The soldier

Mekonen: From the fields of Ethiopia to IDF combat, on his path and the future of the Jewish state.

Mekonen (photo credit: COURTESY JERUSALEM U)
(photo credit: COURTESY JERUSALEM U)
Ten years ago, in a rural village in eastern Ethiopia, there lived an 11-year-old boy named Mekonen. The young Ethiopian Jew grew up without electricity, running water or any form of modern appliances.
“There were no cars or baby strollers in our village; I was raised with green landscapes and the animals of the area,” Mekonen, now 22, told the Magazine in an interview. “We went straight to work in the fields as shepherds.”
“I didn’t experience anything of the modern world until my family made the journey to Israel, and we first arrived in the city of Addis Ababa to make the trip.
“It was a shock to come from a place so disconnected from the world. You abruptly have to acclimate into a new country, where not only are the language and culture entirely different, but you also have modern life and technology,” he explained.
Tragedy struck Mekonen’s family right before they made aliya: His father suddenly died hours before the flight to the Jewish state took place.
At age 12, he found himself studying in a boarding school in Safed. “The first two years, I felt very different,” he recalled. “Especially with my skin color and the new language, but I learned Hebrew quickly enough.”
About two years later, Mekonen’s family moved to Pardess Katz, a poor neighborhood in the northern part of Bnei Brak, where Mekonen said they stood out among the mostly white neighbors; he had a hard time finding his place and started getting in trouble, while his family began falling into heavy debts. Ten family members, including six brothers and sisters, lived in a two-room apartment, with Mekonen and his mother as the two main breadwinners who had to keep the household’s finances afloat.
Mekonen’s story was included in the recently released documentary Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front, produced by Jerusalem U, following soldiers going through their training in the Paratroop Brigade, and their struggles and successes. During filming, Mekonen’s family’s debt grew worse and his mother asked him to return home to help out. His commanders and soldiers remark upon how they noticed a distinct shift in Mekonen’s mood during this time; he was depressed, tired and anxious. The young soldier’s commanders then stepped in and secured a donation to help him cover his debts, so he could return to the IDF and focus on his training.
“In the army, I went through a huge experience and made brothers for life,” he recounted. “I feel that everything I went through before helped me prepare for the army experience.
“All the soldiers come from such different backgrounds: Druse, Beduin, Jews, Muslims, Christians; who arrive from the cities and periphery, from moshavim and kibbutzim.
All of a sudden, you realize that you aren’t the only one who is different, and not everyone’s Hebrew is perfect.
“Yet we all go through the same army experience, all the hardships and challenges of learning to become a combat soldier and protect Israel from its enemies.”
After starting off in the North, stationed on the Lebanon border, and having fought in last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Mekonen is now completing a sergeant’s course. He will soon command 18-year-old soldiers, training them to become fighters and serve on operational duty.
FOR CENTURIES, both throughout Medieval and modern times, Ethiopia’s Jewish minority – known as the Beta Israel – lacked basic freedoms and independence.
In 1974, the Ethiopian government was taken over in a coup, with the new regime headed by Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, a Marxist-Leninist dictator who instituted a policy where Ethiopian Jews were denied the right to own land and were often forced off their own land by non-Jewish farmers. In the 1980s, Ethiopia forbade the practice of Judaism and teaching Hebrew.
The Beta Israel came to the Jewish state with high hopes, via Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991); today, they number approximately 135,000, with 49,600 born here. But life here for any new immigrant is complex.
Mekonen’s relative Damas Pakada, the IDF soldier beaten by police officers in Holon in late April, met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, telling him he hoped the state would “act against discrimination and racism.”
For Mekonen, the demonstrations by the Ethiopian community have brought Israeli society’s complexities to the forefront.
“In Ethiopia, my family experienced anti-Semitism; Ethiopian Jews were mistreated because of their religion. In Israel, we experience discrimination not because of religion but because of our skin color,” he lamented.
“I don’t agree with the violence of the demonstrations.
But the issue of discrimination facing Ethiopian Jews has to be made known – we’ve been too quiet about it here and need to vent our frustrations.
“There will always be people who discriminate, yet there are many more sides to Israeli society. I believe the problem is not with Israeli society, because I feel Israeli myself and am very connected with Israel; the problem lies with politics and education.”
What can be done? “On a deeper level, we have to change how we look at people; not at the outside like the color of someone’s skin, but to look deep into who that person is,” he asserted. “We have to look forward and work to build Israel together, and not waste our energy on stupid people.”
Mekonen, whose name means king in Amharic, remains optimistic about the country’s future. “Israel is an amazing country. For me, I could never have imagined that I would be here today – serving the Jewish state as a soldier, when I was a young boy in Ethiopia.
“I don’t want to cry or whine over the current situation; that is not my way. You have to have faith that everything will be good in the end.
“It starts with that thought.”