An Ethiopian Jew's Struggle to Save His People
By Baruch Tegegne
As told to Phyllis Schwartzman Pinchuk
Gefen Publishing House, 2008, 218 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 8, 2009
No one knows the origin of the Ethiopian Jews. Some scholars believe that these Jews travelled to Ethiopia in 586 B.C.E., when the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, other think they arrived after the Second Temple's destruction in 70 C.E. Others are convinced that they are remnant of Israelites who settled in Ethiopia during the reign of King Solomon when Queen Sheba returned to the area after visiting the king.
Africans call these Jews Falashas, meaning "outsiders," because their practices differ radically from other Ethiopians, but they call themselves "Bet Yisrael," the house of Israel.
The Bet Yisrael had a thriving kingdom in the tenth century with about a million citizens. But in the seventeenth century the kingdom was conquered. Their land was confiscated, and they were forbidden ever after to own land in Ethiopia. Many of these Jews were sold into slavery. Many were forced to convert to Christianity. During the next centuries, Christian missionaries traveled to Ethiopia because they felt that it was their divine duty to convert the survivors, and they were frequently successful.
The Bet Yisrael people love the Bible and follow biblical laws as they understand them. They knew nothing of rabbinic teachings until their first contact with European Jewry in the nineteenth century, since they arrived in Ethiopia before the writing of the Mishnah and Midrashim. Thus, for example, while Rabbinic Judaism understands Deuteronomy 14:21, and the other two verses where it is mentioned, "Thou shalt not seeth a kid in its mother's milk," as a prohibition against eating foods where milk and dairy are mixed together, the Bet Yisrael take the verse literally: one is forbidden to cook a baby animal while it is still nursing; that is, until it is at least a year old.
Baruch Tegegne was born in one of the five hundred Jewish villages in Ethiopia in 1944. He tells how the Bet Yisrael people lived and about some of their superstitions. He is quarantined for nine months because some superstitious people believed that he is afflicted by demons. Baruch's grandfather, who is raising him, insists that this superstition is contrary to Jewish teachings, but his wife overrules him. This belief in demons is downplayed in America, but sociological studies have revealed that over seventy percent of Americans believe in the existence of demons and that they affect people's lives. Many Americans also modify their behavior because of this belief.
Baruch relates how the Bet Yisrael people observe the Jewish holidays and other Jewish practices in a fashion that is very similar to how they are kept by other Jews. Obviously, as is the case with Jews living in different countries some practices differ. Most strikingly, the Bet Yisrael consider husbands and wives to be equal, either could divorce the other. Husbands wear rings to show that they are bound to their wives. Unfortunately, many non-Bet Yisrael Jews are convinced, because of the rabbinical interpretation of a biblical verse, that only a man can initiate a divorce; as a result many Jewish wives are abandoned and unable to remarry.
Baruch and other Jews suffer greatly in Ethiopia and later, when he leaves, as well. When he is eleven years old, in 1955, he is one of about a dozen children chosen to travel to Israel to study. He remains in Israel at that time until age nineteen. "Unfortunately," he writes, "the Israeli kids never ceased to ridicule and torment us. How depressing it was for us to discover their racial prejudice." He has to defend himself by fighting and breaks his thumb, which never heals. He wants to attend college after high school, but is not allowed to do so, probably due to prejudice, but he is trained in agriculture. As a result, while he was very religious before he arrived in Israel, he rejects it in Israel. Yet he never abandons his lifelong "goal to do something important for Israel."
He returns to Ethiopia and uses his knowledge about agriculture to become successful in business. However in 1974, the government of Haile Selassie is overthrown. There "was sheer anarchy." The new government is against all religion and clamps down on Jews because they are the weakest group. They forbid Jewish education and Jewish religious practices.
Baruch escapes and makes his way to Israel. It takes him two years and eight months. After his strenuous efforts, Baruch arrives in Israel, the Promised Land, the land of freedom for all Jews, and encounters discrimination because he is black. He is denied admission into Israel. He pleads with the officials: "I have come all the way to Israel to seek refuge from Ethiopian oppression. My people have suffered for thousands of years to maintain our religion. We were always sustained by the hope of returning to Jerusalem. My papers are in order and this bureaucrat is not letting me enter. If you don't want blacks here, you should put up a big sign saying 'NO BLACKS ALLOWED.'"
He is finally allowed to enter Israel, but faces many despicable acts of discrimination. "Every day," he writes, "I encountered some sign of prejudice." Among many others, he and a white woman fall in love and want to marry, but despite going through the recognized Orthodox conversion ceremony to assure that he is Jewish, because the rabbis are unsure that Ethiopian Jews are Jewish, rabbis refuse to marry them, and the couple is forced to live together unmarried.
Baruch joins the Israeli army and encounters prejudice there as well. "Nearly every day something happened to upset me." After his army duty, he tries again to help his people. No government helps him rescue them. As a result many thousands of Jews die. Baruch begins to show Israel, Canada and the U. S. that he, he alone, without governmental support, can save his tormented people. He succeeds in saving hundreds by buying them out of Ethiopia. Some who are saved are so insulted by the way the Israeli government treated them that they settle in Germany, not Israel. One man who is forced to return to Africa hangs himself.
People should read how Baruch finally got people in the U. S. to listen, how it was discovered that one source of the problem was pure ignorance on the part of bureaucratic leaders of the plight of Ethiopian Jews, how Ethiopians Jews themselves were split into factions and how they frustrated Baruch and hindered help. People should also read how this hero's work to save his people affected his wife and his own health.
There were other problems. The Israeli government does not want to use Ethiopian blood in transfusions. Ethiopians follow the ancient biblical practice of slaughtering a calf on Passover Eve, and this is counter to Israeli law.
Finally in 1984 Israel airlifts eight thousand Ethiopian Jews. Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan orders the CIA to airlift another two thousand to Israel. But about fifteen hundred are left behind. It is not until 1991 and the payment of thirty-five million dollars to Ethiopia that "14,310 Ethiopians were delivered from oppression to the yearned-for Holy Land." The total saved is about 37,000 Jews.
This tragic drama is written in a very readable and interesting manner. It should be read by all people, Jews and non-Jews, so that they can learn about a group of human beings who suffered unnecessarily, who were discriminated against by people who should have helped them.