What happened to Jewish communties in Ethiopia during ww2?

I would like to know what happend to rhe jewish community in Ethiopia in ww2? Was there a jewish Ethiopian unit? How did the Italians act towards the jews there? Were there any Italian plans for there extermination? And did they help the British to conquer Ethiopia?


Many Ethiopians who weren’t Jewish claimed Jewish descent as well. I know that Mussolini did propose having a separate Jewish zone in Ethiopia that was basically like a giant concentration camp.


So I looked this up! There’s a whole article about this subject by Daniel P. Summerfield in his book “From Falashas[1] to Ethiopian Jews” - and that article appears to have been reprinted a bunch of times. It appears to be from his Ph.D. thesis, which is here: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f9fb/30fb75f6d01a43f20582129c71c96f45cfa6.pdf

So to start with: The relationship between the Beta Israel and the main Ashkenazi-Sephardi-Eidot Mizrachi[2][3] axis has historically been oddly tense because the Beta Israel seem to have pre-Talmudic definitions and customs. Indeed, while this happens later, Rav Ovadia Yosef ruled that they needed to dip in a mikvah to convert as a “safety measure” to make sure they were really Jewish. As part of this tension, in the pre-1930xs period, there was Jewish missionizing to them by the Ashkenazi-Sephardi-Eitdot Mizrachi axis to make them “more Jewishly normal” in terms of where the three big groups tend to align in Jewish practice and legal though vis a vis the Talmud and developed halacha.

I mention this not because I particularly like this aspect of Jewish history (I don’t), but because these differences saved their lives.

According to the article, there are two basic phases to how Mussolini treated the Beta Israel:

Phase one: Post-conquering to 1938. In this phase, they were seen as kinda- Jewish with many caveats. This phase also coincides with the period before most of the racial laws in Italy. As part of this phase, they were given money to invest in their Talmudic ag school and food and community support (including a Sefer Torah in honor of Mussolini…). This was done primarily for the same reason the Italians gave Muslim minorities in Ethiopia money - to build local support. However, they were racialized because they were black: one of the results was their skin color overruled their Jewishness in the eyes of the Italians. As a result, they were purposely mostly cut off from the native Italian Jewish communities minus one main contact point, because the government didn’t want them intermixing.

Phase 2 - after 1938. Once Italy starts putting in antisemitic race laws in Italy and enforcing them, questions arose about the Beta Israel. A guy named Teruzzi comes out with a new set of policies. They were

  1. Firstly, the opportunity to establish in Addis Ababa, one community of Italian, Yemenite and Falasha Jews was no longer a possibility.
  2. Secondly, although the plan to establish a Falasha agricultural-technical school in Gondar was not abandoned, the minister did not consider it suitable to teach in it elements of Talmudic Judaism which were for the purpose of inculcating the Falashas with concepts of traditional Judaism. The teachers, instead, should be natives of Ethiopia and for the agricultural-technical tuition, Italian Christians.
    3.Thirdly, Teruzzi stated that officially “one need not talk of a Jewish religion of Abyssinia, but simply of a free Falasha religion, like other religions of Ethiopia.”

Effectively, this de-Judaized the Beta Israel and lumped them in as Ethiopians. As part of this policy, money and support from foreign Jewish communities from the Ashkenazi-Sephardi-Eitdot Mizrachi axis were cut. From there they were on a national level discriminated against by the Italians because they were black, and on the local level discriminated against by Ethiopian Christians for being Jewish (a historical problem dating back a while). However, they weren’t say discriminated any worse than anyone else by the Italian Fascists, so in the areas they controlled, the Beta Israel (mostly) supported them. They were allowed to worship freely, and when they served in the Italian army they even got permission to observe Shabbat and eat their own food. Unlike their Italian Jewish community counterparts of say, the Jewish community of Rome, they were not deported to Jewish-Italian internment camps or forced to wear Jewish stars (this was before Hitler took over Italy). However, to the western public, Italy pretended they were Jewish as a shield against accusations of antisemitism.

Finally, an endnote: Emperor Haile Selassie came back to power in 1941. In 1943, after the Beta Israel community heard about the warsaw ghetto uprising, they decided to go to him and ask to rescue jews. As a result, Haile Selassie got in touch with, of all groups, the Agudah(who are ultra-orthodox and not a huge force in rescuing jews) This got out a (very) small amount of Greek jews as part of a general refugee program. Not a lot of research had been done about this though (I found about this through the Jerusalem Post When Ethiopian Jews tried to save European Jews from the Holocaust - The Jerusalem Post ) But an interesting end note!

[1] Note: if you run into an Ethiopian Jewish person, don’t call them that, it means outsider/exile. They prefer Beta Israel.

[2] The three big sub-ethnic-religious groups of Jewish people and the best way to divide them is by language - they have differences in customs.

Ashkenazim are the Jewish people of Eastern European descent primarily (though Ashkenaz since the 10th century-ish refers to the Rhineland, Franco-Germany). They tend to have their religious authorities in the middle ages period coming from what is now France and Germany, and they spoke Yiddish among themselves.

Sephardim started in Spain under Islamic Rule (Sepharad means Spain, though it also refers to Portugal). Generally, this covers Turkey, the Balkans, Greece, some Dutch (Spanish and Portuguese) Jews, elements of the Moroccan and Egyptian communities. They spoke Ladino among themselves.

