It’s hard to imagine what the Mengistu family went through when the protests by Israelis of Ethiopian descent began this month. It’s doubtful whether anyone in Israel’s history has suffered as much because of his origins as the Mengistus’ son Abera, whose life was taken from him nearly 1,800 days ago, even though he may still be among the living.
What did his parents think during the recent demonstrations in which protesters carried signs with the names of Ethiopian-Israeli victims – Solomon Teka and Yehuda Biadga the most recent ones – calling them martyrs? Is their son, whose name and face also featured on T-shirts at the demonstrations, also considered dead?
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Abera Mengistu, it should be stressed again and again, is also a victim of Israeli society. He suffered a mental breakdown after the death of his brother, and managed to cross the border into Gaza only because he was black. “We thought he was an African infiltrator,” said one of the soldiers who was there.
Even if Israel shakes off its responsibility for letting him cross the border, it’s definitely responsible for abandoning him in captivity in Gaza for years with obvious apathy. This is the price of being black, being paid by Mengistu, a price very familiar to any Israeli of Ethiopian descent, usually exacted in a more mundane way – on a line to enter a club, at a job interview, as a subject of suspicious looks. Taking a policeman’s bullet in the chest or being abandoned beyond the border are only extreme cases; normally the price is inflicted on one’s soul.
Declarations on fixing Israel’s feelings about Ethiopian Israelis and “the need to address the problems of this community,” in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s words, will continue to be heard in the coming weeks. So let’s not forget: For years, Israel has refused to bring thousands more Jews over from Ethiopia, and the Jewishness of those already here is considered suspect.
Moreover, according to Pnina Tamano-Shata, a legislator for Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, the prime minister’s people used the Jews still in Ethiopia as a bargaining chip to try to get her to join the governing coalition in the Knesset. Likud canceled a guaranteed spot on its ticket for Avraham Nagosa, the party’s only high-level representative of the Ethiopian community. A week ago, Palestinian media reported that the return of Mengistu has never come up in talks between Israel and Hamas, almost five years after he crossed into Gaza.
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For a year and a half, 11-year-old David Ariel sent letters to Netanyahu. He asked him to do more to get Mengistu home. “I would really like an answer, and I intend to send you this letter every day so you won’t forget,” he wrote. Netanyahu didn’t respond, but Ariel wrote every day, as promised, letter after letter.
Last week, wonder of wonders, the prime minister replied, and his answer was published on the Mako website: “I was very moved by reading how much you care about the Mengistu family …. Israel is working relentlessly to achieve this through a coordinator responsible for captives and missing persons.”
Next month will be Mengistu’s 33rd birthday, but his very existence is losing any significance every day. If justice is something Israel’s leaders care about, if the state is willing to honestly take stock, if it recognizes its wrongdoings, Mengistu’s release must be the first symbolic act in repairing its relations with the Ethiopian community.
The high price the state will have to pay – releasing terrorists – will attest to the sincerity of its intentions. There can be no other way of expressing remorse over the life taken from Ethiopian Israelis by the state but the returning of a life that it abandoned.