The Heavy Price of Fulfilling Ethiopian Jewry's Zionist Dream
4,000 Ethiopian Jews Perished Trying to Come on Aliyah through Sudan
Throughout their long history Ethiopian Jews yearned to return to Jerusalem, which for them symbolized all of the Land of Israel. The Return to Zion was central to Ethiopian Jewry's identity and religious practices. For many, however, their journey home from exile to redemption was fraught with peril and tragedy. Of the approximately 12,000 Ethiopian Jews who attempted to immigrate to Israel in the mid 1980's. Only 8,000 survived the journey. More than 4,000 Ethiopian Jews lost their lives en route or in refugee camps in Sudan while waiting to come on aliyah.
During the years 1977-1983, several thousand Ethiopian Jews, mostly from the Tigray region, immigrated to Israel. In 1984 the Israeli government conducted "Operation Moses" with the goal of bringing large numbers of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Due to the Ethiopian government's immigration restrictions and the fact that Sudan is an Arab bloc nation, the operation's existence was top secret.
Perilous Journeys on Foot
In 1983-1984, thousands of Ethiopian Jews embarked on a mass exodus from their villages in the regions of Gondar and Tigray to Sudan. They set out on foot across the rugged mountains and deserts of northern Ethiopia to Sudan. The treks lasted from several weeks to as long as three months. During these perilous journeys groups of men, women, children and elderly people braved many dangers, such as depredations by bandits, Ethiopian and Sudanese police and soldiers, hunger, thirst, disease, exhaustion and even attacks by wild animals. Because of the need to move stealthily and also to avoid the scorching sun, these groups often hid during day and walked at night. Many families lost loved ones along the way.
In Sudan they lived in squalid refugee camps together with thousands of other refugees from Ethiopia. After arriving in the camps Ethiopian Jewish émigrés were contacted by a representative of the Mossad, who arranged for their eventual aliyah to Israel. Many Ethiopian Jews waited in these refugee camps for periods ranging from several months to as long as three years before coming on aliyah. Because of the hostility of local authorities and secret nature of the aliyah operation, the Ethiopian Jewish émigrés had to hide their Jewish identity.
The conditions in these camps were very harsh. Often they suffered from malnutrition and lacked safe drinking water. Disease was rampant. Many Ethiopian Jews perished in these camps while waiting to come to Israel. Proper Jewish burial was frequently not possible for fear of being discovered by the Sudanese authorities. Over 20 years later, among Ethiopian-Israelis the names of the refugee camps, Gudarif, Amra-Kuba, Wudahilo and Tuava, still evoke memories of loss and suffering.
In November 1984, the Israeli government began a rescue mission to bring Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel. In the course of this secret operation, known as "Operation Moses", 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted from Sudan to Israel between November 1984 and January 1985. The operation ended prematurely when its existence was leaked to the press. Many families were divided and were only reunited seven years later by "Operation Solomon" in May 1991.
Memorial on Mt. Herzl
On March 14, 2007, a memorial was dedicated on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem to the 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who died in the deserts of Sudan and Ethiopia while trying to reach Israel in the mid 1980's. The memorial was unveiled in the presence of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Minister of Immigrant Absorption Zev Boim and leaders of the Ethiopian-Israeli community. The impressive memorial has been erected at a prominent location near the entrance to the Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery.
For years IAEJ and other Ethiopian-Israeli organizations campaigned for the construction of a memorial that would respectfully commemorate the 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who fell trying to come on Aliyah. In a country where historical memory is closely tied to national identity, the memorial's construction is an important symbol of belonging and being part of Israeli society at large.