Ethiopia’s Jews see small gains in tol­er­ance

Lesotho Times - - Africa -

AD­DIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Te­dros, his wife, his 7-year-old daugh­ter and his par­ents can­not stop the ac­cu­sa­tions of witch­craft. De­spite hold­ing rec­on­cil­ia­tory meet­ings with com­mu­nity mem­bers in their vil­lage in Ethiopia’s Amhara re­gion, their names and the names of other Jews con­tinue to sur­face dur­ing Chris­tian ex­or­cism cer­e­monies.

Dur­ing these cer­e­monies, an Ethiopian Ortho­dox Chris­tian priest pours wa­ter over the hud­dled, naked bod­ies of those be­lieved to be pos­sessed by bu­das, or evil spir­its.

They turn ma­ni­a­cal and cry out the name of the buda they be­lieve pos­sesses them.

“They will shout, ‘ I am Te­dros! I saw this per­son walk­ing, and I sucked their blood!’” he said. “‘Now I am in this per­son!’” Once a per­son is named as a buda and con­demned, threats of vi­o­lence from the Chris­tian ma­jor­ity be­gin trick­ling in. Te­dros and other Ethiopian Jews spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of fear of reprisal.

Like many Jews in Ethiopia, Te­dros spent most of his youth in­volved with causes he didn’t be­lieve in. He joined the Ortho­dox Chris­tian Church when he was 5 to de­flect sus­pi­cions of his Jewish­ness. Now 57, he still pub­licly pre­tends to be a Chris­tian.

As a young man, he was forced to en­list in Ethiopia’s army to de­fend the bru­tal Derg gov­ern­ment in the 1980s. Led by Mengistu Haile­mariam, the regime cre­ated an at­mos­phere of terror by ex­e­cut­ing stu­dents, teach­ers and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists be­lieved to sup­port op­po­si­tion par­ties and strew­ing their bod­ies in public ar­eas.

In­stead of fight­ing, Te­dros ran away to Kenya, where he re­mained for 15 years be­fore re­turn­ing to Ethiopia at the start of the mil­len­nium.

The Derg was re­placed by the iron-fisted Ethiopian Peo­ple’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Demo­cratic Front in 1991, af­ter years of fight­ing, and Ethiopia is now one of the fastest-grow­ing economies in the world.

The na­tional zeit­geist against Jews, how­ever, has stayed much the same. Jews in North Wollo, the province where he and his fam­ily live, were per­se­cuted when he left, he said, and they are still be­ing per­se­cuted there.

Jews have a quiet but cen­tral pres­ence in Ethiopia’s history. Their ori­gins are dis­puted, but it is be­lieved they ar­rived less than 3 000 years ago, around the time King Mene­lik I, the son of the queen of Sheba and King Solomon, trav­elled from Is­rael to the Horn of Africa.

In Ethiopia, par­tic­u­larly in poorer ru­ral ar­eas out­side the cap­i­tal, Ad­dis Ababa, their marginal­i­sa­tion is a prod­uct of wide­spread belief that they are agents of evil.

Com­mon su­per­sti­tions are that Jews shoot fire from their eyes, use Chris­tian corpses to make their pot­tery and turn into hye­nas at night.

Al Jazeera spoke to more than a dozen Jewish Ethiopi­ans, re­searchers and his­to­ri­ans who de­scribed these lin­ger­ing be­liefs as well as oc­ca­sional vi­o­lence in the Amhara and Tigray re­gions where they have been his­tor­i­cally con­cen­trated.

Some said in­ci­dents of houses razed with Jewish fam­i­lies still in­side them and re­venge killings when a death in the com­mu­nity is blamed on Jewish “sor­cery” oc­curred as re­cently as May. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the Min­istry of Jus­tice said it has not re­ceived com­plaints of dis­crim­i­na­tion or vi­o­lence from the Jewish com­mu­nity, and the al­le­ga­tions could not be in­de­pen­dently ver­i­fied.

Still, many said the last decade has seen in­creas­ing re­li­gious tol­er­ance in Ethiopia, par­tic­u­larly in the mi­nor gains in gov­ern­ment recog­ni­tion of a mostly un­der­ground Jewish sect that calls it­self the Beta Avra­ham.

Beta Avra­ham In the neigh­bor­hood of Kech­ene in north­ern Ad­dis Ababa, a group of young, col­lege-ed­u­cated Ethiopi­ans sat on cowhide benches in the cor­ner of one of the city’s two li­censed syn­a­gogues, es­tab­lished in 2011.

As the sun set, neigh­bors filed in to ready for Shab­bat. About 30 peo­ple packed the hum­ble room.

They were engi­neers, aid work­ers, bi­ol­ogy teach­ers and jew­elry shop own­ers. The youngest were fresh from class at Ad­dis Ababa Univer­sity, note­books in hand, and as one of them swiped back and forth on his smart­phone, app icons glided across a photo of Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu.

Like Te­dros, they are mem­bers of the Beta Avra­ham, a sect of Jews that split from the Beta Is­rael Jewish ma­jor­ity some­time in the 18th or 19th cen­tury through feigned con­ver­sions to Chris­tian­ity.

His­tor­i­cally this sect wore wooden crosses in public and at­tended church with their neigh­bors, but be­hind closed doors they donned kip­pahs and swore on the To­rah.

In hid­ing their re­li­gion, they avoided the vi­o­lence that plagued their an­ces­tors and have been able to take ad­van­tage of op­por­tu­ni­ties pre­vi­ously closed to them be­cause of the stig­mas at­tached to their faith.

“It was clearly an eco­nomic break­away from the Beta Is­rael,” said Dr. Lucy Steinitz, an Amer­i­can aid worker who spent three years vis­it­ing the syn­a­gogue.

“They were prac­tic­ing Chris­tian­ity on the out­side but re­tained some Jewish cus­toms be­hind closed doors or in­side caves. Over the years, that dis­si­pated, and [cus­toms have] been re­ally dif­fi­cult to main­tain, es­pe­cially in a rel­a­tively low-lit­er­ate so­ci­ety.”

Daniel, the leader in this com­mu­nity, is one of a new gen­er­a­tion of Beta Avra­ham who wants to re­verse that norm. He is lead­ing, for the first time in their history, a push for his peo­ple to step out into the public and em­brace their Jewish her­itage.

There are es­ti­mated to be tens of thou­sands of Beta Avra­ham in Ethiopia who still prac­tice in se­cret, many of whom have a starkly dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence from Daniel’s.

In Ad­dis Ababa, where new gen­er­a­tions of ed­u­cated youths are less likely to hold prej­u­dices, the threat against Jews is sig­nif­i­cantly lower.

“The oth­ers do not know of the (chang­ing) times,” Daniel said. “In the last 10 years, the gov­ern­ment has changed.”

“Peo­ple are very afraid that even though there is con­sti­tu­tional free­dom of re­li­gion, it’s not go­ing to last for very long,” said Steinitz. “There’s huge re­li­gious ten­sion.”

— Aljazeera.

Tens of thou­sands of ethiopian Jews prac­tice in se­cret as a re­sult of cen­turies of per­se­cu­tion.

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