The Beta Israel

The Beta Israel: Falasha in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century

Copyright Date: 1992
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 246
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    The Beta Israel
    Book Description:

    ...balanced and well informed...a striking piece of scholarship aimed at demythologizing the origins of the Ethiopian Falasha.-Foreign AffairsKaplan's definitive treatment will be of interest to students and scholars of Jewish history, African history, and comparative religion, as well as anyone interested in Jewish affairs and the modern Middle East. The Midwest Book ReviewKaplan's conceptualizations are judicious and clearly expressed...incisive and well documented... and provides essential background for the process of assimilation now taking lace in Israel.-The International Journal of African Historical Studies Kaplan's able interdisciplinary approach is of great value for persons interested in religion, civilization, and process of change.-Religious Studies Review Kaplan's well-written, lucid presentation make[s] this important, competent contribution accessible to all levels of readers. Highly recommended.ChoiceInsightful and thorough, a welcome contribution.Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Professor of Music, Harvard UniversityUndoubtedly the most detailed, most scholarly, and most dispassionate argument of Falasha history hitherto published. [T]his work deserves ... the most careful study by all those (and in particular in Israel) who have any practical or scholarly connection with the Beta Israel.-- Edward UllendorffEmeritus Professor of Ethiopian Studies, University of LondonFellow of the British AcademyGiven Kaplan's facility with both written and oral sources, he is in a unique position to synthesize and reconcile the new historical findings of ethnographers with the written sources and differing conclusions of earlier historians and linguists. His work is insightful and thorough, a welcome contribution.-- Kay Shelemay, Wesleyan University The origin of the Black Jews of Ethiopia has long been a source of fascination and controversy. Their condition and future continues to generate debate. The culmination of almost a decade of research, The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia marks the publication of the first book-length scholarly study of the history of this unique community.In this volume, Steven Kaplan seeks to demythologize the history of the Falasha and to consider them in the wider context of Ethiopian history and culture. This marks a clear departure from previous studies which have viewed them from the external perspective of Jewish history. Drawing on a wide variety of sources including the Beta Israel's own literature and oral traditions, Kaplan demonstrates that they are not a lost Jewish tribe, but rather an ethnic group which emerged in Ethiopia between the 14th and 16th century. Indeed, the name, Falasha, their religious hierarchy, sacred texts, and economic specialization can all be dated to this period. Among the subjects the book addresses are their links with Ethiopian Christianity, the medieval legends concerning their existence, their wars with the Ethiopian emperors, their relegation to the status of a despised semi-caste, their encounters with European missionaries, and the impact of the Great Famine of 1888-1892.Kaplan's definitive treatment will be of interest to students and scholars of Jewish history, African history, and comparative religion, as well as anyone interested in Jewish affairs and the modern Middle East.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6353-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. [Map]
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Despite the existence of a vast and ever-expanding literature on the Beta Israel (Falasha) of Ethiopia, no book-length scholarly study of their history has yet been published. Major works on their literature and religion have generally offered only brief surveys of their history, and most of the standard books in Ethiopian and Jewish history have dealt at best only briefly with their particular story. Thus, while recent events have focused attention on the Beta Israel to an unprecedented degree, much of their history remains only dimly understood. This book seeks to offer a partial remedy to this problem by tracing...

  6. 1 Ethiopian Jews: Obscure Beginnings
    (pp. 13-32)

    Anyone with even a passing interest in the Beta Israel will have noted the extent to which the question of their origins has dominated the study of this people. Although much of their modern history remains shrouded in obscurity and a first-rate ethnography of the group has yet to be published, almost everyone who has written about Ethiopian Jewry has felt compelled to weigh in with his or her contribution to the “Falasha origins” debate. Politicians, journalists, rabbis, and political activists have all succumbed to the temptation to play historian and have attempted to unravel this intriguing riddle. In many...

