Back to Ethiopia? Originally Published May 30 – June 1, 2019.

A couple weeks ago we were discussing Kush and where it was and is.  28 Iyyar, corresponding this year to Sunday, June 2, 2019, is Remembrance Day for Ethiopian Jews.  The date was already (since 1968) Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Unification Day, celebrating the reunification after the Six-Day War in 1967.  The remembrance is for the thousands of individuals (some estimate 4,000 on the original pilgrimages and possibly 3,000 more since then) who lost their lives making the journey through the Sudan on the way to Israel. 

The folks seeking to make this journey were Jews mostly from the region of the city of Gondar.  The Jewish community in Ethiopia – Beta Yisrael – has existed for at least 15 centuries, and they bring unique religious practices and culture.  Joseph Halevy wrote about them in 1867, letting the rest of the world know of their existence.  They weathered a famine between 1882 and 1892 that killed upwards of half the community.  In the 20th century, they were suffering oppression.  Italy invaded in 1935-36, bringing fascism; it was forbidden to practice Judaism in Ethiopia.  Conditions didn’t improve after the war. 

Between 1980 and 1984, they organized in small secret groups, planning their exodus.  They left all their possessions behind.  Jerusalem was their dream as they walked north, hungry and suffering at the hands of attackers (robbery, rape, murder) on the trek and in refugee camps, and in the harsh climate.  They were instructed by agents of Mossad, who met them at the Sudanese border, to conceal their Jewish identities.  “Operation Moses” began in November 1984, the first Israeli national operation to aid the effort.  Some 8,000 Jews made it to the airplanes secretly marked, taking them to Israel.  Then there was a leak to the Israeli press which stopped the operation, leaving behind families, family members, and others, who remained until May 1991, when 14,324 immigrants were taken to Israel in the 36-hour “Operation Solomon.”  The trek took up to several months, and many were forced to wait in camps in the Sudan for up to two years. 

When their loved ones died they could not bury them with Jewish ceremonies; in the desert they couldn’t bury them for fear of robbers, and they couldn’t bury them in the refugee camps for fear of the Sudanese guards.

In 2004, the Israeli government made Remembrance Day an official part of Yom Yerushalayim.  There is a memorial on Mount Herzl, designed by architect Gabriel Kertesz along with Ethiopian artists and authors, erected in March 2007.

There are still Jews in Gondar and in Addis Ababa, the capital.  Immigration politics and racial prejudice may be thwarting their journeys to Israel.