The relationship between Ethiopia and Jews is complex enough to fill entire books, so don’t consider this post as a comprehensive source on this matter.
Most of y’all have probably heard of the Falashas. The State of Israel airlifted most of them to Israel during the 1980s and early 1990s, and it’s questionable if any remain in Ethiopia today. While in Lalibela, one man identified himself, to me, as “Falasha,” but I was later told that such tall tales are commonly told to tourists. As to the question of whether the Falashas are true ethnic Jews, I remain agnostic.
There is an undercurrent of animosity toward Jews in Ethiopia. This is due to the commonly held belief that a Jewish queen destroyed most of the holy city of Aksum centuries ago. I’ll quote the Jewish Encyclopedia:
In the tenth century a Jewish queen named “Judith” (or “Esther” or “Terdaë-Gobaz”), at the head of the Falashas of the province of Semien, appears to have dethroned a king of Abyssinia at Axum, and to have established a dynasty which occupied the throne for about three centuries. Joseph Halévy has doubted this story, and not without cause, as further researches have shown. Under the rule of Amda-Seyon I. (1314-44) Jews dwelt in Semien, Wogara, Ṣalamt, and Ṣagade. One of this king’s generals suppressed a rebellion in Begameder, inhabited by Christians converted to Judaism. A Falasha revolt took place under Isḥaḳ (1412-29). The reign of Zara’ Ya’eḳob (1434-68) was also troubled by a rebellion of Amba-Nahad, the governor of Salamant; of Sagay, governor of Semien; and of Kantiba, all of whom had abjured Christianity and become Jews. The latter were then rigorously persecuted, as also under one Marḳos, general of Baeda-Maryam (1468-78), son of Zara’ Ya’eḳob.
The very name of Queen Judith (pronounced “Yodit” in Amharic) is held in disdain to this day. But this animosity does not appear to translate into resentment toward modern Jews. Ethiopia is a popular tourist destination for Israelis, and there are direct flights from Tel Aviv to Addis Ababa. Although one Israeli tourist told me they’re warned that it’s best to keep their Jewish ethnicity discreet, I’m not aware of any attacks specifically against Jews in Ethiopia. I never kept my Jewishness a secret, and if ever it came up, I got a smile and a handshake.
Israel helps Ethiopia in the agricultural sector, and has provided emergency food aid in the past. When I encountered a native (in the south) wearing a Hebrew t-shirt, his explanation was that he got it from Israelis who were there on an agricultural project:
In my view, Israel’s policy of helping Africans help themselves in their own lands, while preventing the mass migration of Africans into Israel, is the correct one.
If you’ve read my earlier post, about my encounter with a Rastafarian, you may recall that he cited biblical evidence for the significance of Ethiopia. Though a country by the name of “Kush” is mentioned in the Bible, and this is typically translated as “Ethiopia,” the matter is anything but clear.
For starters, the very term “Ethiopia” had different meanings in ages past. From Wikipedia:
The name Ethiopia also occurs in many translations of the Old Testament, but the Hebrew texts have Kush, which refers principally to Nubia. In the New Testament, however, the Greek term Aithiops, ‘an Ethiopian’, does occur, referring to a servant of Candace or Kentakes, possibly an inhabitant of Meroe which was later conquered and destroyed by the Kingdom of Axum. The earliest attested use of the name Ityopya in the region itself is as a name for the Kingdom of Aksum in the 4th century, in stone inscriptions of King Ezana, who first Christianized the entire apparatus of the kingdom.
In the book of Samuel2 18:21, it says:
Yoab said to the Kushite, “Go tell the king what you have seen.” So the Kushite bowed down to Yoab and ran…
The commentary of Rabenu Dawid ben Qimhi (a noteworthy Spanish rabbi 1160-1235) explains:
He was from the children of Kush, and he converted. Or it’s possible that he was Jewish, but black like a Kushite, and that’s why they would call him “Kushite.”
Among Mideastern Jews in Israel, a person can be referred to as “blackish” (sheharhor) even if he’s darker than average, or of brown complexion. Such a person can also be likened to a “Kushi.” I have no idea how far back this usage goes.
The Bible also mentions Tirhaka, king of Kush (Kings 2 19:9). King Tirhaka is described as leading an army to meet King Sennacherib of Assyria – but Assyria and modern-day Ethiopia were too far apart to have been any threat to each other, at least in my opinion. So this is more evidence that the Biblical “Kush” was not what we now call Abyssinia or Ethiopia.
