Israel Remembers Thousands of Ethiopian Jews Who Died While Making Aliyah
Israel on Sunday commemorated the thousands of Ethiopian Jews who perished while seeking to make aliyah in the late 20th century.
Hundreds attended the somber ceremony on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, including Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, President Isaac Herzog, and other government officials, alongside bereaved families and Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders, known as Kesim.
In the 1980s, Israel covertly evacuated thousands of Ethiopian Jews, also known as Beta Israel, from refugee camps in Sudan, where they had fled to escape famine and war. Some 4,000 refugees are estimated to have died while making the perilous journey by foot from Ethiopia to Sudan, or due to poor conditions in the camps.
“It is doubtful whether members of the community knew, before they left Ethiopia, what the long trek through the desert held in store for them,” said Herzog. “It is doubtful whether they imagined the dangers that would follow them on their way through such a hostile country as Sudan. This uncertainty was compensated for by great faith and deep determination. You proved your boundless love for the Holy Land and for the State of Israel.”
Acknowledging those whose journey to Israel “ended too early and at a very heavy price,” Herzog reflected, “We know and remember that even with the passage of time, your pain, dear families, remains searing and painful — and there is no cure.”
“We remember their tragic fate,” he continued, “but we wish to keep their lives alive in our hearts: their stories, their heroism, their unimaginable strength, their cultural wealth, the identity of the community of Ethiopian Jewry, which is an inseparable and formative part of the Israeli and Jewish ethos, which is an organic part of the body of our nation.”
Also in attendance was Israel’s first Ethiopian-born cabinet minister, Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, who herself made aliyah as part of Operation Moses — a clandestine Israeli rescue effort carried out for seven weeks starting in 1984 with the cooperation of the CIA and Sudanese government.
“For generations, our forefathers dreamed of returning home to Israel,” she said. “The Beta Israel community never lost hope or faith, and never stopped to dream.”
In his own address, Bennett pointed out that the annual ceremony coincides with Jerusalem Day, which marks the city’s reunification under Israeli rule following the Six Day War in 1967. “On Jerusalem Day, we mark not only the unity of our capital but also the unity of our people,” the premier said. “Left and right — we are brothers. Religious and secular — we are brothers. Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and Ethiopian — we are brothers.”