Ethiopian Jews commemorate those killed in exodus

Peres: Israel "bows her head in memory of the immigrants from Ethiopia who died on their journey for their love of this nation."

Peres at Ethiopian memorial service 370 (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Peres at Ethiopian memorial service 370
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
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 Judaism.
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 Jews.
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 Israel.
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.”
The 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 discrimination.
“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.
“I wish 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.
“President Peres 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 day.”
Following the ceremony, which concluded with a moving rendition of “Hatikva,” 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.
“I 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 a smile.
“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.”
Still, Mashada 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.
Near the 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 Ethiopian classmates.
“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 Avata.
“We need to remember them because this is our history,” added Hadana.
“I feel pain because it was their dream to be here, and we made it, so it’s very important that we honor them.”