Ethiopian Jews

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There are worlds beyond the UK General Election and a very particular meeting of two worlds hit the news this week. Protests by Ethiopian Jews in Tel Aviv ended in violence, with injuries amongst the protesters and police. I first heard the story as a half-heard snippet on the radio – Ethiopian … in Tel Aviv … – and it had the potential to sound like the end and the beginning of two separate stories. Not so.

Until the 1980s, there was a large Jewish population in Ethiopia, mostly in the north of the country. In the wake of famine and civil war, they were relocated to Israel and there are now few Jews left in Ethiopia; some say that they have all gone. But how did there come to be a significant Jewish population in Ethiopia?

As with most things Ethiopian, fact and fiction, legend and truth are about as intermingled as it gets. The story handed down through generations is, broadly, that the Queen of Sheba (from what is now Axum in Tigrai province in northern Ethiopia) went to King Solomon’s court and returned with a son by Solomon, the Ark of the Covenant and a retinue of Israelites. (Incidentally, the Ark of the Covenant is said to be in a building in Axum; it’s not open to the public.)

The Israelites settled in Ethiopia and, although Ethiopia settled into something of a time capsule for many hundreds of years, contacts with the Jewish community remained, although many of the descendants of what is thought to be the original retinue are said to have converted to Christianity.

This feels very through-the-looking-glass, but I’ve travelled around Ethiopia on two occasions and I’ve learnt never to dismiss what people say, because there will almost certainly be a grain (or more) of truth in there somewhere. Ethiopia marches to its own beat. It’s currently 2007 and 2008 starts in our September; there are thirteen months in the year; as I write this, the clock on my screen says 11:52, but that would be shown as 5:52 in Ethiopia (forget the time difference). What is said to be the world’s oldest illustrated Christian manuscript – possibly dating from the fifth century – was found a few years ago in an Ethiopian monastery. Archaeological work has barely begun at key sites.

So I could be twenty-first-century-cynical or remember that the unexpected seems more likely to happen in Ethiopia than anywhere else I’ve been. Either way, there is a very real connection between Israel and Ethiopia, unexpected though that might appear to be.

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