In January 2019, the U.S.-based Friends of the Beta Israel of North Shewa spent $15,000 to send a delegation of four Israeli Ethiopian religious leaders to Ethiopia to determine if the Hidden Jews are truly Jewish. The leaders did not issue a report. The Friends team believes Israeli politics are the reason.
After relocating several waves of Beta Israel from Gondar (northern Ethiopia) to Israel since 1984, the Israeli government declared it had rescued all Ethiopian Jews. Yet thousands more emerged and await religious determination in displaced persons camps in Ethiopia so they can make aliyah. Some have waited 20 years, and most have first-degree relatives in Israel.
Members of the Lovers of Zion Association (LOZA) in Kechene, outside of Addis Ababa, would like to make aliyah, but realize it’s not possible now. So, they are focused on building community. LOZA leaders were told they cannot receive help from major Jewish agencies affiliated with the Israeli government until the issue of the encamped Gondar Jews is resolved.
“It is not our goal to get [the LOZA group] recognition as Jews so they can go to Israel,” said Rabbi Joshua Bennett of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, a Friends group leader. “Our goal is to get them recognition as a community so they can live successfully in Ethiopia.
“We’ve had conversations with the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the Jewish Federations of North America, and they’ve all landed on deaf ears and dead ends. We are trying to get them some authenticity so eventually they will be strong enough and organized enough to gain the attention of those organizations.”
“With Jewish communities in Ethiopia, the terms ‘Jewish’ and ‘who is a Jew?’ are very complicated,” said William Recant, a former JDC executive and an expert on Ethiopian Jews. “Four different groups over 25 years have come forward. Israel struggled with how many and when they come … Suzi and her group are doing an admirable job in bringing forth who this community is and what the community is looking for.”
David Goldberg, a 20-year JDC board member, adds his perspective. “We see a lack of caring by the organized Jewish world to do much. Because the Israeli government has not encouraged this kind of work, they have been standoffish.
“But,” he said, “it’s changing … the Israeli ambassador is sympathetic, and we are now working to get discussions on a positive level with the JDC, the Jewish Agency and local federations … This is too big of a job for just Suzi and David and Josh. We’re not trying to save or change the world. We’re just trying to wake up the Jewish world.”