Compositionally, the images of South African photojournalist Ilan Ossendryver, now on view in the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art (OUMA) exhibit Beta Israel: Ethiopian Jews and the Promised Land [January 27 – April 21, 2013] are less compelling, especially when compared to one of the largest documentary photo collections of the modern era, the United State’s Farm Security Agency Photographic Project (1935-1942) But what I appreciate about Beta Israel—an aspect that is missing in many of the FSA images—is that the content of the photographs lifts to the surface the difficult negotiations inherit in documentary photography as a medium: Ossendryver’s photographs at once glorify the salvific nature of the Israeli government, (which, in 1991, conducted a covert mass evacuation of Jews out of the quickly destabilizing Ethiopia) while simultaneously pointing to the cultural and structural inequalities faced by the Beta Israel—including high unemployment rates, lower levels of formal education, and the stripping of the religious authority from traditional priests. As a collection, Beta Israel captures the fragility of some of the most potent constructions of modern identity including religion, race, and nation.
The photographs in the collection represent nearly three decades of photojournalist work by Ossendryver—from 1984 to 2011—and document the migration of almost 100,000 Jews out of Ethiopia and into Israel. The biblical allusion to the Exodus would have been overwrought had OUMA decided to display the photographs in a predictable visual narrative, first walking you through the daily lives of Jews in Ethiopia, then their preparation and transit toward aliyah, and finally, their settlement in the Promised Land. But rather than anchor the photographs to a facile script or an engrained mythos, the exhibition asks the viewer to consider the cultural value of inclusion—as well as exclusion—and forces the question of what it means to be a people.
The religious and material culture featured in the images— the division of men and women at prayer, men wearing kippot and tallit, and women lighting the Sabbath candles—are indicative of the continuities among Jewish traditions. However, from a historical and mythical standpoint, the Beta Israel diverged from the dominant Jewish narrative as early as biblical times: They claim their ancestry from the union of the biblical King Solomon and Queen of Sheba, and traditionally practice a pre-rabbinic form of Judaism. More relevant to the assemblage of contemporary Jewish identities, I think, is that the defining paradigm of the dominant strands of Judaism—recovery from the Holocaust—is not necessarily the principal, historical struggle of Ethiopian Jews. The existence of the modern state of Israel—and the Law of Return through which the Beta Israel are guaranteed Israeli citizenship—is predicated on that terrifying and mechanistic European genocide.
Some Ethiopian Jews adopted the Christian practice of tattooing either to hide their Jewish origin or after converting to Christianity. Tattooing is prohibited in rabbinic law, and part of the assimilation process for Ethiopian-born Israelis is to have the marks removed. The portion of the Beta Israel that converted to Christianity, the Falash Mura, are granted right to the Law of Return only if their mother is Jewish and if they agree to convert to Orthodox Judaism before making aliyah.
Confronted by the photographs of black Jewish faces forces an immediate reconsideration of what it looks like to be a Jew. After leaving the exhibition, that initial provocation develops into an internal discourse about the ethnic, religious, and communal affiliations that delicately weave identities and selves. Beta Israel tells a story of assimilation and resistance, of a distinct people within a people. In one of the most memorable photographs of the series, a group of nine or ten children pose in front of a mural painted on the side of a concrete building in Gondar, Ethiopia. On the right-hand side of the mural is a painting of Africa, on the left, Ethiopia. In the middle, the State of Israel.