The Jewish community in Ethiopia, labeled in the past as Falasha or Beta Israel, is perceived in Israel as a traditional-religious community which, while in Ethiopia, conducted its life in isolation from its inimical neighbors and from the processes unfolding around it, with all its aspirations focused on immigrating to Israel.
A new study, which I conducted, reveals that men and women in this community were political activists and members of Marxist underground movements during the revolutionary years and civil war in that country (from the 1970s until 1991). Acquaintance with the role of Ethiopian Jews in these movements may change the commonly held image of this community in Israeli eyes. (The study is published in the Hebrew book, “The Other Journey: Life Stories of Ethiopian Jews, Activists in the Ethiopian Civil War 1974 – 1991.”)
In the first half of the 1960s, it seemed that the Ethiopian empire was more stable than ever. Emperor Haile Selassie and his right-hand man Aklilu Habte-Wold charted the state’s path through the troubled waters of African politics, navigating the rivalry of the superpowers as well as the upheavals in the Middle East. The fact that an Eritrean struggle for independence, a string of local uprisings in other areas of Ethiopia and a coup attempt in 1960 did not manage to shake the throne contributed to an almost mythic view of Haile Selassie, indicating that he may rule for many years to come, contingent on his health.
Things began to change dramatically starting in the mid-1960s, when students at the Haile Selassie University (later the Addis Ababa University) began organizing and protesting against the ossified regime. Gradually, under the influence of students who had studied at foreign universities (mainly in Western Europe and North America), they started taking interest in Marxist ideas, subsequently becoming more radical. Their demands included education for all, democratization, equality and the right of self-determination for diverse ethnic and linguistic groups, a demand which conflicted with the imperial policy of giving supremacy to Amharic. They also demanded the distribution of land to farmers who were working them in practice (in contrast to a quasi-feudal control of the land which was common in many areas in the days of the emperor), as well as other demands.
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