Falasha - Orientation

Identification. The Falasha are a northern Ethiopian highland population of Jewish belief. They are one of the dozens of small ethnic minorities in Ethiopia and have been recognized as a "nationality" in the Ethiopian constitution of 1986. More than half of this community emigrated to Israel during the late 1970s and 1980s.

Location. The traditional Falasha area lies on the central Ethiopian plateau, its elevation mostly above 2,000 meters. Roughly between 12°30′ and 14°30′ N and 37°00′ and 38°10′ E, it is located north of Gonder town, reaching up to the Tekeze River, east into western Welo (near Sequote village, and into the Shire area of Tigray Region (west of Aksum town). On the plateau, average daytime temperatures are between 16° C and 27-35° C in the dry season (from October to June, with a "small rainy season" from February to March) and slightly lower in the rainy season (May to September). Nights are cold, with temperatures around -18° C, especially in the Semyen area. Despite the "rainy season" (Keremt), rain is notoriously unreliable, and crop production is often precarious. In addition, the northern highlands have much suffered from erosion and soil deterioration. Part of the Falasha area was hard hit by the drought and famines of 1984-1985 and after.

Demography. In 1976 a voluntary-agency worker in the Falasha area conducted a census that reckoned the total number of Falasha as 28,189. This was before any emigration had taken place. The Falasha nowadays number around 30,000 to 40,000 persons, almost half of them residing in Israel. Since the start of the move to Israel, more inhabitants of the Falasha region in Ethiopia have, predictably, identified themselves as "Beta Esráel" or as being of Beta Esráel descent. They form only a tiny ethnoreligious minority within Ethiopia.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Falasha speak the Semitic languages of the majority population of their areas: Amharic and Tegreñña respectively. In the Middle Ages, and partly up to the mid-nineteenth century, they spoke Agew, a Cushitic language of the original inhabitants of the Ethiopian plateau, before the arrival of Semitic speakers of Ge'ez, Tegreñña, and Amharic, from the north. In the 1950s, owing to the emerging ties of the Falasha with Israel, some Hebrew was introduced by young teachers trained in Israel. In Israel the Falasha retain Amharic and Tegreñña among themselves, but also learn Hebrew.

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