Herzog and Bennett address memorial ceremony

Ethiopian Jews mourn the thousands who died on the journey to Israel

Ethiopia-born Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata says work is underway to teach Israelis more about the community’s losses, and compensate their families

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A woman cries in front of wreaths during a ceremony honoring the thousands of Ethiopian Jews who died en route to Israel from 1979 to 1990, at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl cemetery on May 29, 2022. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
A woman cries in front of wreaths during a ceremony honoring the thousands of Ethiopian Jews who died en route to Israel from 1979 to 1990, at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl cemetery on May 29, 2022. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata on Sunday said she was working to expand awareness about the thousands of Ethiopian Jews estimated to have died while immigrating to Israel, and to provide greater benefits to their families.

“As immigration and absorption minister, no decision has been more important for me than the decision to create dozens of memorial rooms that are scattered throughout the country to remember the Jews of Ethiopia who died along the way,” Tamano-Shata said, speaking at an annual memorial ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery. These efforts were made, she noted, in collaboration with local authorities and members of the Ethiopian community.

“Another important decision… was creating a team to put together assistance for the families of the fallen and to continue presenting the story of the journey and those that made it. Soon we should receive the committee’s recommendations,” she said.

Between 1979 and 1990, Israel organized several transport operations, bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel via Sudan.

Some 4,000 people are estimated to have died on the trip — largely made by foot — from Ethiopia to the Sudanese camps from where they left to Israel, either on the march itself or in the camps, which had poor sanitation.

The names of some 1,700 people who died en route are engraved on a monument at Mount Herzl. Though more names are added to the monument each year, many are likely to remain forgotten.

Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (2nd L), Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (4th L) and President Isaac Herzog (5th L) attend a memorial ceremony for Ethiopians who died on their journey to Israel, at Mount Herzl, on May 29, 2022 (MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/POOL)

A ceremony to commemorate their deaths is held on Mount Herzl each year on Jerusalem Day, which marks Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and the reunification of the city.

Tamano-Shata, who was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel in 1984 in one of these transports, compared these treks to the biblical story of the exodus from Egypt.

“Who knew that the price for the journey would be so high, so hard to bear, but there are also those who will ask, who knew the level of sacrifice would be so high when we set out on this journey? Our parents didn’t ask! They believed. Our grandparents didn’t hesitate! They rushed to Jerusalem, hoping they’d make it to see it,” she said.

In addition to Tamano-Shata, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Isaac Herzog spoke at the event, as did Asher Maharato, whose mother and 18-month-old brother died during the journey.

Maharato recalled his parents disagreeing over the decision to immigrate to Israel and his father deciding to remain in Ethiopia.

“My mother told me how hard the trip would be. She told me to watch out for my brothers on the journey,” he said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett embraces Asher Maharato, whose mother and brother died en route to Israel from Ethiopia at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery on May 29, 2022 (MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/POOL)

Once they reached the Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan, his mother grew weak and had to be hospitalized.

“My strong, optimistic mother became a broken vessel who couldn’t go on with us. Her last words to me were again to look out for my brothers,” Maharato said. “I understood I was alone in the world, without a father and without a mother.”

While waiting for a flight to Israel from Sudan, Maharato said his younger “brother died in that horrible place Um Rakuba.”

As members of the audience wept at his story, Maharato said the pain of his loss remains as he mourns his children never knowing their grandmother “who would have been great for them.”

Herzog reflected on his grandfather — Israel’s first chief rabbi — recognizing the Jewishness of the Ethiopian community and allowing the initial trickle of Jews to Israel from there.

“On the wall opposite my desk in the President’s bureau [hangs] the halakhic ruling by my grandfather Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac HaLevi Herzog from 1953, which gave a halakhic and political tailwind to the blessed aliyah from Ethiopia, I feel a profound link to this aliyah and remember and salute and admire the fact that behind this grueling journey was a spirit of genuine leadership,” Herzog said.

“Such faith, latent in this collective stride! Such love for the Land of Israel and what it symbolizes! Such willingness to make sacrifices and take considerable risks! And such profound hope for a different future, for a different life, in the transformation of a dream into a lived reality!”

President Isaac Herzog greets religious leaders from Israel’s Ethiopian community at a ceremony marking the thousands of Ethiopian Jews who died en route to Israel from 1979 to 1990, at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery on May 29, 2022. (Chaim Tzach/GPO)

In his speech, Bennett also hailed the “dedication of spirit” and “love of Jerusalem” of the Ethiopian Jews who made the journey through Sudan to Israel.

Recent years have seen a shift in rhetoric in Israel regarding the immigration of Ethiopian Jews. Whereas in the past, Israelis often referred to it as a rescue effort by the Israeli government to save Ethiopian Jews from famine and war, officials now focus far more on the courage of the people who made the journey out of a desire to reach Israel.

“There is no solace for losing a mother, a father, a brother or sister, a son or daughter,” Bennett said.

“Maybe you’ll find some comfort in the fact that you are fulfilling their dream,” he offered.

As of 2021, there were some 160,000 people of Ethiopian descent living in Israel, with just over half having been born in Ethiopia and the rest in Israel to immigrants.

The Ethiopian community has long complained of a slow integration into Israeli society, as well as discrimination by police and other government authorities.

Thousands of Ethiopians who are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the country’s Law of Return, which offers citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, are due to arrive in Israel in the coming months, following a protracted legal battle.

The first flights carrying these immigrants are due to arrive later this week.

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