Top state rabbinical body reinforces ruling that Ethiopian Jews are Jewish

Decision comes to counter lingering discrimination, doubts of Jewishness, that have continued four decades after then-chief rabbi ruled Ethiopia’s Beta Israel community are Jews

Illustrative: Ethiopian religious leaders, in the Israeli town of Yavne, prepare for a large demonstration against their mistreatment in Israeli society, June 22, 2015. (FLASH90)
Illustrative: Ethiopian religious leaders, in the Israeli town of Yavne, prepare for a large demonstration against their mistreatment in Israeli society, June 22, 2015. (FLASH90)

A top state rabbinical body has decided to reinforce the recognition of members of Ethiopia’s Beta Israel community as Jewish, after an earlier decision on the matter failed to stop some officials from continuing to question their heritage.

The decision by the Chief Rabbinate Council was taken without fanfare in November, the Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday. It came over 45 years after then-chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that members of the Beta Israel community were Jewish, in a groundbreaking decision that paved the way for tens of thousands to be airlifted to Israel.

However, some have continued to question or refuse to recognize members of the community as Jewish, sparking accusations of racism. In 2018, a kosher winery faced an angry backlash after it emerged that it was not allowing Ethiopian workers to touch the wine because of fears they were not Jewish, which would make the wine not kosher.

Rabbi Yehuda Deri, who had pushed to reinforce Yosef’s ruling, hailed it “a historic decision which will be remembered for generations in Israel, especially among the Ethiopian community,” according to the Haaretz daily.

Deri’s brother Aryeh Deri heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas political party, which was founded by Yosef.

Rabbi Yehuda Deri (R) , then chief rabbi of the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, seen at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on December 12, 2012. (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch / FLASH90)

Itim, a religious pluralism rights group, also praised the decision saying in a statement that discrimination against those of Ethiopian descent in recent years had to do with among other things, “the casting of doubt by the religious establishment on their being part of the Jewish people.”

Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, a liberal religious group, also welcomed the development calling it “significant progress by the rabbinate on the way to correcting its attitude with the Jewish of Ethiopian descent.”

About 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, a small minority in a country of nearly 9 million. But their assimilation hasn’t been smooth, with many arriving without a modern education and then falling into unemployment and poverty.

Last summer saw widespread, sometimes violent protests by Ethiopians in Israel after the police killing of an unarmed teen, the latest in series of incidents of racism and police brutality against Ethiopian-Israelis.

Ethiopians and supporters protest outside the Knesset against police violence and discrimination, July 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish and did not need to undergo conversion upon arriving in Israel, immigrants from Ethiopia belonging to the smaller Falash Mura community, which converted from Judaism to Christianity in the 19th century, are required to undergo Orthodox conversion after immigrating.

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