Preserving the Ethiopian Contribution to Judaism

Jan. 28 2019

A prominent Ethiopian-Israeli rabbi, Sharon Shalom recently opened a center for the study of Ethiopian Jewry at Ono Academic College, just outside Tel Aviv. In an interview with Sephardi Ideas Monthly, he discusses the failures of prior academic studies of his community and his commitment to preserving the unique halakhic and theological traditions of his ancestors even as Ethiopian Jews become more integrated into Israeli society:

The Ethiopian tradition deserves to be seriously studied. The deeper dimensions of this tradition, such as the belief that human beings are, at bottom, good . . . are very important and relevant for our time. [The new center is], accordingly, establishing a beit midrash [a traditional house of learning] for Ethiopian religious leaders, known as kessim, to study in depth the Ethiopian tradition. The kessim will study the Ethiopian oral Torah—[which] is still to a great degree oral—using tools from within the Ethiopian tradition to determine contemporary Ethiopian halakhic responses that will be relevant for all of Israel. . . .

There are parallels between the Ethiopian approach and ḥasidic teachings, which, for instance, the kessim-to-be will study. They will also study different approaches and schools within the Jewish tradition, and they’ll finish with a degree. But the message coming from these walls will be for all of Israel. . . . .

[In the academic study of Ethiopian Judaism], race enters the picture. From our perspective, skin color is not identity. In Ethiopia, skin color wasn’t a concern for us. The academic discourse attempts to explain the Ethiopian world, but not to understand it. The moment you put skin color in the center you are still wrestling with the fact that there are black Jews. . . . The academic community has contributed to understanding Ethiopian Jewish history and culture, and contributed some very serious scholarship. But the time has come—and I say it to myself as well—to understand Ethiopian Jewish tradition as it understands itself. And then to see what it can contribute to Israel.

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More about: Ethiopian Jews, Judaism, Judaism in Israel, Religion & Holidays

European Aid to the Middle East Is Shaped by a Political Agenda

Feb. 18 2019

The EU’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations Unit dispenses millions of dollars in economic and humanitarian assistance to dozens of countries every year. Although it claims to operate on principles of strict neutrality, independent of any political motivation and giving priority to the neediest cases, a look at its activities in the Middle East suggests an entirely different approach, as Hillel Frisch writes:

[T]he Middle East is the overwhelming beneficiary of EU humanitarian aid—nearly 1 billion of just over 1.4 billion euros. . . . The bulk of the funds goes toward meeting the costs of assistance to Syrian refugees, followed by smaller sums to Iraq, Yemen, “Palestine,” and North Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, receives less than one-third of that amount. The problem with such allocations is that the overwhelming majority of people living in dire poverty reside in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Bangladesh. . . . The Palestinians, who are richer on average than those living in the poorest states of the world, . . . receive over six euros per capita, while the populations of the poorest states receive less than one-eighth of that amount. . . .

Even less defensible is the EU’s claim to political neutrality. Its favoritism toward the Palestinians on this score is visible as soon as one enters terms into the general search function on the European Commission’s website. Enter “Palestine” and you get 20,737 results. Enter “Ethiopia” and you get almost the same figure, despite massive differences in population size (Ethiopia’s 100 million versus fewer than 5 million Palestinians), geographic expanse (Ethiopia is 50 times the size of “Palestine”), and degree of sheer suffering. The Syrian crisis, which is said to have led to the loss of a half-million lives, merits not many more site results than “Palestine.”

One of the foci of the website’s reports [on the Palestinians] is the plight of 35,000 Bedouin whom the EU assists, often in clear violation of the law, in Area C—the part of the West Bank under exclusive Israeli control. The hundreds of thousands of Bedouin in Sinai, however, the plight of whom is readily acknowledged even by Egyptian officials, gets no mention, even though Egypt is a recipient of EU aid. . . .

Clearly, the EU’s approach to aid allocation has nothing to do with impartiality, true social-welfare needs, or humanitarian considerations. [Instead], it favors allocations to Syrian refugees above Yemeni refugees because of the higher probability that Syrian refugees will find their way to Europe. . . . The recipients of European largesse who are next in line [to Syrians], in relative terms, are the Palestinians. [This particular policy] can be attributed primarily to the EU’s hostility toward Israel, its rightful historical claims, and its security needs.

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More about: Europe and Israel, European Union, Israel & Zionism, Palestinians