The history and origins of the Falasha (the "Black Jews of Ethiopia") is one of the perennial subjects of scholarly and popular debate. Their Jewish beliefs (different in kind and liturgical form from "normative" Talmudic Judaism) suggest a priori an ancient link with the land of Israel and the Israelites, the popular idea being that their ancestors migrated to Ethiopia in the time of King Solomon's kingdom (e.g., as a group of highborn assistants and teachers who accompanied Menilek, who was—according to Ethiopian ecclesiastical tradition—the son of Solomon and the queen of Sheba [i.e., Ethiopia], back to Aksum from Jerusalem). The historical basis of the legend—and of various others positing an ancient link of the Falasha with the Israelites of old—is, of course, very tenuous. Indeed, recent research into the liturgical music of the Beta Esráel points to a close relationship with the Ethiopian Christian tradition, to the extent that the former has, to a significant degree, been shaped by the latter. Occasional references to "Jews" or "Israelites" in various religious and historical documents cannot be assumed to refer to the Falasha as a long-established Jewish community in Ethiopia. Deserving of more serious consideration are the accounts of medieval travelers, who mention a country where Jews lived independently in mountain fortresses, fighting with Christian emperors and defending their faith (Kaplan 1988). Even on the basis of these reports, however, one cannot conclude that the Falasha existed as a clearly identifiable Jewish population in the Ethiopian highlands, at least not before the fourteenth century. For the subsequent period, however, there are more data on groups of rebellious "Jews" (Ge'ez: Ayhud) who resisted the encroaching Christian kings trying to force them into submission and convert them to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. The Falasha indeed became the historic enemies (together with the Muslims) of the Ethiopian medieval emperors, certainly from the time of Ishaq (r. 1413-1438) up to that of Susneyos (r. 1607-1632). The former started a war of conquest and conversion in the area where a Judaic people or, as the Ethiopian royal chronicles often state, "former Christians, people like Jews" lived (i.e., in the area north of present-day Gonder). As a result of this war, the Beta Esráel/Falasha lost their title to land. They became an inferior "caste," cultivating only land owned by Christians and gradually taking up crafts as additional means of livelihood. They became the blacksmiths, weavers, and potters of their area, often despised and shunned by landholding Amhara-Tigray. The corollary of this division of labor, based on conquest and religious difference, was the emergence of a "supernatural" boundary: the Falasha were often accused of possessing magical powers and the evil eye (Amharic: buda ). In the course of the centuries, the Beta Esráel continued to fight wars to retain their independence from Ethiopian kings, who demanded political submission and tribute (Quirin 1977). Periods of relative peace (under sixteenth-century emperors Galawdewos and Fasilades) were followed by fierce battles, for example, during the reigns of kings Baede Maryam (1468-1478), Serse Dengel (1563-1597), and Susneyos. It was Susneyos who rooted out any semblance of autonomy of the Beta Esráel area and started an intensive conversion campaign. After the 1620s, the Beta Esráel became a virtually powerless minority, at the bottom end of the social hierarchy of traditional feudalist Ethiopia, and their numbers dwindled. A period of renewed interest from Western travelers and scholars was initiated by a visit of the French-Jewish Orientalist J. Halévy (1868), who prepared a report for the Jewish Alliance Israelite Universelle asking for moral, religious, and educational support for these "forgotten Jews." From that time on, albeit with ups and downs, growing Jewish interest in the Falasha and growing identification of the Beta Esráel with world Jewry and, later, the state of Israel led to a decisive rapprochement between the Beta Esráel and the Jewish people and, ultimately, to the emigration movement of recent years. The immediate causes of this movement were the sociopolitical upheaval after the Revolution of 1974 and the threats of drought and famine. The flight itself, which claimed the lives of an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Beta Esráel, included weeks of dangerous trekking through drought- and hunger-stricken enemy territory toward refugee camps in eastern Sudan. An airlift from Sudan beginning in November 1984 and lasting until April 1985 brought many thousands to Israel, but an equal number remained in Ethiopia; thus, a truncated community continues to live in the Welo and Gonder administrative regions, in some thirty-six villages. Virtually all the Falasha in Tigray have been able to leave. Many Falasha who stayed in Ethiopia wish to go to Israel to join their relatives. Negotiations on emigration of the community were resumed after the silent rapprochement between Israel and Ethiopia in 1989 (and the restoration of various forms of assistance given by Israel to Ethiopia). In Israel, a new phase of the history of the Beta Esráel (simply identifying themselves as "Ethiopian Jews") has begun, bringing with it profound social, religious, and cultural changes challenging traditional life-styles, ideas, and norms of this once rather neglected rural Ethiopian minority (see Ashkenazi and Weingrod 1987).
Although much has been made of the Jewish belief and character of the Falasha, in a broad cultural sense (linguistically, ethnically, socially), they are primarily "Ethiopian" in character (i.e., their outlook, way of life, and economic and social organization are predominantly similar to those of the Highland Amhara-Tigray). Their Judaic tradition, however, has always stimulated a sense of separate identity, which was "reproduced" by the ethnic division of labor, supernatural beliefs, and religious differences. These elements have somewhat eroded since the Revolution because both the traditional socioeconomic stratification and superstitious beliefs were actively discouraged by the revolutionary authorities, who also denigrated traditional artisanry.