Ethiopian Teens Uncover Their Heritage

In an oral history project, they learn the forgotten story of struggle to immigrate to Israel.

Ethiopians celebrating Israel (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ethiopians celebrating Israel
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
“Two interrogators came to my cell and said, ‘So, you’re the traitor. You are the one who wants to be a white man.’ I told them ‘No. I’m not a spy just a teacher,’” recalls Yaacov Elias, an Ethiopian Jew and former Prisoner of Zion.
He was tortured and jailed for over two years by the Marxist government in Ethiopia for Zionist activities in the late 1970s before moving to Israel. Decades later, he is telling a group of high schoolers gathered in his living room about his experience. 
“I was tortured six different ways and it hurts me just to tell you about it,” he says in a low voice. “They hung me from a tree and beat the daylights out of me. They bent my back to my feet till I thought my spine was going to break.”
Yasmine and Batel, two high school juniors interviewing Elias, squirm in their seats. Two of their classmates are handling the technical part: Yuval zooms in with his video camera while Yosef maneuvers the microphone boom. They have taken on the endeavor with two missions. One is to use oral history to teach Israeli high school students filmmaking and interviewing techniques by getting Elias and other former Prisoners of Zion to talk about their experiences.
The other is to teach Ethiopian- Israeli high schoolers, most of whom were born in Israel to Ethiopian parents, about the heroic struggle of their community in the 1970s and 1980s to leave Ethiopia and come to Israel. Retelling the history aims to boost their self esteem of the men and women who led the struggle as well as the next Remembering Israel In an oral history project, they learn the forgotten story of struggle to immigrate to Israel.
“I’m involved because it is important for us. I want to know what our parents had to go through to get to Israel and it is not to be taken for granted that we are here and we need to know this. Especially as time goes on we forget,” Yuval Tamano, 16, told The Media Line.Ethiopian-born filmmaker David Gavro is guiding the students in video, editing and interviewing techniques, and serves as a role model.
“This video film is a tool really. It’s aimed at having them meet their history. I’m the professional and they are experiencing the stories and the encounter with these people. We had kids whose parents were Prisoners of Zion and who knew nothing about it all until we put them before the camera,” Gavro says.
For the Jews of Ethiopia making the journey to Israel, the Promised Land was not always an easy endeavor. Over 4,000 perished along the way and were buried in unmarked graves in the deserts of Ethiopia and Sudan.
In a stunning feat in 1991, Israel brought over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel one weekend in ‘Operation Solomon’. They joined some 10,000 who had managed to arrive or be airlifted in the 1980s. Today, there are an estimated 90,000 Ethiopians living in Israel.
They have had a troubled absorption in Israel, since a large number came from farming villages and were unprepared for modern life. Many remain poor and unemployed. The younger generation, however, has embraced Israel, fighting the stigma of coming from an underprivileged community, sometimes at the expense of their being aware of their own heritage or family history.
This is where ATZUM, a nongovernment organization set up about a decade ago to encourage social activism, has stepped in. Launching Project Abrah, (“illuminate” in Amharic), ATZUM has brought together high schoolers, mostly from Ethiopian backgrounds, to interview prominent individuals and Prisoners of Zion from Ethiopia.
“We want to bring honor and recognition to the Ethiopian Prisoners of Zion and immigration to tell stories, and their story isn’t known by Israeli society,” says Project Coordinator Yael Rosen.
Elias is proud of his role in helping bring the bulk of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel in the 1990s. As a youth in the 1950s, he was chosen to come to Israel for schooling. He was sent back as an emissary and taught Hebrew and Zionism to Ethiopian Jews until he was jailed. He returned to Israel in 1984 and worked to help absorb the community into the country.
Elias and scores of others were imprisoned or exiled for their Zionist activities, yet few are aware of this. Prisoners of Zion is a term that was used usually in reference to Jews of the former Soviet Union who suffered the same fate.
“Maybe we didn’t toot our own horn enough or the media didn’t write about us enough,” Elias ponders.“Still, it was my fate to be part of this history of immigration of the Ethiopian Jewry and their absorption in Israel. I helped a lot in the areas where I was able to help.”
Glancing at the teenagers in his living room, he told The Media Line he was warmed by the students’ interest in their history and says he hopes the film would enhance the image of the Ethiopian community.Many of the Ethiopians dealt with torture and hardships they suffered in a way similar to survivors of the Holocaust. But they buried the stories deep inside them and never spoke about it, not even to their own children.
“Exactly,” says Gavro, the filmmaker.
“That’s because many times the Jews of Ethiopia went through humiliations along the way. They buried a lot relatives and don’t even remember where they are buried.
So it is an open wound they are trying to forget. There are stories you’ll never fathom, difficult stories.”
The video these students are making will be joined with others and the final film is to be screened in various communal and educational settings, allowing the message to be spread far and wide.