In stark contrast to the festive mood throughout the capital on Jerusalem Day,
thousands of Ethiopian Israelis from across the nation gathered on Mount Herzl
Wednesday to mourn the men, women and children who died during their perilous
mass exodus to Israel.
The annual memorial ceremony, established in 2007,
is observed near the Ethiopian Monument by the military cemetery on the 28th day
of Iyar, which coincides with Jerusalem Day.
President Shimon Peres, who
attends the ceremony every year, payed tribute to the estimated 4,000 dead for
their bravery and love of country.
“Israel bows her head in memory of the
immigrants from Ethiopia who died on their journey for their love of this
nation,” Peres said from atop a dais under a voluminous white tarp protecting
attendees from the sun. “The State of Israel used her long arms – civilian and
military – to restore her sons, who have returned.”
Ethiopian Jews came
to Israel under strikingly similar circumstances to those faced by the myriad of
Holocaust survivors who sought refuge in Palestine.
Their mass exodus
began in the 1980s and ’90s during the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of Mengistu
Haile Mariam, who murdered thousands of African Jews, separated families,
displaced survivors, orphaned children and forbade all from practicing
Mariam’s oppression – compounded by unparalleled famine, the
highest infant mortality rate in the world and the constant threat of war –
resulted in an untenable existence for Ethiopia’s tens of thousands of
Under the auspices of the Israeli government, covert rescue
missions known as Operation Moses, Joshua and Solomon saved more than 21,000
Ethiopian-Jewish lives by bringing those who had survived the dangerous trek
from Ethiopia to Sudan – during which many perished – to the State of
Asalef Osnat Metiku, who spoke during the ceremony, recounted the
deaths of three of her children during the exodus, and likened the experience to
narratives in the Torah.
“I couldn’t bury any of my children because I
was too sick and weak myself from dehydration and starvation,” she recounted.
“When you read the Torah, you can [relate it] to what happened to us when we
suffered while traveling through the desert on our journey here.”
Ethiopians who survived the dangerous exodus were relegated to chaotic refugee
camps in Muslim Sudan, where they were forced to keep their Jewish identities a
secret until finally being rescued by Israeli planes.
Today, more than
120,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel and have integrated into every level of
society, including the IDF and government, despite facing considerable
“I can’t believe how many people came, it’s so amazing,”
said Kasaey Damoza Frantzman, who immigrated to Israel with her family in 1984,
during Operation Moses.
“Everyone is coming – old and young – and even
Israelis are coming, which I think is great.”
Still, Frantzman, who lives
in Jerusalem, conceded that she is frustrated that the Ethiopian Memorial Day is
not treated with similar reverence as Holocaust Remembrance Day.
it was as obvious to Israelis to observe this ceremony as it is to observe Yom
Hazikaron,” she said.
Frantzman added that while she is honored that
statesmen like Peres attend the memorial each year, there is still prejudice
against Ethiopian immigrants that continues unabated.
comes here every year and shows his respect, but it’s not like after the
ceremony, the discrimination stops,” she said. “But today is a special
Following the ceremony, which concluded with a moving rendition of
,” Avraham Mola, who was born in Israel and lives in Kiryat Malachi,
expressed his gratitude to be an Israeli citizen.
“I don’t know much
about [the operation] because it was so secretive, but thank God my family made
it here,” said Mola, whose family emigrated during Operation Solomon.
feel proud because all the Ethiopians came here [today] to remember, but I also
feel a little sad because of the suffering of the thousands who traveled here,
many who died.”
Mola went on to describe Israel as “magical place” that
continues to inspire him.
“I love everything about Israel,” he said with
“We have the power to change anything – anything!” Oshrat
Mashasha, who also emigrated during Operation Solomon and is currently a student
at Haifa University studying speech therapy, said she felt conflicted about the
memorial day coinciding with the revelry of Jerusalem Day.
“It’s not very
easy for me [that] the ceremony is on the same day as Jerusalem Day, because one
is very sad and one is very happy,” she said.
“It’s like having
Remembrance Day and Independence Day at the same time.”
said she was doing her best to observe both events, scheduled by the government,
despite their contradictory natures.
“There’s nothing we can do about
[the timing] so we have to make the most of it,” she said.
Ethiopian Monument, Avraham Avata and Tal Hadana, cadets at Ort Yami, a
pre-naval academy in Ashdod, said they came to the ceremony with fellow
“I’m happy and blessed to be here to complete the
wish of my family, but also feel sorrow for those we lost along the way,” said
“We need to remember them because this is our history,” added
“I feel pain because it was their dream to be here, and we made
it, so it’s very important that we honor them.”