They have a strong overlap with the Eidot Mizrachi (the communities of the east, literally). This generally covers areas like Iran, Iraq, Syria, parts of Egypt and Morroco, Yemen They spoke Judeo-Arabic among themselves. There’s overlap with the Sephardim because of Muslim rule (so for example, Maimonidies was originally from Spain but wrote responsa in Judeo-Arabic to communities as far away as Yemen.)

There are also some exceptions to the language rule (the dutch community is the most prominent example. Dutch jews, aka Spanish and Portuguese Jews, ( the only one I know calls himself Dutch though this may be an American communal affectation), speak the host language, like English if they are Americans, and pray in Hebrew and Aramaic like other Ashekanzism, Sephardim and Eidot Mizrachi jews)

If you go up to anyone who knows/cares about this sort of stuff in the Ashkenazi-Sephardi-Eidot Mizrachi axis and say asked them about the Shulchan Aruch (it’s a Jewish legal book) - they’ll have an opinion about if it can be used, does it need editorializing. The Beta Israel historically fell outside of these norms due to low contact, which is why they aren’t on this list, along (sort of) Cochin Jewry(India, though they developed one due to influence from Yemenite and Baghdadi Jews) and the Jews of Kaifeng, China.

Also, yes, you’re reading between the lines correctly if you are inferring that Sephardim were affected by the Holocaust. The reason you don’t hear much about them is they were devastated in the Balkans and Greece

[3] So I am making a brief change. The primary Italian Jewish apparently see themselves as distinct from any of the big three (though they historically host Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities on top of the native Italian one) https://www.stljewishlight.com/special_sections/ohr_chadash/culture-abroad-jewish-tradition-continues-to-thrive-in-rome/article_0eafd05a-0174-11e1-8cde-001cc4c002e0.html This sort of makes sense, especially in Rome, since Italy a) has a number of ports that have functioned for thousands of years and b) the Jewish community has been there since before the exile (though it really got its legs after the Second Roman-Judean war. The arch of titus and all of that Jazz, after all. ) They’re still on that axis in terms of majoritarian text availability and normative legal ruling (hell, some of their community’s rabbis end up important), but they fuse elements from all three of the big overarching communities and maintain distinct tunes and rites when it comes to day to day practice. (this is here in case any italian jewish people come by…)


That’s fascinating! By the I’m from Israel so I know the way that Sephardim/ Ashkenazim/ Eidot Mizrachi works.



I wrote the explanation about the Sephardim/Ashkenazim/Eidot Mizrachim thing as a general background because if you are not Jewish, you’ll have no idea why there’s this discussion about the Beta Israel in the first place. I’m an ashkenazi datia leumi she’avra person in NY, so I’ve also heard about this, but that’s a kinda specific background thing. If you aren’t exposed to this stuff… I assumed that a general reader wouldn’t know this. And I am still not sure if my explanation, which is rushed, does the discussion of differences justice.

It was a great question - holocaust and ww2 discussions tend to be VERY ashkenormative[1] with a contemporaneous spin[2] because most of the US community beforehand was Ashkenazi, and it appears most survivors were/are Ashkenazi, and the early Yishuv had a bias against non-Ashkenazim even though the Holocaust wasn’t an Ashkenazi specific phenomena.

Take the case of Tunisian Jews under Vichy. It’s not an Ashkenazi community, and yet they suffered. There’s also a lot of hope there, as the Muslim community found the race laws detestable and made it extremely difficult to enforce them. But it’s not a part of active Jewish discussion or popular memory of the holocaust.

Or what happened in Thessilonkia…that community is gone.

Hopefully, this question and answer kicks some butts about how to think about the Jewish community during ww2 and how to think about the holocaust, and we’ll see a complete picture in ww2 when these issues come up (as opposed to the current ashekanormative storytelling norms).

(plus it appears that the team isn’t Jewish, so why would they know this stuff? I mean, when is this kind of stuff discussed in public?)

[1]https://forward.com/opinion/208473/learning-to-undo-ashkenormativity/ full disclosure, I know the author. He’s a mensch, and totally right about the issue (since I have non-ashekanzi friends and they detest sometimes the assumption of ashekanzi-ism). And I hope my previous answer reflected me trying to not fall into that norm, even though now I know I screwed up. Outside of the italians, there’s also romaniote https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romaniote_Jews They’re not sephardic, and I think I classified some as so. Sorry!
[2] because the American community today is some sort of liberal zionist on the whole, and the zionist community then was active in the discussion about the holocaust, it’s assumed in popular media that in the 1920s and 1930s the American community would also be very zionist. This makes very little sense since what is happening is you get Bundist Menshevics coming into their own in the US, liberalizing away from communism, and becoming active in labor movements. A lot of this memory is deleted in the wake of the Rosenberg trial. Zionism at the time was just coming out of the fringe.


So a slight update to this post for those who care

Shira Klein’s “Italy’s Jews from Emancipation to Fascism” has a discussion about the Beta Israel and Italian Jewry. (the book was a finalist for the national jewish book awards) She’s interviewed here

some notes

  1. Italian Jewry pre-1938 had strong fascist leanings for class reasons (which briefly surprised me, but then I remembered Jabotisnky really liked Mussolini…)
  2. The jewish community of Italy had widespread support for the Italian wars, in part because they wanted to colonialize the Beta Israel into “normative” behavior in a way similar to the French Jewish community wanted to do something similar with the jewish community of algiers

Some more information here https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jewisocistud.25.1.01?seq=1 <- there was a yeshiva in Rhodes that was explictly fascist as part of this tension

Shira having a lecture about colonialism, Italy, and the jewish communities involved here