A community of around 4,000 lives in the Amhara and Tigray regions of northern Ethiopia, hidden in the largely Christian and Muslim country. Until the 20<sup>th century, the Beta Israel were largely isolated from other Jewish communities around the world.

The majority of the Beta Israel now live in Israel, where most of the 135,000-strong population are descendants of immigrants who arrived in the Middle Eastern state after 1977, when prime minister Menachem Begin opened the borders to Ethiopian Jews.

It was in response to the threat of political unrest, famine and persecution under the regime of Col Mengistu Haile Mariam, the most prominent officer of the Derg – the Communist military junta that governed Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987. Forbidden from the Ethiopian government from emigrating, many fled to Sudanese refugee camps by foot in the 1980s and 1990s before being airlifted to Israel.

Origins in Ethiopia

There are several different stories of the origins of the Jewish community in Ethiopia. Leaders within the community say they are descendants of Jews who left the conquered Kingdom of Judah for Egypt following the destruction of the First Temple in 586BC. Other say the Beta Israel may be descendants of the followers of Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba.

Irene Orleansky, an Israeli music producer and film director, produced a film that explores the Beta Israel community in the North Shewa region of the country. The film, Bal Ej: The Hidden Jews Of Ethiopia, is due for release in early 2016. Orleansky decided to make a film about the Beta Israel community after she found out about the difficulties and persecution they encounter.

Beta Israel
Ethiopian Jews take part in the celebrations of the Sigd Festival in October 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel Uriel Sinai/Getty

"The community originates from Gondar and migrated to the North Shewa region of Ethiopia at different periods of time, beginning from the 15<sup>th century CE. The largest migration was at the time of Emperor Menelik II. The main reason for migration to the North Shewa were discrimination of Beta Israel in Gondar region and hope for better living conditions," Orleansky says.

"Over time, the situation for the Beta Israel in North Shewa became even worse than it had been in the land of their origin. They were forced to convert into Christianity and banned from returning to their homes. However, they continued practising Judaism in secrecy."

Ethiopian Jews
Jewish immigrants arrive at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv from Ethiopia in 2013 Ilia Yefimovich/Getty


As the Beta Israel of North Shewa did not have the right to own land, they made their living by handcrafts, such as pottery, iron-smithing and weaving. This lead to their name bal ej – meaning craftsmen in Amharic.

The group were slandered as Falasha – meaning landless, Buda – evil eyed and Jib, meaning hyena-people. According to Orleansky, this kind of discrimination still continues to this day.

"The cases of murder and damaging property of the community members still remain common. They are deprived of many basic human rights, such as ownership of burial ground," she says. This had led to many within the community to hide their identity.

Ethiopian Jews
Israeli police use water cannon to disperse Ethiopian Israelis demonstrating in Tel Aviv Guez/AFP/Getty

"The Beta Israel of North Shewa practise pre-Talmudic Judaism, however recently the youth of the community opened a new synagogue in Kechene where they combine practices of their forefathers and modern rabbinical Judaism," Orleansky explains.

"The Beta Israel of North Shewa managed to preserve many traditions of the Beta Israel of Gondar, such as Sabbath observance, strict purification laws, animal sacrifice, etc. However, because the traditions were transferred from generation to generation in high secrecy and only orally, some of the Beta Israel traditions were lost, while others went over certain transformations."

Ethiopian Jews in Israel

Life is difficult for descendants of the Beta Israel living in Israel. Although they were welcomed post-1977 and given access to accommodation, healthcare and education, little consideration was provided in terms of cultural integration. Ethiopian Jews now make up just over 2% of the Israeli population and face racial attacks.

In May, tensions arose after a video emerged showing two policemen beating an Ethiopian Israeli soldier. Earlier in 2015, dozens of Ethiopian Israeli demonstrators marched on the streets of Tel Aviv in protest of police brutality against the country's Jewish population.

Despite progress in integration, the community is still marginalised, stereotyped as uneducated and shunned by the elite in society. Reports have found that in Israel, the hourly wage for Ethiopians is nearly a third – around 30% less – than it is for the rest of the Jewish population. Ethiopian Jews suffer the highest level of any Jewish communities in Israel.