By Sintayehu Gazahegne of Bete Israel Kechene and North Shewa community in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia.
I have a habit of visiting Arutz Sheva every morning to read the daily news about Israel and then checking my facebook for something new. Today, as usual while I was checking facebook I found this picture. It was a picture of President Obama and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia standing in front of a large painting. The painting is a very well known painting in Ethiopian History especially pertaining to the Ethiopian Solomonic Dynasty. It portrays Queen of Sheba with her soldiers meeting King Solomon of ancient Israel at his palace 2700 years ago. The painting clearly shows King Shlomo/Solomon standing with his Cohen Chief Levite Priests on the left and Queen of Sheba with her Soldiers and servants standing on the right. This painting is proof of how Ethiopian Royal families try to link their blood line with the Judah family and specifically to Solomonic bloodline.
Of course there were and are controversies about that specific oral traditions as many historians put forward this as the starting point of Ethiopian Jewry while some of them have argued against this history. However, regardless of their origin, no one can deny the contribution of Ethiopian Jews/Bete Israel to Ethiopian history. Jewish marks are everywhere in the Orthodox Church, in the Royal Family and in the day to day cultural activities of the Ethiopian non-Jewish people even if there is a deep ongoing rift between the Ethiopian Jews and the non-Jews.
The schism between Jews and Christians roots with both sides as they were once two kingdoms living in harmony and peace but due to power friction, both came to be responsible for bloodshed incurred on both sides.
As I know it, the conflict begain with the Christian Kingdom attacked the Jews at the time of Axum Civilization, they invaded the lands of independent Bete Israeli Kingdom Under Queen Yehudit/Yodit. The invaders killed her family and many of the Bete Israeli. The attack provoked the queen and was the last turning point of Axum Civilization. She waged war against the kingdom which led to the fall of Axum in 10th century leading to her reign of 40 years over Ethiopia.
Today, as a result of that past, many in Ethiopia call Yodit Gudit/Yodit the Evil Queen but contrary to Ethiopian Coptic Church followers, we, Jews of Ethiopia, praise her name on various occasions for what she did for our Jewish kingdom.The decline of the Ethiopian Jews in Ethiopia brought a favourable condition for the Christian kingdom, but sadly it also brought oppression and discrimination on the Bete Israel as they called us Buda/Felasha/Teyib/ Kayla/Jib and other derogatory names.
We hoped that the downfall of Emperor Haileselassie would bring about a better Ethiopia as the new Socialist regime could bring broad concept of living together with Jews and non Jew as part of one nation; but sadly, it was not to be.The government sold some of the Falasha Jewish soul to Israel in exchange for guns and power. Thus the discrimination and migrations to Israel were held in parallel over the past 30 years, ending last year with a ruling by the Israeli high court, proclaiming that there are no more Jews in Ethiopia, contrary to the facts to which I personally attest. I do feel and hope that immigration will resume sometime in the future.
When the Derg Socialist Regime was replaced by the Revolutionary People’s Front, we as a Jewish community were expecting changes from the new government with regards to the Jewish people. We expected them to recognize us, Ethiopian Jews as part of Ethiopia, but sadly again, the government did not bring about any positive changes for most Ethiopians including the Jews. Even if the new government said its fight is for the freedom of all Ethiopian people, they continue to refuse to recognize our community, refusing to protect our right to worship as we have for thousands of years culminating in the takeover of the 15 remaining synagogues by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in spite of the constitutionally guaranteed rights. Thus, in spite of a new government, new constitutions and new times, conditions remain unchanged for the Jews of Ethiopia, making more and more leave the country every day wherever they can find the freedom to live and worship.
To get back to the painting and Obama’s visit to Ethiopia I want to express how as I look at the two leaders looking at the painting of the birth of Ethiopian Jewry, I can’t help but wonder if Obama asked Hailemariam about the Ethiopian Jews. I can’t help but wonder if he knows about us and if he does, what did he say when he saw the painting for the first time?