After 30 Years of Limbo, Traditional Ethiopian-Jewish Religious Leaders Recognized by Israel
by Benjamin Kerstein
Israel has officially recognized the traditional Ethiopian religious leaders referred to as kesim, ending a 30-year controversy over their official status.
Kesim have constituted the leadership of the Ethiopian-Jewish community known as the Beta Israel for centuries. Their role is similar though not identical to that of the rabbi in other Jewish communities.
They are sometimes called kahens, from the same Semitic root as the Hebrew kohen, or “priest.”
Over the decades since the mass aliyah from Ethiopia in the 1980s, however, the kesim have not been able to perform official religious functions, as their governmental status was left in limbo.
Efforts to achieve recognition have been ongoing for three decades, and activists recently threatened to go on a hunger strike if the kesim were not recognized.
In the end, this proved unnecessary. Kesim will now be able to exercise formal religious authority and their practices and halachic rulings will be accepted as legitimate by Israel’s religious establishment.
Knesset member Pnina Tamano-Shata (Yesh Atid), who is of Ethiopian descent, said of the event, “Three decades late, justice has been done for those who were the guardians of the Ethiopian Jews in the diaspora against all challenges and tribulations. The kesim gave the spiritual strength and leadership to the community during difficult aliya through the Sudan to the Land of Israel. They were and remained a magnificent religious leadership across the generations, but to my sorrow, until today their respected place was being undermined here in Israel. It’s better late than never to admit to a mistake and correct the injustice.”
The Hebrew news site Ynet quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying, “This arrangement should have been made long ago, and I am happy there is an opportunity to do it now. I think this is part of a series of steps we are taking to aid our brothers, daughters, and sons of the Ethiopian community in Israel.”
“Israel is a mosaic of many communities,” Netanyahu added. “And this community has a special standing because it kept its Jewish heritage despite complete separation [from the rest of the Jewish world]. This moves me, it’s close to my heart, and therefore the stance we take today is historic. We will continue on this important mission on behalf of all of us, our brothers and sisters.”
Minister of Religious Affairs David Azoulay told Ynet, “This is a historic decision that does justice to the Ethiopian community and brings an end to 40 years of struggle. I’m happy that the Religious Affairs Ministry under my leadership has pioneered and broken through on this issue — the absorption of the Ethiopian community.”