews".3
It might well be possible that some Falashas allowed themselves to be convinced thay had a vested interest in supporting the story. For them, Israel could only look like what they read in the Bible. Hence the disappointment they are now going to experience. Back in Ethiopia, as one minority in a sea of minorities, engaged mostly in handicraft (well appreciated smiths, potters, bricklayers, etc.) they could find useful to enjoy the support of powerful foreign protectors. Nevertheless, it is rather strange that the State of Israel, when it had all the means, when it was so close to the Imperial regime as to be able to use secret navy facilities in the Ethiopian Dahlak archipelago of the Red Sea, did nothing to attract the Falashas and was even rather hostile to the idea of aknowledging their possible "Jewishness". As we learn from Le Monde (Jan. 5, 85) the possibility for them to claim the benefit of the "Law of Return"-- a rather mythical one as we see-- was granted to the Falashas only in 1975. It then happened after the revolution and the old despot's fall and the subsequent decline of Israeli influence in the country. It is precisely at the time when other sources of immigration to Israel are drying up, when outmigration is in the rise, that one suddenly discovers an untapped reservoir of "Jews" on the African continent. The action of some Zionist groups in the US come into play with no surprise. Rabbis remain distrustful since they impose to the newcomers a ceremony of "renewal" of their faith which comes as a shock to them.
The Great Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph gave them the Jewish stamp when he declared the Falashas to be descending from the (lost) tribe of Dan. This is a ridiculous allegation, devoid of any kind of factual basis. There is a need, at each stage of this "Operation Moses", to resort to historical lies. Because all this leads back to the central question at the heart of the very existence of Israel: who is Jewish? And above all: who decides about it? Some converts are rejected. People who do not want to be Jewish are nevertheless claimed as such. Already in the Bible, this question is used as a guideline to justify the extermination of the Canaanite tribes. Today the "Law of Return" is the necessary balance for the landgrabing and the massacre of the Palestinian people.
The most vicious is to call "humanitarian" this operation, engineered as it is by the Israeli secret service known as Mossad which has not been so far known for its charitable activities. The Falashas will provide cheap labor, to be fully exploited as their assimilation will prove difficult. This will further depress the Arab labor market. The sudden introduction of a new layer of destitute workers will pull downwards the whole social structure and help to consolidate the authoritarian trends already visible under Begin, "king of Israel". The Jews who come from the Arab countries, already nicely dubbed "the Blacks", would do well to be careful.
The atrocious misery which befell millions of people in the drought-ridden tropical lands of Africa is turned into a profit. How could such a high politically motivated discrimination among the victims of the drought solve the huge humanitarian problems it so cruelly raises? How many children could have survived with the 300 million US dollars this absurd exodus is costing? The uprooted Falashas, thrown into a harsh world that will hurt them, even in their religious beliefs, will have lost their family, their motherland, rich and diverse Ethiopia which undergoes difficulties we hope are only transitory. The real winners are not the Falashas.