Interview with retired diplomat and a member of distinguished family of the Bete Israel, Dr. Fitigu Tadesse

Interview with retired diplomat and a member of distinguished family of the Bete Israel, Dr. Fitigu Tadesse

Dr. Fitigu Tadesse was born in 1939 in Azezo, Gondar town and raised in Addis Ababa. He was educated at the French Lycée Gebre-Mariam. Upon completing high-school he went to Israel and studied at the Bar Ilan University of Tel Aviv where he graduated in political science.He received international relations master’s degree there in 1963. He also received his PHD from the University of Strasbourg, France in international relations in 1968. He joined the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in early 70’s and he had ambassadorship positions in Djibouti and Italy and he had also served as the Vice President of Africa Programmes of the UK-based, The Hunger Project. Fitigu’s manner, his gestures, and his voice recall the vanished provincial of his childhood, where the bourgeoisie retained traces of cosmopolitan culture. The son of a government official and Minister in Emperor’s Haile Selassie’ era, he spent his early years speaking Amharic with his parents, Hebrew with his relatives, and French and English at school. Ambassador Fitigu was interviewed in November 2016 in Addis Ababa Tennis Club’s garden.

Your father Tadesse Yakob was State Minister at the Prime Minister’s office during the Emperor Haile Selassie’ era. He had the Bete Israel (the Falasha) origin. Could you please start by telling us about this heritage of yours?

We were members of the Bete-Israeli family, what we call them Ethiopian Jews, though we don’t know it much. I don’t have any recollections of that. My father’s family became Christian three or four generations before him. And his father was at the court of Emperor Tewdros. And as such, he would not be at higher situation unless he became Christian. So, he adopted the state religion to climb up the higher ladder. My father had an uncle called Tamrat Emmanuel, who when he was young, sent from Gondar to a church school in Debre Tabor, to learn Geez, and Scriptures at the age of seven. And apparently while in Debre Tabor, he met a Swedish missionary, and that mission fellow was impressed with his Geez proficiency.

They took him with in that mission. He went from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church School to the Swedish mission school without formally changing his religion. And he learned English, and all that. And for higher study, the Swedish mission sent him to Asmara, which was under Italian rule. He went to a formal school there, Italian school, Caponi. He learned Italian and at a certain point, he became erudite, very knowledgeable in Geez, English and Italian. From there he came back to his mother, and after what he told me later on, he heard rumour that his father was a Falasha.

The family didn’t talk much about it because the grand-father became Christian and a member of the high court of Atse Tewodors. So this minority should not be mentioned and all that. He was troubled by the fact that the family was hiding this inheritance. He went to see the Governor of Gondar to discuss the plight of the Falasha and while he was roaming there with the governor, he heard that a certain Jacques Faitlovitch, a Polish Jew who had studied at the school for oriental languages at the Sorbonne in Paris, was there to undertake a research about the Falasha community. The two met and struck a friendship, intellectual friendship at that. They decided to undertake to study together and they met Falashas in remote villages. They found that they were praying in Geez but a little bit in Hebrew also, though their religious practices did not always conform to rabbinic Judaism. It was explained that they were away for the 2,000 years and obviously, they forgot some aspects of the customs.

That was then the task of helping the Falashas to undergo a change of consciousness that eventually led them to Israel started?

First, they decided to take three or four people to Europe for study. Somebody called Aleka Gete was the kind of head of that community. One of them, Yona Bogale was sent to Germany while Aleka Gete went to London. Tamrat headed to Paris with Faitlovitch. They could really garner the support of the Jews and recognition. Since then, Prof. Tamrat became really involved in that and devoted his life to the community. And finally, in 1934, they opened a school, a Hebrew school here, not very far from Merkato, to teach the history of the Jewish people and to preserve the community’s own religious traditions. They had many students. That closed down in 1935 when the Italian invaded Ethiopia. Prof. Tamrat went back to Paris as a refuge and stayed there until 1943. He came back.
He was a big influence on your life?

In a certain way. When I was looking at Prof. Tamrat, it was like I was looking at people like Corneille, like Jean Jacque Rousseau, somebody who was really theoretically very deep, democrat, without probably the knowledge of applying those theories into practice. He was not an office person but an intellectual who went from house to house to tell stories, to debate. I didn’t live with him.

Your parents brought you to Addis Ababa when you were a child. You had a secular upbringing but with some knowledge of religion from your relatives?

