Beta Israel

Beta Israel
ביתא ישראל
ቤተ እስራኤል
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Israel 130,000[1] (2011)
1.75% of the Israeli population, >2.15% of Israeli Jews
 United States1,000[3]
Judaism (Haymanot · Rabbinism· Christianity (Ethiopian Orthodox – see Falash Mura and Beta Abraham)

Beta Israel (Hebrew: בֵּיתֶא יִשְׂרָאֵל, Beyte Yisra'el; Ge'ez: ቤተ እስራኤል, Beta ʾƏsrāʾel, modern Bēte 'Isrā'ēl, EAE: "Betä Ǝsraʾel", "House of Israel" or "Community of Israel"[4]), also known as Ethiopian Jews (Hebrew: יְהוּדֵי אֶתְיוֹפְּיָה: Yehudey Etyopyah; Ge'ez: የኢትዮጵያ አይሁድዊ, ye-Ityoppya Ayhudi), are a Jewish community that developed and lived for centuries in the area of the Kingdom of Aksum and the Ethiopian Empire, which is currently divided between the Amhara and Tigray Regions of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Most of the community emigrated to Israel in the late 20th century.[5][6][7][8]

The Beta Israel lived in northern and northwestern Ethiopia, in more than 500 small villages spread over a wide territory, alongside populations that were Muslim and predominantly Christian.[9] Most of them were concentrated mainly on what are today, North Gondar Zone, Shire Inda Selassie, Wolqayit, Tselemti, Dembia, Segelt, Quara, and Belesa. They practiced Haymanot religious practices, which are generally recognized as an Israelite religion that differs from Rabbinic Judaism. Beta Israel appear to have been isolated from mainstream Jewish communities for at least a millennium. They suffered religious persecution and significant portion of the community were forced into Christianity during the 19th and 20th centuries; those converted became known as the Falash Mura. The larger Beta Abraham Christian community with pseudo-Israelite practices is also considered having historical links to Beta Israel.[6][7][8]

The Beta Israel made contact with other Jewish communities in the later 20th century. Following this, a rabbinic debate ensued over whether or not the Beta Israel were Jews. After halakhic (Jewish law) and constitutional discussions, Israeli officials decided, in 1977, that the Israeli Law of Return was to be applied to the Beta Israel.[10][11] The Israeli and American governments mounted aliyah (immigration to Israel) transport operations.[12][13] These activities included Operation Brothers in Sudan between 1979 and 1990 (this includes the major Operation Moses and Operation Joshua), and in the 1990s from Addis Ababa (which includes Operation Solomon).[14][15][6][7][8]

By the end of 2008, there were 119,300 people of Ethiopian descent in Israel, including nearly 81,000 people born in Ethiopia and about 38,500 native-born Israelis (about 32 percent of the community) with at least one parent born in Ethiopia or Eritrea.[16] The Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel is mostly composed of Beta Israel (practicing both Haymanot and Rabbinic Judaism) and to a smaller extent of Falash Mura who converted from Christianity to Rabbinic Judaism upon their arrival to Israel.[6][7][8]


Raphael Hadane, the Liqa Kahenat (High priest) of Beta Israel in Israel

Throughout its history, the community has been referred to by numerous names. According to tradition the name "Beta Israel" (literally, "house of Israel" in Ge'ez) originated in the 4th century CE, when the community refused to convert to Christianity during the rule of Abreha and Atsbeha (identified with Se'azana and Ezana), the monarchs of the Kingdom of Aksum who embraced Christianity.[17][6][7][8]

This name contrasts with "Beta Kristiyan" (literally, "house of Christianity", referring to "church" in Ge'ez).[18][19] Originally, it did not have any negative connotations,[20] and the community has since used Beta Israel as its official name. Since the 1980s, it has also become the official name used in the scholarly and scientific literature to refer to the community.[21] The term Esra'elawi "Israelites" – which is related to the name Beta Israel – is also used by the community to refer to its members.[21][7][8]

The name Ayhud, "Jews", is rarely used in the community, as the Christians had used it as a derogatory term.[20] The community has begun to use it only since strengthening ties with other Jewish communities in the 20th century.[21] The term Ibrawi "Hebrew" was used to refer to the Chawa (free man) in the community, in contrast to Barya "slave".[22] The term Oritawi "Torah-true" was used to refer to the community members; since the 19th century, it has been used in opposition to the term Falash Mura (converts).[6][7][8]

The derogatory term Falasha, which means "landless, wanderers", was given to the community in the 15th century by the Emperor Yeshaq I, and today its use is avoided because its meaning is extremely offensive. Zagwe, referring to the Agaw people of the Zagwe dynasty, among the original inhabitants of northwest Ethiopia, is considered derogatory, since it incorrectly associates the community with the largely pagan Agaw.[21][6][7][8]