Today's ceremony, held near Theodor Herzl’s grave on Jerusalem's Mt Herzl, marked the dedication of a new monument commemorating the 2,000 Ethiopian Jews who died en route to Jerusalem. Under the blazing Jerusalem sun, guests stood in line patiently, waiting to be seated and to hear government leaders' tributes to the community. Notable speakers included President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, and Knesset Member Pnina Tamao-Shata.
Perhaps most compelling was the story of one gentleman, an Ethiopian oleh himself, who addressed the public in his native Amharic. He told a heart-breaking story of idealistic Jews who walked in the scorching sun, through dangerous territory rife with snakes and scorpions, thieves and highway bandits, no water sources and only sun, sun, terrible sun.
The thousands who came to pay their respect trembled as they listened to the stories recounted in Amharic. They cried as the story was told, of a young boy tied onto his mother’s back in a sack, who stayed quiet throughout the journey until the mother realized he had died of dehydration. She didn’t believe it, she even tried to nurse him, the young man said. Near me, a woman in a blue scarf wiped away tears, the man next to her cried quietly, nobly.
Amongst the crowd stood an Israeli intelligence officer, who had worked behind the scenes to ensure flights for the new olim to Israel. An Ethiopian oleh approached the officer, pressed his hand, and nodded his head respectfully. “I remember the difficult moments, when I had to ensure that every refugee had water, just to wet his lips so that he doesn’t dehydrate,” the officer tells me.
Esneko Kahatshama never lived to see her children living in Israel; the three children died in the desert, and she had to bury them en route. Today, she stands on Mt. Herzl and lights a candle in their memory. Another survivor, Maru, stands near her and lights a candle in the memory of his lost wife and three children.
Years ago, I traveled with some of these children-survivors back to their native village in Ethiopia. Shmuel Yalma, who works for the JDC today, does not speak much about his memories of the journey. He stays quiet and says: “It was very difficult.” At the time, Yalma was just a child. Since then, he has written a memoir about his experience – “so that people know what a price my brothers have paid [for this country]”. Yalma served as an infantry officer in the IDF; he and his wife and children are fully Israeli, but they have never forgotten the terrible cost their community suffered as they made the journey home.
Knesset Member Pnina Tamao-Shata spoke passionately: “We have not forgotten you, we have not forgotten our brothers, and we will never forget.” Esther Iyov, a senior member of The Jewish Agency who continues to work as an emissary in Ethiopia, found the experience incredibly moving. “These moments, these long silences, the looks of the soldier and the officers of Ethiopian Jewish descent, the tears that choke one’s throat, everyone present today sensed this.”
President Shimon Peres held a central position in Israel’s Ethiopian Aliyah lift, Operation Moses, in the 1980’s. He told of the fear he felt when the Sudanese refused to allow Israeli planes to land in Sudan, and how he turned to the United States’ Vice President George Bush to send American planes instead. “President Bush sent his planes without hesitation, and when the planes landed, and the olim disembarked and kissed the holy land, I was so moved, tears choked me,” he remembers. “There have been times of discrimination against Ethiopians in Israel. It is an embarrassment to us…you are brothers, brothers to us,” Peres said.
The Ethiopian Aliyah to Israel was a slow process that began in the 1950’s. A group of olim came to Kfar Batia
In the seventies, Aliyah from Ethiopia grew significantly. In 1980, many Ethiopian Jews tried to make the arduous journey through Sudan by foot, dreaming of making it to Jerusalem despite the dangers. Approximately 2,000 of these Jews died en route – from starvation, disease, extreme heat or kidnappings.
In 1984, the Israeli government intervened with Operation Moses – over 14,000 Jews were airlifted by Israeli and American planes to Israel, through efforts of The Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Defense and the Israeli Defense Forces. In total, about 16,000 olim from Ethiopia came to Israel between 1980-1989.