My Jerusalem Day

On the day the Israeli people come together to celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem, the Ethiopian community unites to remember its sons and daughters who did not make it to the land of Zion.

At the age of 15, Haim Idisis wrote the lyrics to a famous song in Hebrew called “The Journey to the Land of Israel”: “The moon overlooks from above, on my back is a small sack of food, the desert is under my feet, I can’t see even a hand’s length in front of me, my mother promises my little brothers ‘a little bit more, pick up your feet, this is the last effort before Jerusalem.’”
The words of the song were one of the first testimonies relating to the Ethiopian experience that I was exposed to as a child. My family and I came to Israel through the Sudan in 1984. However it was only after a few years that my parents began to share with us, their children, what they had been through. They were on the verge of tears as they related the story of the journey to us. By opening up, it seemed that the great burden of keeping the memory to themselves was lifted from their shoulders. Now we are able to pass these stories on to others who were too young then as well, and to the next generation.
In our community’s first years in Israel, there were only a few places that mentioned the story of the Ethiopian journey and only a few small monuments. But 30 years later, there are memorial ceremonies that take place in schools, municipalities and youth camps.
In 2004, the government decided that every year on Jerusalem Day there would be an official remembrance event at Mount Herzl, where famous leaders and the nation’s fallen soldiers are buried, for the Ethiopian Jews who perished on the way to Israel. On the same day that the people of Israel come together to celebrate the unification of Jerusalem, the Ethiopian community unites to remember its sons and daughters who did not make it to the land of Zion.
On the side entrance to Mount Herzl, near the military cemetery, there is a stand of olive trees.
Behind the trees stands the memorial to Ethiopian Jewry.
The monument consists of several parts. There are oblong concrete blocks in various states, some leaning, some fallen, some standing. Behind them are the depictions, in stone, of an Ethiopian Jewish house. There are also various plaques that explain the Ethiopian journey to Israel from different perspectives.
Looked at from a distance, the monument is supposed to resemble an abandoned Ethiopian village and thus simulate the traumatic experience of a community that left everything behind to come home to Israel.
FOR MOST Ethiopian Jews, every day is memorial day, a day we remember the men and women who lost their lives: men murdered by Sudanese muggers, women brutally raped and left to die by the wayside, children who couldn’t survive the hardships of the journey and who were buried in unmarked graves, and people who died of starvation and sickness in refugee camps in Sudan, waiting to come to Israel.
On May 24 and 25, the State of Israel celebrated the 20th anniversary of Operation Solomon. In 1991, because of chaos in Ethiopia, there were fears that Ethiopian Jews were at great risk. Pressure was brought on Israel to intervene and bring them home. It is less talked about that these Ethiopian Jews who came in Operation Solomon brought with them emotional baggage. Some of them had also been there in the deserts of Sudan and had expected to get to Israel in 1984 during Operation Moses. They had survived all the dangers of abandoning their villages getting to Sudan, only to be forced to return to Ethiopia.
Many lost family members. Six years later, they had to do it all over again and hope that this time they would actually get to Zion.
When Ethiopian Jews arrived at the meeting point in Addis Ababa, the IAF was on hand to fly them to Israel in commercial and military airliners. In 36 hours, over one weekend, 14,000 Ethiopians arrived here: their last Shabbat in Ethiopia and their first Shabbat in Israel.
This Jerusalem Day is particularly heartfelt for the Ethiopian community because it memorializes not only what happened in Operation Moses, but also Operation Solomon.
The writer works for the government and is completing an MA at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.