Jerusalem Day, the holiday celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem as a result of Israel's Six Day War victory, is the day chosen for memorializing the 4000 Jews of Ethiopia who died of disease, starvation and at the hands of murderous thieves while crossing Sudan by foot in the 1980's in an effort to reach the ships, and later, planes that took them to the Promised Land.
Since Israel had no diplomatic relations with Ethiopia at the time, they had to reach Sudan clandestinely. Some were caught and imprisoned in Ethiopia.
Avraham Edga, a survivor of the trek, has recorded the saga of the Beta Israel, as the first group of Ethiopians are called, in his Hebrew book "The Journey to the Dream". He describes how the vision of an ethereal Jerusalem is what kept hope alive, making Jerusalem Day a fitting time to remember their courage.
The Knesset Aliyah and Absorption Committee held a special meeting recently celebrating 20 years of Ethiopian immigration. Absorption Minister Sofa Landver discussed the country's efforts to help Ethiopian immigrants come to Israel and become absorbed in Israeli society. Over 81,000 immigrants from Ethiopia have arrived in Israel.
“Most of the Ethiopian immigrants live in apartments that they own, or in public housing,” Landver said. “All Ethiopian immigrants who are interested in higher education are able to get full scholarships from the Students' Authority,” she said, adding that additional programs enacted this year will provide up to NIS 115 million on additional funds for higher education for Ethiopian immigrants.
“The Aliyah Center also does everything it can for the immigrants, and continues to work to help them integrate into the workforce, academia, and Israeli society,” she said. “Despite the current investment by government offices in this effort, more is needed.”
Committee chairperson MK Danny Danon (Likud) said that he remembered well the first airlifts that brought Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. “This operation is no less important than others, like Operation Entebbe, because it shows the Jewish peoples' commitment to return the Jewish people to Zion.” MK Ofer Akunis (Likud) reminded committee members of the central role of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir in ensuring that Ethiopian immigrants could reach Israel. He promised to ensure that laws that provide affirmative action to aid Ethiopian immigrants are carried out properly. MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) called to include more Ethiopians in the diplomatic service.
MK Shlomo Mula (Kadima), himself an immigrant who arrived on the early transports to Israel, said that it was important to pass the Ethiopian Heritage Law, which would established a heritage center to research the Ethiopian Jewish community. “Only such a center can ensure a proper appreciation of the community's behavior,” Mula said, stressing that it was important to avoid “paternalizing” the community.
Tsaga Malko, who directs the Amharic service of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, said that it was important to include more Ethiopians in television programs, not just as representatives of the community, but as “a matter of course.” Rabbi Yosef Hadane, the chief rabbi of the community, called for the building of more synagogues for the community and enhancing the community's customs.
Micha Feldman, an activist with the Jewish Agency who worked to aid immigrants from Ethiopia to reach Israel, said that Israel needed to remember that “the real heroes are the Ethiopian Jews, who kept their tradition for thousands of years, who walked to Israel through the desert, and buried those that could not complete the journey in the desert sands.”