Opinion |

Separate Jerusalem Day From Ethiopian Jews’ Memorial Day

Roni Fantanesh Malkai
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Ethiopian Jewish immigrants on an Israeli Air Force jet from Addis Ababa to Israel in 1991.
Ethiopian Jewish immigrants on an Israeli Air Force jet from Addis Ababa to Israel in 1991. Credit: Nathan Alpert / GPO
Roni Fantanesh Malkai

Fantaye was 14 years old the first time she and her family tried to get on a truck in the nighttime darkness, a truck that would take them to a plane that would fly them from Sudan to Israel. For some reason, she couldn’t climb onto the truck, and instead remained alone all night, in the desert. She was found by relatives and immigration activists only close to dawn. She and her family returned to the refugee camp they were living in. The second time luck came their way, with a possibility of going to Israel, Fantaye did manage to get on the truck, but because of the overcrowding, she was crushed to death.

What would you say if I told you that on Jerusalem Day, a national holiday, Fantaye’s sister Ahatnesh sits at home in Jerusalem, asking for just one thing: that people remember that on the same day, during the same hours the unification of Jerusalem is being celebrated, there is a day of remembrance commemorating Ethiopian Jews who died on their way to Israel through Sudan. Think about the fact that she and thousands of others like her are grieving the loss of a son, a daughter, a parent or grandparent, a brother, a sister.

Each year on Jerusalem Day, this day of remembrance is commemorated. Jews from Ethiopia remember their dead, numbering 4,000 people, with dozens of others missing, their fates still unknown. It is a difficult day for Ethiopian Jews, especially for bereaved families. The story of Ethiopian Jewry is a story of fortitude, of the power of sacrifice, as well as of unbearable pain and the loss of many lives.

The linkage between Jerusalem Day and the day of commemoration, between joy and sadness, is very difficult, creating dissonance. Instead of uniting people, it sets them apart. It creates a gap between a national day of celebration and a day of mourning, turning this day of sadness into one that belongs only to Jews from Ethiopia. The state’s decision to hold this day precisely on Jerusalem Day stemmed from the deep spiritual tie, possibly the only one of its kind, an inseparable link between Ethiopian Jews and Jerusalem, or Yerusalem, as it was called by our community for over 2,000 years. We prayed to Yerusalem, we dreamt about it. Yerusalem was the spirit that instilled endless hope within us that this yearning would find resolution.

When one tries to understand the strength of Ethiopian Jews, and how they maintained their Judaism for over 2,000 years far away, beyond the dark mountains; when one tries to give an answer to the perennial question that we’ll probably continue to be asked for many years: How? Did you really walk all the way to Sudan to reach Israel? One must understand not only the exceptional force driving this wonderful community, but also, possibly mainly, the significance of Yerusalem for us.

Yerusalem plays a part that is hard to explain in Ethiopian Jewry’s being one of the wonders of Jewish survival in the Diaspora. When we left our land of birth and childhood, thousands of courageous people embarking on a long journey on foot, an exhausting trek fraught with danger, we held the vision of Yerusalem in front of our eyes.

For me and for others, this magnetic link is precisely the reason for separating the date marking Jerusalem Day from the one commemorating Ethiopian Jews who died trying to reach the Land of Israel.

We also wish not to be alone in our grief. We want the entire public to be our partners, participating in our pain over the loss of life. We want our story, which bolsters the Zionist ethos, to be an inseparable part of the history of the Jewish people, a story to be preserved, remembered and told in every household.

We therefore call for a separation of these two days. Currently, in the midst of celebrations, the commemoration is cast aside. It becomes secondary, an annex to Jerusalem Day, with the general public not becoming familiar with the heavy price paid by Ethiopian Jews on their trek through Sudan. The public is almost unaware of Ahatnesh and thousands of others who grieve on this day over the death of thousands of people.

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