On Wednesday August 28th, two aircrafts touched down at the Israeli airport in Tel Aviv carrying 450 Ethiopian Jews: the last of an official government operation, which began as early as 1979, to bring these compatriots (also known as Beta Israel which in Hebrew means "the house of Israel") to Israel. Since Operation Moses (1984), Solomon (1991) and other operational missions, the Ethiopian Jewish community has been thoroughly absorbed into Israeli culture and life. But tension about their lineage and theology remains a topic of debate.
While some believe that the Ethiopian Jews are the offspring of King Solomon of Israel and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, others posit that this community's roots date back even further, to the tribe of Dan. Whatever theory one maintains, the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) understand its lineage as dating back to biblical times, as their brand of Judaism also reflects.
Often times given the pejorative designation Falasha (exiles, stranger, or migrant), these Jewish descendants are met with suspicion largely by those of European descent. The presence of Ethiopian Jews in the Holy Land is not something out of the ordinary. Dark skinned peoples of African descent have long occupied Palestine and the surrounding regions. Some of the oldest and uninterrupted Jewish communities exist in Palestine, now modern Israel, as well as in Eastern and Southern Africa, as well as modern Iraq (ancient Babylon). As scripture illustrates, both Judaism and Christianity date their origins to the continent of Africa (see Genesis 2:13 and Acts 8:26-39).
I remember when I visited Israel in the summer of 2011. I had an opportunity to visit an Ethiopian absorption camp where Ethiopian born Jews new to the country were temporarily placed (which resembled a type of detainment or detention center) to gradually acclimatize to Israeli culture and life.
The camp which I visited, in the Northern part of Jerusalem, housed entire Ethiopian families. The daily schedule consisted of classes, for both adults and children, where they were taught about Israeli society, culture and a different form of Judaism than that know by the Ethiopians, namely Rabbinic Judaism, also referred to as Orthodox. One young Ethiopian sister told me of the tension the Ethiopian Jews have with this brand of Judaism not necessarily being biblical.
"The Ethiopian Jews are biblical Jews" she exclaimed, "who can date their Jewish ancestry at least ten generations back and can trace their lineage to the biblical King Solomon of Israel and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba." This Ethiopian young lady mentioned that besides their biblical understanding of Judaism, opposed to the Ashkenazi (the European Jews) who embrace a rabbinical form of Judaism, many of her forefathers had never seen white Jews (and frankly did not know they existed) when they first encountered them during the Israeli operations to the Sudan (formerly the region known as ancient Nubia) and Ethiopia. Other Jews of African descent, like the Lemba tribe in Southern Africa, many of which have Aaronic priestly DNA, can be dated to the time of Moses and his brother Aaron.
Such deep African descended roots beg for a more transparent examination of the Jewish, as well as Christian, roots of African descended people of Israel and Africa.
[Jamal-Dominique Hopkins (Ph.D., University of Manchester, U.K.) is C.E.O. of the non-profit Christian think tank, the Institute for Advanced African American Christian Thought (IAAACT). He is the author of Thinking Out Loud: Thoughts and Reflections on Life, Faith, Culture and Crisis (Journal Publication, 2013), and "Duty or Responsibility? The African American Evangelical's Identity" in the Journal of African American Christian Thought (2009). Hopkins is available for preaching, speaking or conducting workshops or seminars. To contact him or to contribute to IAAACT, phone 626-354-8438 or visit www.iaaact.weebly.com.]