I came to Addis Ababa and then we were living in Kazanchis area. I went for the year to Princess Zenebework School, I guess. I don’t even quite remember, I was too young. In early 49, I think the Lycée Français was opened. And my father, who studied in Cairo, who was Arabophone and Francophone said he would send us there. And we went there. So my formative years really come from that the French school and we finished our baccalaureate. Yona Bogale who was sent to Germany and after Second World War came back to Ethiopia and he started continuing that Hebrew School. It was more or less working. In 1956 Israel was already born and many Jews were going by thousands and all that. In Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie refused to send the Falashas to the young nation. He said “Just forget it. I am myself a Jew, Moa Anbesa. The entire Ethiopian people is descended from the people of Israel. You don’t take my people, not even a single one,”

Well, that is actually what I personally feel.

However, the Emperor was willing to the idea of a group of young Ethiopian Jews going there to study on the condition that they return to Ethiopia to serve as teachers. After all, the Emperor, we are sending young people to Europe and the US for education. In 1955, I became among the twelve Ethiopian Jews who were chosen by Yona Bogale to go to Israel. So we went there. Since most of them came from the countryside and lacked languages, since I spoke French and English, I became the de facto leader of the group. I remember when we arrived in Israel, they asked us what our feelings were. I spoke in French, “Je suis heureux d’être en Israël. j’ai beaucoup entendu parler de ce pays. En tant que éthiopien, j’espère que nous serons bien intégrés et que nous aurons l’occasion pour aller à l’école comme tout le monde. » (I am happy to be in Israel. I have heard a lot about this country. As an Ethiopian, I hope that we will be well integrated and that we will have the opportunity to go to school like everyone else.) I was surprised myself I could speak such a thing. I learned Hebrew in one year. They said if you have to go further, they said I had to take matriculation exam. I did and passed the exam, to their surprise. They didn’t know what to do because what they had in mind was to teach us Hebrew so that we could go back home and teach the language to the rest of the Falasha.

You were not so enthusiast to do that?

No, I joined the University of Bar Ilan in Tel Aviv and I got my bachelor’s degree in political science, minoring in economics. And I did in international relations master’s degree in Israel from 1958- 63. After my Master’s degree, I did not want to go Gondar to teach Hebrew. I told them they had enough people that they brought from Gondar. I was thinking about going to the political establishment in Ethiopia. My father at that time was minister of state at the prime minister’s office, Tadesse Yakob. He was minster of state at Aklilu Habte-Wold’s office. And when I wrote to the Ethiopian Ministry of Education saying that I was among the 66 who finished Baccalauréat and since I was Falassha I came to Israel but I wanted to go to France. The response was positive. They told me that I was entitled. They sent me to the University of Strasbourg and I stayed there from 1963-68, I did my PHD in international relations. The title of my thesis was “La politique Française en ethiopie 1933- 1936”. When I came back in 1968, I was assigned in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I went to see Dr. Tesfaye Gebreezgi, the Minister of State under Ketema Yifru.

Before you start telling us about your diplomatic careers, if I take you back to questions of the authenticity and origins of the Judaism of the Falashas. What is your take? Do you believe they are true Jews?

No, I don’t. They are for me autochthone people who were converted to Judaism through contacts with merchants and intermarriage. Jews who came to Ethiopia in medieval times married Ethiopian women and they were made to adopt Judaism, particularly their insistence on respecting Sabbath, which was not specific to Ethiopian Jews. For me Ethiopia is my country, I have always felt Ethiopian. That was why I came back.

In the Ethiopian orthodox tradition, there has been practices such as Mitswat, in which believers go churches and give out handouts to needy people, which is incorporated from Jews tradition.

Many things are Jews tradition because it is the first religion in the world. Jesus was a Jew. He wanted to change the status quo, he was someone who wanted to introduce a different approach to Judaism. But otherwise, there was only Judaism. At the start, there was no Buddhism, no Islam.

There have been people in Ethiopia who have been marginalized as Falasah. The Agew and kimant people more or less went through similar experience. Perhaps you’d like to comment on that.

A little bit less. More emphatically on the Ethiopian Jews, to the extent that they did not have a place to bury their dead. I was hearing about that. I was saying like what. That only stopped during Mengistu’s time. Emperor Haile Selassie was saying, “Well, we will try to teach our people. They should know that the Bete Israel are the original people of the world”. But nothing was done on the ground. But most importantly, beyond this happening and that, the Ethiopian Jews funnily enough are so much attached to Judaism, to Israel. They don’t even know Judaism. But the thing is for a foreigner, you cannot but accept that these people must be Jews. Why are they so attracted to Israel? Today they have all kinds of special problems there in Israel there but they have strong attachment to that land.

You’ve never been considered as sell-out by other Ethiopians Jews?

Not a sell-out. I rather remember the great respect they bestowed me. Of course, they knew that I was ambitious. For reasons I was arguing with the government of Israel. I’ve never felt a Falasha. Even in Israel, but I was never one to wear a keppa. I was tolerated because the Israelis had also their own suspicion that a black could not be Jew.
(To be Continued)

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