The “Jews of Africa” is not a description you often hear. Unless your conversation is taking place with some Afrocentric polemicists who insist, with little or no proof, that black people are the biblical Israelites.
A lot of their conspiracy theories on Jews can sometimes be anti-Semitic.
However, there are Jews of African origin whose identity and culture anthropologists and historians have placed around the 4th century AD. Mostly found in Ethiopia and to a lesser extent, Eritrea, they are called Beta Israel.
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In recent times, Africa’s Jews have made headlines with regards to the problems they face in the Jewish state of Israel. These black men and women have accused Israel of racial discrimination, lack of economic opportunities among others.
But as history shows, the Beta Israel are a people who have faced persecution for over a thousand years.
Beta Israel in the Ge’ez language translates into “House of Israel”. The Beta Israel have been around since the founding of the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Axum (Aksum) in AD 100.
When Axum was founded, it was described by the Greeks as a trading post for ivory. In the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a work on navigation and commercial opportunities for sailors, Axum is identified as a convenient place for trade perhaps because it is not far from the Mediterranean home of the Greeks.
A trading post is by extension a potpourri of cultures. However, we do not know if the Beta Israel is a group of Axumites proselytised by Jewish merchants who visited Axum.
Another theory of the beginning of the Beta Israel is one that is in line with the derogatory name by which they are known, Falasha. The word is from Ethiopian Amharic and it could mean “landless” or “stranger”.
The Beta Israel as a landless wandering people is lent credence by the legend that they migrated from Jerusalem as part of the retinue of Menelik I.
According to the legend, Menelik is the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Whatever their origins, their faith as unique from Christianity and the traditional Ethiopian religion was clear. In the 4th century AD when King Ezana declared that Christianity was Axum’s state religion, the Beta Israel became convenient targets of prosecution.
The Beta Israel had to leave Axum and founded their own kingdom along the modern-day Semien Highlands in northern Ethiopia. The wars with Axum did not end but by the 13th century, the Jewish kingdom in Africa was established.
Marco Polo even mentioned a Jewish kingdom in Africa in the diary of his travels.
Interestingly, the Semien kingdom of Jews was not seen by other established Jewish people as genuinely Jewish. It was not until the 16th century that Egypt’s Chief Rabbi, David Ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra, declared that Ethiopian Jews are genuine.
The discrimination against the Beta Israel will continue for centuries until the establishment of the state of Israel offered a viable refuge.
In 1973, Israel started debating if the Beta Israel were Jews. After two years of arguments among religious leaders, historians and politicians, the Israeli government officially accepted the Beta Israel as Jews.
This acknowledgment was essential because as a state established in the spirit of providing a home for the persecuted race of Jews, Israel had a moral mandate to seek out and aid Jews wherever they may be.
When civil war broke in Ethiopia in 1974, it held the worst consequences for the group of people who have always been collateral damage. Ethiopia’s surrounding countries, including Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Eritrea and Djibouti, in fairness, were not good options for the Beta Israel.
Israel then began covert operations at the beginning of the 1980s to rescue Beta Israel Jews trapped in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. This piece of history is the subject of a Hollywood film, Red Sea Diving Resort.
The mass exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel over two decades was on a massive scale, seeing tens of thousands either rescued by Israel or migrating by themselves.
But for the descendants of Beta Israel who are currently about 2% of Israel’s population, the refuge promised by the Jewish State has been anything but.
Since touching down in Israel, Ethiopian Jews have been reminded of the colour of their skin and how that puts them out of favour. They have been denied economic and political opportunities.
As a people who may perhaps think they have been saved from the worst in Africa, Ethiopian Jews have endured their suffering in silence. But assimilation into Israeli society has become difficult too.
But in 2015, Israel saw the biggest protest of the discrimination faced by Ethiopian Jews. And it turned violent.
As Chatham House’s Yossi Makelberg wrote for the BBC in 2015: “The uncharacteristic violence, seen recently during demonstrations by members of the Ethiopian community in Israel, was a direct result of years of accumulated frustration against the state and especially the police.”
Lack of empathy on the path of “white” Israelis has been mentioned as a root cause of the tensions with black Ethiopian Jews.
Generally, there has not been an acknowledgment of what Ethiopian Jews have had to go through, the depths from which they have had to start in Israel, as well as, the social and political barriers placed in their way.
In all this, Ethiopian Jews have found ways to be part of the Israeli fabric through military service, sports and trades.
Unemployment is still quite high among them because of poor or no education. But things are actually not much better for Ethiopian Jews who graduate from the university in Israel.
For the Beta Israel, the struggle to be accorded the dignity they deserve continues. The journey has taken over a thousand years and there is no victory in sight.