Dying for Zion

For the 9,000 Ethiopian Jews remaining in the northwestern province of Gondar, Israel’s indecision on their request to make aliya is an agonizing betrayal.

falash mura 311 (photo credit: AP)
falash mura 311
(photo credit: AP)
In reporting on the aliya conference in Ashdod in January, Ruth Eglash noted that “braving the pouring rain... hundreds of immigrants from the local Ethiopian community gathered outside to protest the government’s failure to approve for aliya some 9,000 Falash Mura still waiting in Ethiopia.” Eglash’s reference to “the pouring rain” brought back painful memories of a rainy day more than 10 years ago.
My daughter Rebecca and I visited the children’s cemetery in Abba Antonios, Ethiopia, during the spring of 1999.
In the interim, the death rate among the 7,000 Jews in Gondar – a province in northwestern Ethiopia – had risen dramatically due to heavy immigration from outlying Jewish villages. The unexpected influx overwhelmed the already strained medical resources of the local government. The Jews came to Gondar because they hoped to submit applications to make aliya at the Israeli consulate. Thousands of their family members had already made aliya in the glorious airlifts known as Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991) but many families were split when the airlifts ended abruptly.
The children were carried to the cemetery on litters, which were still visible on many of the graves. The litters were made of short branches bound by vines; the close placing of the cross bars – really several stout twigs tied together or a narrow piece of cloth – evidenced how small and vulnerable the children had been. The leaves on a dozen or so of the litters were still green. There were no tombstones. However, each one of the 200 or so graves had been covered by a small pile ofrocks to deter foraging animals. The graves mutely testified that something had gone very wrong.
These were not ancient tragedies. These tragedies were recent and ongoing. Spontaneously I began reciting Kaddish. But the words died on my lips. A cemetery overflowing with the graves of small children was not an appropriate place to glorify the name of God.
The death of these innocents, created in the image of God, desecrated the image of God; to attempt to sanctify the name of the Almighty in the presence of such a gross profanity would have been sacrilege.
The size of the cemetery did not reflect the true death toll. Infants – and there were many – were buried close to home. Most of the deaths were avoidable. Community death records were replete with references to measles and dehydration. The death rate plummeted once Jewish relief organizations belatedly started to provide food and medical care. The government of Israel, to this day, has not provided any humanitarian aid.
BUSINESS WAS booming. By my second trip in the autumn of 1999, the cemetery was no longer exclusively devoted to children; adults were also buried alongside them. The old Jewish cemetery in the village of Woleka, a few miles away, could no longer be used for the adults; a number of bodies had been washed downstream when the adjoining river overran its banks. The proximity of the larger graves of the adults to the smaller graves of the children added an extra element of pathos.
These deaths, and those which have continued over the ensuing decade, were not the intentional sins of evil men with callous hearts. But they were unpardonable sins of omission. The State of Israel has failed to live up to the Zionist ideal of ingathering all Jewish exiles; the American Jewish community, the richest community in Jewish history, has failed to assist adequately a sister Diaspora community in distress.
However, this is also a story of endurance and triumphant redemption. To the enduring honor of the Jewish state, more than 25,000 Ethiopian Jews have immigrated to Israel since my 1999 trip. The tears of raw grief which flowed at the Gondar cemetery contrast vividly with tears of jubilation at Israeli absorption centers when families, painfully separated for many years, are finally reunited. The children don’t think about Ethiopia during these reunions. Mercifully, their suffering soon becomes a mere wisp of memory, rapidly receding, a distant barely remembered nightmare. But like the worst nightmares,those memories often return in later life. Some wounds never completely heal.
To this day most of the deceased children have not been memorialized by tombstone nor monument. But for a few details remaining in community records, it is as if they never existed. These few words are inadequate tribute to their courage which should be expressed in the mourning tones of elegy and the soaring voice of Scripture.
The hundred of immigrants who stood in the pouring rain in Ashdod showthat the suffering of these children has not been forgotten. Thedemonstrators were acting in the noblest of Jewish traditions, speakingtruth to power.
But is anyone listening? To this very day Prime Minister BinyaminNetanyahu refuses to even allow cabinet debate on Interior Minister EliYishai’s proposed government resolution to permit the aliya the 9,000Ethiopian Jews still in Gondar. The lives of the children alreadyburied in Abba Antonios cannot be restored. But it is not too late toredeem the Jews who still remain in Ethiopia, the Jews who have beenleft behind.
The writer is a human rights lawyerpracticing in New York and serves as counsel to the international lawfirm of Simpson Thacher and Bartlett.