It was a Christian Aksumite army that crushed the Jewish kingdom of Himyar in the 6th century. From Wikipedia:
The Jewish monarchy in Ḥimyar continued for several decades, with one interruption. It finally ended with the reign of Yṳsuf, known as Dhū Nuwās, who in 523 attacked the Christian population of Najrān.  (These events, long attested to by Syriac, Greek, and Arabic sources, had until recently been largely dismissed by Western scholars as implausible, but recent discoveries of period inscriptions seem to leave little doubt regarding the historicity of the sources). Word of the slaughter eventually reached the negus of Axum, who invaded Ḥimyar in 525, conquering it and deposing Yūsuf. Ethiopian Jewish tradition describes a second Jewish kingdom that arose soon after, the Kingdom of Semien.
According to Ethiopian folklore, which many of them truly believe, their nation was founded by the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. They had a son, whose name was Menalik. He founded a dynasty, which ruled, with few interruptions, until 1974. Here’s a more full account of the Ethiopian tradition:
Whilst it cannot be proved that the Queen of Sheba had a son with King Solomon, but there is evidence of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem, in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, the First Book of Kings, chapter 10, verses 1 – 10 says:
The queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame and came to test him with hard questions…
When Menelik grew up (about 22 years old), he asked his mother who his father was and told him that it was King Solomon of Israel. Menelik told his mother that he wanted to go to visit his father in Jerusalem. He went to Jerusalem to visit his father and Solomon received him with great honour. Menelik stayed with his father in Jerusalem and learnt the Law of Moses for 3 years. Menelik looked very like his father, which confused the Israelites as they had difficulty in telling the difference between Solomon and Menelik. Because of this confusion they complained to King Solomon and asked him to send Menelik home. King Solomon said if they wanted him to send his son back home the high priests would have to send their oldest son and 1000 people from each tribe of Israel with Menelik. The high priests agreed to send their oldest son and 1000 people from each tribe with Menelik.
Menelik then returned to Aksum, amongst those accompanying him was Azariah the son of the high priest (Zadok) of the temple of Jerusalem. Before the journey Azariah had a dream that told him to take the Ark of the Covenant with him to Ethiopia. Azariah did what the dream told him to do and he stole the Ark from the Temple, putting in its place a copy. Azariah told Menelik what he had done and Menelik was angry with him but Azariah convinced Menelik to take the Ark with them. Zadok, the high priest of the Temple, discovered the Ark’s disappearance and informed King Solomon. King Solomon and his army followed Menelik but could not catch him. Whilst this was taking place Solomon dreamt that his son should have the Ark and he returned to Jerusalem and ordered his high Priests to keep its disappearance a secret.
On his return to Ethiopia, Menelik founded the “Solomonic Dynasty” and the Aksumite kingdom adopted Judaism and the Law of Moses. The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon as mentioned in the Holy Bible signifies to the Ethiopians their claim to be direct descendants of the “Solomonic Dynasty”. This shows that Judaic culture was established and followed in Ethiopia since the reign of King Menelik. When the Aksumite kingdom accepted the arrival of Christianity, during the reign of King Ezana in the fourth century, the Felashas (Beta Israel or Ethiopian Jews) refused to accept Christianity and continued to practise Judaism, which they still do today.
It’s always seemed to me that this legend is fanciful, and was perhaps an attempt to explain (among other things) the typical Ethiopian appearance, which differs from the appearance of most Africans around them. But they do have some pieces of evidence to back up their claim.
Evidence that “Sheba” (as in the Queen of Sheba) was in Ethiopia, can be had from the reputed remains of her palace near Aksum. This is one of the sites I visited while there:
Actually, they claim that her palace is located underneath the ruins we see above. Archeological evidence indicates that those ruins are from around 1000 BC – roughly the time of the Queen of Sheba. Here’s an article that sums up the evidence. My local guide also claimed that the fact that Falashas lived in this general vicinity also serves as evidence.
Ethiopians believe that the Ark of the Covenant is located in Aksum. They say it’s housed in a church there. Outsiders aren’t allowed to get very close to the church, but here are some shots I took from the outside:
I thought it was odd that they use street lamps to illuminate the exterior of such an important site:
Other Ethiopian churches have replicas of the Ark, which they remove for parades on special occasions. But nobody’s allowed to see the real thing, so we must take it on faith… or not.
Among the designs on the interior of one of the churches in Lalibela is a Star of David:
My local guide there told me that this is evidence of an ancient link between Ethiopians and Jews, but I pointed out that the Star of David only started being considered a symbol of Jewry during the Middle Ages. In ancient times, if there were such a symbol, it would have been the six-armed candelabra, the “menorah.” Of course, the churches were built during the Middle Ages, so the intention might, indeed, have been to show solidarity with Jews.
We can say, in summation, that Ethiopia’s relationship with Jews has been a love/hate relationship for a very long time.