Round One: These people wore kippot and were called Zionists. Keepers of Sabbath and kashrut. Victims of incessant persecution with a history of forced familial separation and displacement. Their norm became enslavement and hate-imposed exile.
Familiar with this group of people? Perhaps your ancestors? Picture what they looked like. Beards and black coats? A sheitel and long skirt?
Round Two: These people were guided by Torah and comforted by ancient memories of the heights of Jerusalem. Carrying strong Jewish identities, they’re from a country on the horn of Africa, and have curly hair and black skin.
Now, “Guess That Ancestry.”
Answer: Ethiopian Jews.
Did your guess differ between Rounds? Perhaps preconceived notions of how a Jew looks colored your conclusion.
Jews were (until Israel) a nomadic people (typically not by choice) dispersed throughout the world. We look, dress, speak, pray and follow customs differently.
Pay heed to the lesser discussed, but equally difficult struggle of the Ethiopian Jews’ quest for freedom:
“Beta Israel”—the house of Israel—as the Ethiopian Jews called themselves, had enjoyed relative independence until the Middle Ages.
Skip over a thousand years of Ethiopian Jewry being conquered, waves of violent acts throughout their country, and captured Jews sold as salves and forced to be baptized.
Finally, precipitated by rebel army attacks in 1991, the Ethiopian’s situation became top priority in Israel. Israeli government authorized special permits to Israeli airline El Al to fly on Shabbat, initiating Operation Solomon.
Beginning Friday, May 24, 1991, 34 jumbo jets and Hercules C-130s—stripped of their cabin seats to accommodate the maximum amount of Ethiopians—flew nonstop for 36 hours, rescuing 14,324 Ethiopian Jews who resettled in Israel, launching a journey towards freedom.
Today, Israel is home to the largest Beta Israel community in the world with roughly 140,000 Ethiopian Jewish citizens. They contribute to every part of mainstream Israeli society, including religious life, education, the military and politics.
Yet, similar to the common rifts between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in Israel, tension exists between Jews of Ethiopian descent to their fellow Israelis. Ethiopian Jews have the same rights and responsibilities as any other Jew in Israel, but face aspects of racism nonetheless.
Treating fellow Jews differently based on appearance is antithetical to Jewish values. Notably, the hardships of our forebears, regardless of their appearance, were engendered by strikingly similar oppressors. Another Jew’s appearance may not mirror yours, but the underlying root of their ancestors’ oppression does.
It’s human nature to judge others. We utilize distinct physical indicators when we assess others. The High Holidays recently offered a formal opportunity to identify ways to improve our behavior. Certainly, an obtainable goal is working to better ourselves before judging others.
The Zionist and Jewish imperative of safely bringing our Ethiopian brethren to Israel is laudable. No individual, or society, is perfect. However, with a majority of Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel, we are that much closer to understanding the incredible diversity of our ancestry, and must continue to acknowledge that the color of one’s skin does not define the power of one’s Judaism.
Adam Chester graduated from UCSD with a degree in Psychology and is the NextGen Outreach & Engagement Coordinator at JFFS.