State to Commemorate Ethiopian Jews Who Died on Way to Israel, but No Compensation for Relatives

Cabinet sets a procedure to draw up the list of names that belong on a monument that has stood empty for four years on Mount Herzl.

Ethiopian Jews won a four-year battle Sunday to commemorate the members of their community who died in Sudan during the long and dangerous journey to Israel.

But the relatives of the dead will not receive government compensation as did relatives of Soviet Prisoners of Zion.

Ethiopian immigrants
Olivier Fitoussi

The cabinet set a procedure yesterday to draw up the list of names that belong on a monument that has stood empty for four years on Mount Herzl.

The cabinet decided that the names and the criteria for their inclusion on the monument would be decided by a committee headed by MK Michael Eitan (Likud ). The panel would include representatives from ministries and Ethiopian Jewish organizations.

The committee will ask the public to provide the names and will draw up a list by May 20. The public will also have an opportunity to appeal after the list is made.

"We are working to realize the desire to absorb the rest of the Jews of Ethiopia here," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the vote. "My heart takes comfort when I see the manifestation of the faith of thousands of years."

Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver said she believed all ministries should work to absorb the Ethiopian Jews, not just hers.

Half the commemoration project, which is to cost some NIS 2 million, is to be funded by the Prime Minister's Office. The Jewish Agency, Immigrant Absorption Ministry and Sports and Culture Ministry will each contribute NIS 330,000.

"The purpose of this decision is the symbolic commemoration of the names of the dead," the government said in a statement. "It creates no other right or obligation whatsoever from the state."

The statement alludes to the idea that surviving relatives will not be able to seek compensation from the state, as was arranged for the families of Soviet Prisoners of Zion who died or disappeared on their way to Israel.

Landver expressed as much in a letter to the Israeli Society for Ethiopian Jews in June in response to their request for help in fighting to commemorate the names of the dead. "Your request is legitimate, but executing it is difficult .... According to a legal opinion, there is a concern that the National Insurance Institute will have to recognize these dead for purposes of compensation to their relatives."

According to the association and other groups fighting for the commemoration, they had not intended to ask for such money. "We just wanted to document the names. But we will certainly look into our legal right to it," said Ziva Mekonen, executive director of the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews.

Yesterday's decision was made while Ethiopian immigrants demonstrated in front of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry in Jerusalem against the recent government decision to extend the stay in Gondar of the last of their relatives waiting to come to Israel.

"The commemoration of the names is very important and there is no dispute about it in the community. But it is inconceivable for them to make such an unfair decision about these people, who were torn from their villages and have been living for years in the camp at Gondar, telling them that there is no funding," Mekonen said.

"A country that knew how to bring in 15,000 Jews from Ethiopia in only 36 hours should know how to bring in the people who are left in Ethiopia. And they have to bring them in quickly."