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The Invention Of The Ethiopian Jews

May 7, 2015

The Invention of Ethiopian Jews


In an era of dramatic changes for ethnic groups and nations, few peoples hâve been as completely transformed as the Beta Israël (Falasha).1 Prior to 1977 ail but a handful of Beta Israël lived in Ethiopia. During the 1980s almost half of them came on aliyah (immigration to Israël), and the center of Beta Israël life shifted from Ethiopia to Israël. In 1991 “Opération Solomon” put an end to the Beta Israël as an active and living Ethiopian community, and by the end of 1992 virtually ail Beta Israël were in Israël.

The changes undergone by the Beta Israël hâve not been limited, however, to their physical relocation. The past décade and a half has also seen a radical redéfinition of both their self-identity and the way in which they are depicted by outsiders.

The purpose of the first part of this paper is to consider three perspectives on Beta Israël identity. It begins with a summary of récent historical-anthropological opinions on the Beta Israël that are heavily influenced by African and, in particular, Ethiopian studies. It then considers the manner in which the Beta Israël are portrayed in Jewish and Israeli sources. Finally, through an exam-ination of their stories of origin and the names they use, it explores the way in which the Beta Israël themselves are redefining their self-image.

In the second part of this paper, the dynamics of and the relationships between models will be considered.  In particular, an attempt will be made to understand the manner in which récent events are reflected not only in a transformation of the way in which they are perceived, but also in the development of new linkages between the different models.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at a symposium (in Hebrew), Turning Points in Modem Jewish History, sponsored by the Institute of Jewish Studies of the Hebrew University of Jérusalem and at a workshop entitled Ethnicity, National Identity and the Invention of the Past sponsored by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute. I would like to thank ail the participants for their comments. Professor Bogumil Jewsiewicki, Dr Daphna Golan, and Professor Irène Eber also offered valuable comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

As we shall discuss in some détail, each of the names used to designate the Beta Israël has its own history. In Ethiopia, the members of the group usually referred to themselves as Beta Israël (“The House of Israël”) or simply Israël. They were more widely known as Falasha. Today, they prefer to be called Ethiopian Jews. Ethiopian names and words hâve been transcribed as in Kaplan 1992. For simplicity sake, however, Falasha has been rendered as Falasha, and Beta Israël as Beta Israël.


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