FALASHA: EXILE OF THE BLACK JEWS (Simcha Jacobovici, 1983)

The subject matter of the Canadian documentary Falasha: Exile of the Black Jews is the Beta Israel (“House of Israel”)—rigorously observant Jews, who, because of their isolation and poverty in Ethiopia, until recently had little or no contact with other Jewish people and even believed themselves to be the last surviving Jewish souls on Earth. Outsiders refer to them as “Falasha” or “Falash Mura,” meaning (in Ge’ez, Ethiopia’s classical ecclesiastical language) strangers or exiles; they themselves regard such terms as pejorative, much as the Romanis regard the term “Gypsies” as pejorative. Orthodox, Israeli-born Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici’s excellent piece documents efforts in the 1980s to bring these people to Israel and Israel’s own ambivalence regarding those efforts. Tragically, the Sudan allowed vast numbers of these Ethiopians to perish while they waited for Israel to rescue them—a wait, it turned out, for Godot. (Ethiopia itself had banned “freedom flights” for the Beta Israel.) While Israel bemoaned the logistical impossibility of rescuing the Beta Israel, private efforts succeeded in bringing some of them to Israel, where they assimilated to an astonishingly successful degree, in part because the Israeli people welcomed them as warmly as the Israeli government gave them the cold shoulder. Poor, black immigrants, they were officially required to “convert” to what was already their lifelong faith. A fascinating aspect of the film is the collision course on which competing definitions of Jewishness on this occasion find themselves: historical (i.e., racial) Jewishness, cultural Jewishness, religious Jewishness. This is an intellectually wide-ranging film—but one grounded in the plight of a people.

From drought- and famine-plagued parts of Ethiopia, refugees entered the Sudan; they endured incredible hardship to reach the Sudan, and many died en route. Thousands of the refugees are Jewish, hoping to continue on to Israel. Turning a blind eye to their wholesale deaths, a miniature echo of the Holocaust (a point made by an interviewed official), Israel may have been in part motivated by geopolitical considerations stemming from its broader anti-Communist “African Policy,” which required it, Israel felt, not to rock the Sudanese boat. From our perspective, Sudan’s policy of allowing the persecution and deaths of black Ethiopian émigrés anticipates its current goal of slaughtering or driving out all black people, to make the Sudan a purely Arab nation. We apply the euphemism ethnic cleansing to what is unfolding today in the Sudan, and it breaks our hearts that Israel largely fiddled while people died in its exalted name. On the other hand, Israel claimed that all the public debate jeopardized its “secret missions” on behalf of the Beta Israel—for us Americans, an echo of Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. The Israeli missions to rescue the Beta Israel with which we are familiar, Operations Moses (begun in 1984) and Solomon, ironically, may have been spurred by the publicity brought to the matter by activist efforts, including Jacobovici’s film! A similar U.S. mission, Operation Sheba, drew its name from the legend that the Beta Israel are descendants of Menelik I, founder of Ethiopia, the son of King Solomon and Makeda, the black Queen of Sheba.

One of the film’s most extensive and extraordinary passages finds Jacobovici and crew surreptitiously—what they did Ethiopia specifically forbad—journeying deep into the Simien Mountains to observe and interview actual members of the Beta Israel. “Synagogues were padlocked, Hebrew schools closed, and rabbis imprisoned” once Ethiopia, under the military rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam, began its embrace of Soviet aid and Communism—the “new creed” for which the Beta Israel refused to abdicate the practice of its ancient faith. Ethiopia retaliated, cutting off the Beta Israel from all means of survival. (Jacobovici subsequently learns that his official interpreter, whom he has tricked into participating in his filmmaking venture, occasionally mistranslates in order to move the remarks of the villagers in the direction of official Ethiopian claims.) Jacobovici’s camera shows us the Beta Israel, a people abandoned by the state, in their harsh, elemental environment and in their threadbare lives devoted to study of the Torah. In the face of the mesmerizing strangeness of these people and of their heartrending poverty, debate as to their origins becomes almost churlish. At the time, experts assumed that the Beta Israel had long ago been converted to Judaism from Christianity, and DNA evidence since the film was made also suggests the Beta Israel never were a lost tribe of Israel. But what we see are men, women and children living (in the devotional, if not the social sense) absolutely committed Jewish lives.

Two men—one middle-aged (and again in the news because he is dying, if not already dead, his need for a kidney colliding with Canada’s fastidious socialized health care system), the other, young—structure much of the remaining material. Baruch Tegegne, who has since been responsible for bringing numerous members of the Beta Israel to safety, speaks from Canada with disbelief as to Israel’s lack of compassion and concern. Tegegne himself is one of the Beta Israel. He now (if at all, barely) lives in Canada, to where he moved to marshal American support for his people. The other man, Babu Yakov, also managed to escape from Ethiopia through the Sudan. He lives, however, in Israel. Jacobovici brings him a tape-recorded song and message from his nephew, who (as of 1983) is still stranded in the Sudan. It is this gentle, affable, cracklingly intelligent member of the Beta Israel who explains that he “converted” to Judaism, although he has been an observant Jew all his life, because he did not want to be sent back to Ethiopia. These and other males speak directly into the camera, but a number of female members of the Beta Israel anonymously speak in silhouetted profile from behind a sheet, intermittently cloaking the film in mystery and underscoring for us the fear experienced by those who are oppressed.

Jacobovici is Canada’s most renowned documentarian. Falasha: Exile of the Black Jews, with its haunted modern instances of exodus and diaspora, won the top prize at the Hemisfilm International Film Festival in San Antonio. Some of it is conventional “talking heads” stuff (though wittily edited, so that one piece of expert testimony blows another piece of it out of the water), but at times it is much better than that, especially in Ethiopia and then in Israel, where people walk down sunny streets toting voluminous history on their backs.

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One thought on “FALASHA: EXILE OF THE BLACK JEWS (Simcha Jacobovici, 1983)

  1. The “FALASHA: EXILE OF THE BLACK JEWS” is an excellent documentary; however, I would like to comment on Simcha’s use of the term “black” to define the Falasha. The term “blacks” commonly used in context of the racial and historical heritage of the African American population which becomes irrelevant when applied to the ethnic and cultural legacy of the Falasha population.
    For example, a traditional system of ethnic categorization in Ethiopian society forms a distinction between the non-Negroid Habasha populations and the Negroid (sub-Saharan) Ethiopians. However, the Falasha population contains members from both groups.
    The complexity and independence of the Falasha population needs to be recognized in order for us to gain understanding of this great cultural heritage.

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