NYU professor and noted Dead Sea Scroll scholar Lawrence Schiffman repeated an anti-Sefardic slur at a talk in Minneapolis yesterday. With regard to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's decision finding Ethiopian Jews to be Jews, Schiffman said:
No rabbi who can read a European language would believe Ethiopian Jews are Jewish.
While the above is a paraphrase, because I was ill and not there when Schiffman spoke, it matches with what I have been told by others over the past several years who have heard Schiffman repeat this ethnic slur. So much for the "Jewishness" of Lawrence Schiffman.
[And, lest you think think Schiffman is referring to the language of available scholarly material, much of that scholarly material is available in Hebrew. Some of it was, in fact, first published in Hebrew, in Israel.]
Most Israeli Sefardic rabbis speak only or primarily Hebrew. (Some, especially older rabbis, speak Arabic, as well. Others speak some French, especially if they spent some years in France.)
Schiffman also said Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled Ethiopian Jews to be non-Jews. This is false. Rav Moshe ruled that there is a doubt (sofek) about their status, and that relying on the Radbaz, who in the 16th century dealt with Ethiopian Jews and considered them to be Jewish, is problematic because it is unclear how much the Radbaz really knew about them and, even if he ruled correctly, there is a real question about intermarriage taking place since the time of the Radbaz.
Rabbi Yosef rips Rav Moshe's teshuva apart, as rabbis often do in Shu't literature. (See Yabi'a Omer, vol. 8 Even Ha-Ezer no. 11 for Rabbi Yosef's main ruling.)
Schiffman claims that Rabbi Yosef did not understand the Radbaz and that anyone who does understand the Radbaz's rulings would not think Ethiopian Jews are Jews. When he does this he makes fools out of Rav Kook, Rabbi Hildesheimer and dozens of other leading rabbis throughout the years who read the Radbaz exactly as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef does.
Schiffman also uses selective scientific evidence to bolster his case. He notes the DNA evidence against Ethiopian Jews, but does so without noting the scientists who did that research object to it being used in the way Schiffman uses it. At the same time, Schiffman fails to mention the Lemba, a tribe of black Africans now in South Africa who have a tradition of being Jewish. They also have much DNA evidence to support that claim, including prevalent "Cohen" DNA that often matches those they consider kohanim.
Schiffman believes Ethiopian Jews derive from an early medieval Yemenite Jewish family that crossed from Yemen into Ethiopia and mingled with the local populace. This may in fact be true. But the oldest explanation for Ethiopian Jews comes from the Ethiopian Jews themselves. An early legend of theirs says that, when Solomon's kingdom split after Solomon's death, the ancestors of the Ethiopian Jews, Danites, fled to Egypt rather than fight in a civil war. They then migrated progressively southward, perhaps joining with other Egyptian Jews, eventually (about 1500 years later) ending up in the mountains of Ethiopia. Because we have no way to do DNA testing on what are now the 10 Lost Tribes, we do not know how or if this Danite hypothesis would play out. There are also scholars who believe the Danites were actually an amalgam of Canaanite populace and sea peoples, and this explains, in part, the "two-state" partition of Danite land.
Schiffman also quotes a book (I don't have the name but the author *may* be Waldman) published in Israel that Schiffman says shows the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson held Ethiopian Jews are not Jewish. But see the Rebbe's letter here where the Rebbe refers that question to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and where the Rebbe says clearly that he, the Rebbe, is not a posek (one who decides Jewish law).
Schiffman is also responsible for the NYU "scholarly" conference on the late Rebbe. Schiffman barred anyone with largely negative views of Schneerson from participating. The conference was funded by noted Chabad-supported George Rohr, and co-chaired by an open messianist and another academic, this one a Chabad flunkie who wrote a book about Chabad years ago. Despite All Odds was pitched by Chabad. The publisher agreed. Chabad selected the author. So much for academic integrity.
At any rate, one thing here should be clear, no matter your views about Chabad or Ethiopian Jews – Lawrence Schiffman is a bigot.
Rabbi J. David Bleich's overview of the halakhic situation of Ethiopian Jews, current to approximately 1980, can be read here.