Israel remembers Ethiopian Jews who died trying to reach Israel

Mount Herzl memorial in Jerusalem commemorates those who perished trying to flee Ethiopia, many on foot, in their bid to reach freedom in Israel.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Israel on Thursday held a memorial service in Jerusalem to commemorate the thousands of Ethiopian Jews who perished under terrible conditions while trying to reach Israel.

At the annual ceremony at the national cemetery on Mount Herzl, President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined community leaders to remember the estimated 4,000 Jews from the African country who perished in the 1980s as they fled, mostly on foot, from persecution and civil war trying to reach Israel.

“May the memories of the Jews of Ethiopia, our brothers and sisters who lost their lives on their way to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, be in our hearts forever,” Rivlin said.

Netanyahu said he was proud to be the head of a government that for the first time had a minister and deputy minister from the Ethiopian community, known for centuries as Beta Israel.

With attendance limited due to coronavirus health regulations, the small crowd of dignitaries heard an IDF musical ensemble that featured Israel’s candidate to the Eurovision song contest, Eden Alene, herself an Ethiopian Jew.

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In her uniform with several months left in her IDF service, an emotional Alene sang, “We will not stop,” a tearful song recounting the trek of the Ethiopian faithful to Israel.

At a special session of the Knesset marking the occasion, Deputy Internal Security Minister Gadi Yevarkan described the horrific conditions the Ethiopian Jews faced as they trekked by the thousands on foot to refugee camps in Sudan with little or no possessions.

“When Beta Israel arrived in Sudan, the land swallowed them – thirst, hunger,” Yevarkan said. “Imagine in your minds the tragedy, that a mother would have to make the decision between two children, to which one to give the last drops of water to drink with the knowledge that the one who did not drink is dead.”

A Mossad agent went into the refugee camp in Sudan to ask the Ethiopian Jewish elders not to extinguish their camp fires as they customarily did on the eve of the Sabbath, because doing so identified them as Jews and put them at risk of being arrested. According to religious law, they could keep the fires burning or extinguish them so long as it was done before the Sabbath began. Both possibilities were permissible.

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However, the tradition in Ethiopian Jewry was to extinguish them. The elders said, “We have been guarding the Sabbath for 2,700 years. The Sabbath will guard us.” No harm came to the group.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that in 1984 he was deputy commander of the IDF’s Shaldag elite commando unit that was assisting in the legendary Operation Moses that rescued 8,000 Ethiopian Jews in a massive clandestine airlift.

“I was exposed to real and extraordinary heroism: Thousands of barefoot, sometimes destitute women and men who in the name of an ancient dream left their entire world and property behind and embarked on their journey to Israel. A trek that crossed years, deserts and countries,” Gantz tweeted.

“This day we strengthen the families of those who did not finish the journey as they began it, a day that challenges Israeli society to look inside and realize that the journey of Ethiopian Jews is not over yet. The aspiration for Zion has been changed to the aspiration for equality and that aspiration I am committed to personally,” Gantz said.

Some 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, according to official figures, a small minority among a population of nearly nine million. The community has been the target of discrimination and has demanded the government take action, especially against what they say is violence against their community by Israel’s police.

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Earlier this year Israel’s chief rabbinate finally gave official recognition that the Ethiopians are indeed Jews.