An Ethiopian Jewish Family Rescues a Rare Copy of the Book of Psalms

July 13 2022

In 1991, thanks to the IDF’s Operation Solomon, Askabo Meshiha escaped Ethiopia with his family, but had to leave behind many possessions, including a manuscript of the book of Psalms written in Ge’ez—the liturgical language of the country’s Jews and Orthodox Christians. A few months ago, the family retrieved it. Cnaan Liphshiz tells the story:

Secretly and on short notice, the family had to leave their rural homes for the capital Addis Ababa with as little baggage as possible, and so they entrusted non-Jewish neighbors with keeping the book safe until they could retrieve it. From Israel, they tracked the book’s whereabouts for more than 30 years, never losing hope of getting it back—even after their native country fell into civil war and the book wound up in the hands of a Christian priest who demanded a steep ransom to release it.

Dozens of square parchment pages measuring 11-by-11 inches had fallen out of the binding, and others were barely attached. But the book’s significance remained easy to identify: among the multiple types and colors of ink, some segments are written in red—a way of signifying that a kes, the Amharic-language word for a rabbi, had made additions to the original.

Even speakers of Amharic typically cannot read or communicate in Ge’ez, which is decipherable only to a dwindling group of spiritual leaders of Ethiopian Jewry, who mostly now live in Israel. Last week, the book was used in prayer, probably for the first time in at least 34 years.

The book is significant to far more than just Askabo Meshiha’s extended family. It is one of just a handful of texts in Israel that are part of the Orit, an Ethiopian variant of the Hebrew Bible that predates the advent of that standardized text.

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Read more at JTA

More about: Ethiopian Jews, Hebrew Bible, Psalms, Rare books

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy