The Private Memorial Day of Israeli Ethiopians

The memorial event for Ethiopian Jews who perished on their way to Israel falls on the same day as Jerusalem Day, meaning it consistently fails to receive the coverage it deserves

Ethiopian Jews at a restaurant in Tel Aviv.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Israeli-Hebrew calendar is filled with holidays and commemorative dates, each with its own typical accompanying events. Each also its own media coverage, which is more or less repeated every year: the same articles, the same holiday wishes, the same interviewees.

The same holds true on Jerusalem Day: as usual, the flag parade will be held under heavy security. One of the marchers will be interviewed – maybe a lawmaker from Habayit Hayehudi like Uri Ariel, unless the television channels opt for the surest provocation by talking to Oren Hazan (Likud), which always works.

But another event is also being marked on this day in the Hebrew calendar: a Memorial Day for Ethiopian Jews who perished on their way to Israel.

What, you didn’t know? I understand, because this is all occurring in a parallel universe – and if you had to choose where to go or what is more important on that day, you’d pick Jerusalem, for sure. But how is it possible – on Jerusalem Day of all days – to ignore the thousands who didn’t make it there, who died for the sake of Jerusalem?

How did this happen? For years, various organizations and activists tried to get a memorial day for the thousands who died on the journey to Israel into the calendar. When the decision was finally made to mark such a day, the date chosen just happened to be that of Jerusalem Day. I wasn’t privy to all the discussions about what would be a suitable date. But by mixing the two, what happens in effect is that a certain day is set aside for all Israelis and a separate day for Ethiopian immigrants.

Although a formal memorial ceremony is held on Mount Herzl in the presence of both the prime minister and president, most Israelis are completely unaware of the event. Indeed, over the years, this day has come to be observed as a private memorial day for Ethiopian immigrants in a way that just serves to underscore how separate Ethiopian Israelis still are from Israeli society as a whole.

The Memorial Day for Ethiopian Jewry also reminds us that Israel bears a significant portion of the blame for this terrible tragedy. The arduous journey could have been avoided if the government had been interested in Ethiopian Jewish immigration from the beginning. The lengthy stays in Sudanese refugee camps could also have been avoided, since the Jewish people already had a national home.

Or perhaps such a day actually facilitates historical obfuscation, encouraging us to talk about Ethiopian Jews’ yearning for Zion and less about the state’s denial of this yearning. That way, no one will be forced to give a reckoning for the tragedy and to show due respect to those who gave their lives for Zion.

Efrat Yardai teaches a course at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, entitled “Black Identity in a White Society.”