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Religious Identity at Heart of Judaica Student Publication

judaica student paper

A thesis written by Mishy Harman, '08, was recently selected as the 10th paper to be published as part of the Judaica Division's Student Research Papers series.

October 27, 2009 – What is it, exactly, that determines religious identity? If you say you’re Jewish, but still attend church on Sundays and profess a belief in Jesus Christ – are you still Jewish, or are you Christian? Is religious identity an either/or proposition, or a more fluid construct? These questions, and others, are among those raised by “Blurred Binarism: Jewish Identity in the Case of the Falash Mura,” the senior thesis of Mishy Harman, ’08.

“We are especially pleased to see students doing research on topics related to contemporary Israel as Mishy Harman has done so well,” said Charles Berlin, the Lee M. Friedman Bibliographer in Judaica and Head of the Judaica Division in the Harvard College Library.

Harman’s thesis was recently selected as the 10th paper to be published as part of the Harvard Judaica Division's Student Research Papers series. Other works in the series have focused on Jewish and Israeli music, Hebrew literature, and Yiddish stand-up comedy, said Berlin. Papers published as part of the series are cataloged in HOLLIS and are held in Widener, Lamont and Loeb Music libraries and in the Harvard University Archives.

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Part of the old Ethiopian Jewish minority group, the Falash Mura converted to Christianity at the urging of 19th-century European missionaries, but today are at the core of a political debate in Israel over Jewish identity. The controversy, Harman explained, began in the early 1970s with Israel’s effort to repatriate thousands of Ethiopian Jews.

Among them were many Falash Mura, whose Jewish status was uncertain. Citing Israel’s Law of Return, which allows Jews and those of Jewish ancestry the right to migrate to and settle in Israel, the Falash Mura argued that they should be permitted to emigrate, like other unconverted Ethiopian Jews. The question for Israeli officials, Harman said, became one of determining whether the Falash Mura are truly Jewish, or whether their earlier conversion precluded their Jewish identity.

Though many Falash Mura attended church on Sunday and professed a belief in Jesus Christ, many maintained close social and familial ties to the Jewish community, and referred to themselves as Jews. As part of his research, Harman spent approximately six weeks living in Falash Mura camps in northern Ethiopia. What he found, he said, were a people whose religious identity was surprisingly malleable, depending on the situation.

“Many people I met could be considered almost “socially” Jewish – they worked in professions which are relegated only to the Jews – like being blacksmiths; they often lived in areas that were considered Jewish areas; and they were often discriminated against because they were still considered to be Jews. Religiously, however, they would be considered Christian. I talked with people who had tattoos of crosses on their foreheads, went to Church every Sunday and believed in Jesus Christ, but when you asked them, they would say, ‘I’m Jewish.’”

 “Many Falash Mura, understandably, claim that they are Jewish,” Harman said, explaining that questions about the population persist even today.  “Many people in Israel, meanwhile, worried that, by allowing the Falash Mura to emigrate, and given the lack of any systematic registration or documentation in Ethiopia, Israel would find itself flooded with millions of people applying to emigrate.”

“What my paper suggests is that we’re asking these questions of identity in the wrong way,” Harman said. “We’re trying to figure out if they’re Jews or not Jews within our very binary understanding of those terms, that you can either be Jewish or Christian, and if you’re one, you can’t be the other. But for the Falash Mura there is a much more fluid border between these identities.”

In addition to his research in Africa, Harman interviewed many Falash Mura who have emigrated to Israel as well as dozens of current and former government officials in Israel and prominent rabbis who were instrumental in determining questions of Ethiopian Judaism. He also relied heavily on the Judaica Division’s collections for his understanding of the political issues surrounding the Falash Mura in modern Israel.

“I spent a lot of time working with the Judaica Division’s collections,” he said. “I looked through a lot of minutes of Knesset meetings, and studied religious books about the various ways in which converts had been treated in history. Without access to those sorts of materials, I would not have been able to complete my thesis.”

 “This type of research on Israel relies on primary source materials that are considerably different from those utilized on other topics,” said Berlin. “For contemporary Israel, the researcher must use a wide range of materials not available in most libraries – such as government agency reports, publications of non-governmental organizations, and ephemera such as leaflets, broadsides and posters, as well as audio and visual resources such as sound recordings, radio and television programs, and visual images. The Judaica Division has long focused on the collection and preservation of such primary source materials from Israel and it is very gratifying to see its Israeli primary sources being used so effectively.”