Courtesy of JNS. Photo credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with members of the Beta Israel community at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, May 18, 2023

(JNS) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government leaders joined Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community on Thursday for a ceremony commemorating the thousands who died trying to reach the Jewish homeland.

The gathering paying tribute to the 4,000 members of Beta Israel who died on the arduous journey took place at the official memorial site at the National Civil Cemetery of the State of Israel on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

Most died of malnutrition and disease between 1979 and 1990 while traveling by foot from Ethiopia to transit camps in neighboring Sudan.

Addressing the ceremony, Netanyahu said, “One of the expatriates from Ethiopia says, I quote: ‘In our parents’ house we “ate” Jerusalem, “drank” Jerusalem, slept and woke up with Jerusalem, and when a daughter was born in the family we called her “Jerusalem,” despite the bullying of the foreign environment.’

“A large part of life there, in the heart of Africa, revolves around Jerusalem—in thoughts, imaginations, prayers. So it was from generation to generation,” the prime minister said.

He praised changes in the educational curriculum expanding on the story of the Ethiopian exodus, and promised to boost housing, employment, education and health assistance.

Netanyahu was referring to a protest outside his office on Sunday by Ethiopian Israelis demanding more funding for their community.

President Isaac Herzog also addressed the gathering.

Some 90,000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel in a series of airlifts dating back to 1980.

However, those airlifts were bogged down by Israeli budget and bureaucratic issues, disagreements on whether certain Ethiopian Jewish communities could be recognized as Jews, civil wars and instability in both Ethiopia and Sudan, and more recently, by coronavirus travel restrictions.

Today, Ethiopian Israelis number around 160,000, almost 2% of the population.

Many of them were also partaking in Jerusalem Day on Thursday, celebrating the city’s reunification during the Six-Day War.