For years I’ve noticed a sign at Har Herzl with the words “Ethiopian Immigrant Memorial”. Last week, I followed the sign. I was moved beyond words by the simple, elegant memorial to the approximately 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who died on the long trek to Israel. The stunningly heroic and profoundly tragic story of their journey is told in a visually evocative garden that is both educational and inspiring.
For centuries communities of Jews lived in about 500 villages in northern Ethiopia. They were called “Beta Yisrael”. According to one of their tales of origin, they are descended from the tribe of Dan, one of the “Ten Lost Tribes”, and migrated south after the Assyrian Exile. There are several other legends that have been transmitted orally over the centuries among the Beta Israel, but the undisputed truth is that they have lived for hundreds of years as Jews in every respect, in strict observance of the Sabbath, Kashrut, and the Jewish festivals. A consistent thread in their religious world view has been a longing to return to Jerusalem and Zion.
Between 1979 and 1984, the Jewish communities scattered throughout Ethiopia were contacted by Israeli Mossad operatives in Africa with a simple message: Pack your belongings, leave your villages, and begin walking in groups to the Sudan, where Israelis will be waiting to take you to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. The trek was treacherous, spanning hundreds of miles of inhospitable terrain, and the promise of rescue was only a hope, but over the course of the early 1980s, thousands made the trek. And thousands died, first at the hands of marauders who lay in ambush for the groups on the way, then from disease and hunger as they waited in the camps. The promised rescue did not come immediately, hindered as it was by the need for total secrecy, the logistical nightmare of an airlift from a hostile country and sometimes (although reports vary) by hesitation on the part of the Israeli government. This was not a single dramatic rescue, but a series of daring operations, in which the planes often landed in treacherous conditions and total blackout.
The process took years, and no one knows precisely the number of Beta Israel who perished during the long trek and in the Sudanese camps. But 12,000 set out from their villages, and at least a third died without reaching the Land of Israel.
Ultimately, there were other avenues of redemption, including one particularly daring operation in May 1991 called Operation Solomon. Over the course of 24 hours, as the Ethiopian government collapsed in the face of a rebel takeover, 34 El Al passenger planes rescued over 14,000 Beta Israel waiting in Addis Ababa.
The memorial on Har Herzl, however, mourns those who fell during the Sudanese trek of the early 1980s. The entrance welcomes the visitor with a stone wall telling the story of the Beta Yisrael’s extraordinary history in four languages. The sloped lawn is a living monument with marble stones on whose smooth faces are engraved the names of the fallen, on a backdrop of stone terraces intended to evoke the harsh terrain of the trek to Sudan. On the hill surrounding the memorial are statues representing the village huts that had been home to the community for centuries in Ethiopia. And in the center is a small concrete amphitheater facing a half dome with four moving testimonies: the words of a child telling the story of the escape from Ethiopia; the words of a group-leader telling of the awful task of shepherding an entire village through the deadly journey to Sudan; the heart-rending tale of a mother watching death and devastation envelope her family in the Sudanese camp; and finally the inspirational testimony of a Kes (a religious leader) telling of his long-awaited Aliya:
“I felt as though the prophecy was being realized: ‘I will carry you on the wings of eagles and bring you unto me.’ ….We arrived. Excitement and joy surrounded us. But also sadness as we gazed upon the children who had lost their parents on the journey, or the parents who had lost their children. It seemed as though they had no part in this joy.”
We all wore white, as “this is the day that the Lord has wrought, we will sing and rejoice in it.” We descended from the plane, myself and the adults leading the group. We kissed the sacred ground. It was an incredible scene. People wept while smiling. Their smiles combined joy and sadness together with hope.”
While the story of the journey and of the tragedy of the Beta Yisrael can only be described as Biblical, it happened in our lifetime. Today, there are approximately 140,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent living in Israel. Their challenges are many, but their rich cultural heritage is a welcome addition to the fascinating mosaic that is today’s ingathering of the Exiles. They can be found in the universities, on the judicial bench, in the military, and in the religious community. There are Ethiopian-Israeli poets, musicians, writers, and artists, and during the past two decades seven of them have been elected to the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament.
The memorial is on the Mount of Memory, a complex that includes Yad Vashem, the military cemetery, and the graves of Israel’s past leaders. The memorial’s proximity to these iconic historical markers is not a coincidence: Like the soldiers buried nearby, these people gave their lives for Israel. Like the victims of the Holocaust, they suffered brutality for being members of the Chosen People. The presidents and prime ministers are interred beneath huge black marble tombs, while the fallen Beta Yisrael are scattered in nameless graves between Ethiopia and Sudan. But they share heroism and a love of Zion that leaves me speechless. Yiyheh Zichram Baruch.