  7. 2 Speculation and Legend
    (pp. 33-52)

    Given the success and influence Hebraic elements enjoyed in the Aksum region, a Judaized faith may eventually have had a chance of becoming the dominant religion in the region. Certainly, this is what happened briefly in parts of South Arabia during the sixth century. However, while Aksumite culture was still in its infancy, the religious map of the country was transformed by its ruler’s acceptance of Christianity. Throughout all its subsequent history the development of Judaism in Ethiopia was conditioned by the presence in the country of a politically dominant Christian element. It is with this element, therefore, that we...

  8. 3 From Ayhud to Falasha: The Invention of a Tradition
    (pp. 53-78)

    The Zagwe dynasty ruled Ethiopia for nearly one hundred fifty years from 1137 to 1270. Almost from the outset their rule was a troubled one, as various problems served to weaken and eventually to completely undermine them. Although the Zagwe rulers were apparently devout Christians and presided over a major revival of the church, their enemies, including the nobility of Tigre province and the clergy of the Aksumite region, dismissed them as usurpers who had seized the throne of the legitimate Aksumite “Solomonic” rulers. The Zagwe sought to counter such claims by wooing the clergy of other regions and engaging...

  9. 4 Resistance and Defeat: 1468–1632
    (pp. 79-96)

    During the period from 1468 to 1632 the Beta Israel displayed their most sophisticated political-military organization, were involved in some of their most dramatic conflicts with the Ethiopian emperors, and suffered some of their most serious defeats. Although most aspects of their cultural, economic, and social development remain obscure, their role in the wars and succession struggles that characterized this era are unusually well documented. Once again we are able to clearly demonstrate that the events shaping the Beta Israel can only be properly evaluated in the general context of their times.

    The Falasha described in the royal chronicles of...

  10. 5 Glory and Decline: 1632–1855
    (pp. 97-115)

    Susenyos’ final victory over the Beta Israel of Semien was unquestionably one of the major landmarks in the history of their people. In retrospect, however, it appears to have been less a radical turning-point than the culmination of more than two centuries of conflict. From the time of Yeshaq in the fifteenth century onward, those Christian emperors who possessed sufficient military power had sought to limit the political autonomy of theayhudand later the Falasha. Over the course of time, more and more of the Beta Israel were dispossessed and remained economically viable only through supplementing their agricultural work...

  11. 6 A Mission to the Jews
    (pp. 116-142)

    Throughout theZamane Masafentindividual local rulers sought to rise above their peers and assert dominant control over the Ethiopian highlands. Only in the middle of the nineteenth century, however, was one of them successful. During the period from November 1852 to February 1855, Dejjazmach Kasa of Qwara fought four major battles that effectively removed his major rivals in central and northern Ethiopia from the political scene. His coronation in February 1855 as King of Kings Tewodros II marked the end of the Era of the Princes and ushered in a new period in Ethiopian history.¹ Supreme authority and political-military...

  12. 7 Kifu-qen: The Great Famine of 1888–92
    (pp. 143-154)

    Despite the growth of Jewish interest in the Beta Israel, almost forty years were to pass between Halévy’s visit to Ethiopia and the journey of his student and follower Jacques (Ya’acov) Faitlovitch. In the meantime, events in Ethiopia continued to shape the fortunes of the Beta Israel in a dramatic fashion.

    Kifu-qen(lit: awful day[s]), the great famine of 1888–92, devastated vast areas and left in its wake an impoverished, starving, and mourning population. Its impact on the Beta Israel was enormous and far-reaching and they justly view it as one of the seminal events in their history. Certainly...

  13. Conclusions: Before Faitlovitch
    (pp. 155-166)

    The arrival in Ethiopia of Jacques Faitlovitch in 1904 marks a turning point in the history of the Beta Israel. Faitlovitch, who dedicated his life to the cause of Ethiopian Jewry, was responsible more than any other single person for their entry into Jewish history and consciousness. Indeed, the processes he set in motion beginning with his first visit to Ethiopia can be said only now, more than eighty-five years later, to be reaching their logical conclusion with thealiyahof the Beta Israel community to Israel. The common thread that ran through all aspects of Faitlovitch’s multi-pronged program on...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 167-210)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 211-224)
  16. Index
    (pp. 225-233)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 234-235)