As Israelis flocked to the capital to celebrate Jerusalem Day, hundreds of Ethiopian Israelis came together on Mount Herzl on Wednesday to commemorate loved ones who died during their mass exodus to Israel.
The annual Memorial Day for Ethiopian Jews Who Perished on Their Way to Israel commemorates the estimated 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who died while making the perilous journey from Ethiopia through Sudan in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres attended the ceremony near the memorial for fallen Ethiopian Jews, which resembles an abandoned Ethiopian village with the names of some 1,500 dead etched in stone.
“Even upon your arrival in Israel, the difficulties have not disappeared, of that I am aware,” said Netanyahu. “Some of you are still dealing with the ropes of absorption in Israel, while simultaneously you pave the way for young people born here – Sabras from [families of] Ethiopian immigrants.”
He added that it was “important for me that you know that our ears are attentive to your hearts’ desires, your pains and your aspirations.”
The prime minister emphasized the “numerous initiatives” to promote Ethiopian absorption in all areas of society, including social services, housing, education, and ensuring equal opportunities.
“I have no doubt that time will heal. As the years pass, the difficulties will decrease and the vices of racism and discrimination will vanish. We will fight them together, and we will defeat them. No trace of them will remain,” he said.
Peres, as he does every year, also paid tribute to the fallen, placing a wreath at the memorial site.
“Nobody talks about the suffering and what we had to give up coming to Israel,” Keren – who asked to be identified only by her Hebrew name – told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. “I feel like it makes us a part of Israeli society, but in the worst possible way – not as a celebration, but to be united with other Israelis and other Jews because you suffered like them, because you sacrificed a lot and family members died.”
According to Keren, Israelis have a “long way to go,” as a majority are unaware of the hardships Ethiopian Jews faced during their mass exodus. “Ethiopians are referred to as statistics; nobody talks about how brave people were, the sacrifices they made, and that they were waiting for years to come to Israel.”
Keren immigrated to Israel with her family in 1984, traveling through Sudan before being flown into the country via Operation Moses.
“Growing up, I knew about Sudan, but we never talked about it. Only in university did I get back to my roots and start to think about my family and our background and how they survived in Sudan with four of their kids,” she said.
For her, she added, “the most important thing, more than the media attention and state officials’ attentions, is that this ceremony helps my younger brother and children born in Israel to Ethiopian families to connect to their roots and rediscover their heritage.”