Jerusalem Day Holds Special Meaning for Ethiopian Jews

Unpacking the Complex Past and Present of Ethiopian Jews

In 2003, the Israeli government designated the 28th of Iyar, Jerusalem Day (May 29, 2022), as the official day of remembrance for Ethiopian Jews who could not fulfill their dream of returning to Jerusalem. In the 1980s, many Ethiopian Jews tried to make this dream a reality by walking from Ethiopia through Sudan and eventually making their way to Israel. It is estimated that over 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died on the journey. 

We spoke with Pnina Agenyahu, Director for Partnership2Gether Global Network at the Jewish Agency, about the day’s meaning and what she wishes American Jews knew about Ethiopian Jews.

BL: Tell us what having a national memorial to Ethiopian Jews means to you?

Pnina Agenayah: It took a long time before the losses were recognized officially. The ceremony was behind a gas station in Jerusalem in an open field when I was growing up. Today there is a beautiful monument in the National Civil Cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. It is a tribute to [Ethiopian Jewish] longing for Jerusalem.

The monument is a form of official recognition that Ethiopian Jews are an integral part of Israeli society. The people buried there include heads of state who lived in service and soldiers who gave their lives for this country. By placing the Ethiopian Jewish monument in this place, we recognize that those who died in Sudan also died for a higher purpose. It is a recognition of what Ethiopian Jews were willing to risk their lives to return to Jerusalem. I think it places the heroes of the Jewish people that envisioned Israel alongside our [Ethiopian Jewish] heroes that dream about Zion. It is about seeing the Ethiopian story in the Zionist story, the national narrative. Every year, I go to the ceremony; the President comes, and the Prime Minister comes. Lately, it is powerful to see the minister of Aliyah, who is an Ethiopian Jewish woman addressing the ceremony. It is really moving. If people are visiting Israel, I hope they come.

BL: What do you wish American Jews knew about Ethiopian Jews?

Agenyahu: It is often easier for people to engage in the folklore or anthropology of Ethiopian Jews but not the complexities of our current lives or even the long ancient Jewish history.

People don’t know the history of Ethiopian Jews. It did not start in 1980 and not even in 1955 with the first group of Ethiopian Jews that came to Kfar Batya. Our modern history connects [Ethiopian Jews and other Jews]. For example, the Alliance Israelite Universelle, an organization that built Jewish schools in France and Morocco, also built schools in Ethiopia already in 1903/4. In the early 1900s, an international Jewish organization recognized that the Ethiopian Jews were part of the Jewish people. This should make us wonder why it took the State of Israel 30 years from the establishment of the state to recognize the Ethiopian Jews. We need to think about and discuss this; it is part of the complexity.

I want people to know about the vision and leadership of Ethiopian Jews like Abba Mahari, who in 1862 walked people across the Red Sea to get to Israel. He saw himself as the biblical Moses. He led the first attempt to fulfill the dream of returning to Zion. He had the vision to walk the people to the land of Israel. Unfortunately, it ended horribly.

These are all essential parts of our history. Our story is not just a history of need and oppression, famine, and war.

For example, my mother had great fortitude and courage to decide at the young age of 27 years old to leave everything, including her parents, and go to an unknown place. She went with a strong faith that she was fulfilling a more important purpose as her forefathers had taught her. She was not just a refugee, a victim, or alone. She was a visionary. She was brave.

BL: How do Israelis who are not Ethiopian get to know Ethiopian Jews and their story?

Agenyahu: The army is vital in integrating Ethiopians into the general civic society, not just for the Ethiopians but also for others who have had little exposure to members of the Ethiopian community. The school system is such in Israel that you likely will only meet others who are like you. Except for the Arab sector, almost everyone serves in the army. So the military is where everyone comes together. Everyone is a soldier means everyone is equal – no matter where you came from, you are exposed to other people’s visions and experiences. The army has played a central role in integrating Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society.

BL: What is different today about the younger generation of Ethiopian Israelis?

Agenyahu: Today, because of Black Lives Matter, there is a great deal of interest from others to learn about the Ethiopian Jewish community and from our side to share about our community.

The younger generation is self-confident and self-assured, not dependent on the government or anyone else for legitimacy. Our parents’ generation depended on the government systems because Israeli life was all new to them, and they could not take ownership of their narrative. They were busy surviving.

This generation is growing up in Israel and knows it belongs here. If you have that self-confidence, you can do anything. Today’s protests by Ethiopian Jews come from a place of power, and they don’t feel the need to justify their existence.

Israelis are often surprised at how confident this younger generation is, but why are they surprised? Why shouldn’t we be confident or capable? Why shouldn’t we speak fluent Hebrew or serve in a senior position? We are Israelis, just like everyone else.

BL: Every group that has come to Israel has brought unique gifts. What gifts do you see Ethiopian Jews bring to Israel?

Agenyahu: We drive the conversation about what it means to be a Jew. What does it mean to belong to the Jewish people? Our existence forces conversations about judging people based on assumptions. Regarding Ethiopian Jews, in place of overt racism from other Israelis, there are often quiet questions about our Judaism, are we fully Jewish.

There are 3 million immigrants from over 60 countries in Israel, but we are the only ones with a different color skin. Even if we have Israeli accents and act like other Israelis, the first thing other people notice about us is the color of our skin and the way we are different. That comes with many assumptions about me without knowing who I am and what I’m capable of.

We bring the gift of ourselves. Many Israelis are surprised that I am the head of a department at the Jewish Agency. It is not surprising unless people don’t think that people like me can achieve much. I’m just a person who works hard. I’m not so exceptional. When there was the first Ethiopian Israeli pilot, people were also surprised. But you have to ask why they were so surprised; after all, there were many pilots in Ethiopia.

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