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 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.


2841826244They 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.

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