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An Epic Ethiopian Aliyah Story

As bad as the situation was in Ethiopia, Asher said that the situation got even worse when the Ethiopian Jews arrived in Sudan.
Israeli Ethiopians in a ceremony commemorating Ethiopians who died on their way to the Jewish State.

Israeli Ethiopians in a ceremony commemorating Ethiopians who died on their way to the Jewish State.
Photo Credit: Flash90

Asher Tagai journeyed to Israel from Ethiopia and his ordeal coming to the Holy Land is truly inspiring. Asher Tagai was born an Ethiopian Jew and has lived a hard life. In the 1980’s, the Ethiopian regime was biased against Jews and Israel and countless Ethiopian Jews were imprisoned by the government based on the fabricated charge of being a Zionist spy. Asher recounted that he was sent to jail by Ethiopian authorities on fraudulent charges, resulting in his subsequent recognition as a prisoner of Zion. In some areas of the country, Judaism was even illegal and Jews were forcefully converted to Christianity. According to Asher, “many Jews preferred to commit suicide over becoming Christian.”

Asher claims that between 1979 and 1984, many Ethiopian Jews sought to escape these conditions by making Aliyah to Israel. They left behind an ancient history and rich cultural heritage. Due to the fact that he was serving time in jail Asher was part of one of the later waves of the Ethiopian Jewish exodus to Israel. He said that he prayed to G-d a lot during this period of time to be set free, so that he would be able to come to Israel with his family. However, it was very dangerous to make Aliyah to Israel during this period of time. According to Asher, “anyone who was caught” making Aliyah to Israel “was given the death penalty.” 

Asher claims that what the Ethiopian Jewish community experienced was very similar to the exodus story in ancient times. He explained, “In one day, we packed up all of our stuff and if you couldn’t, you just left it. There was a lot of uncertainty. You could never know what happened from one day to the next.” Asher claimed that Ethiopian Jewish families were separated from each other during their voyage. He explained, “They went by non-Jewish guidance to Sudan during the night and hid during the day. There was a lot of robbery, thieves, rape, murder; every thing bad that you could imagine, along the way.”

As bad as the situation was in Ethiopia, Asher said that the situation got even worse when the Ethiopian Jews arrived in Sudan. In Sudan, members of the Ethiopian Jewish community were forced to live in horrific conditions in special camps. According to Asher, Ethiopian Jewish families with pregnant women and very small children “were sleeping in tents” in extremely hot weather. “It was like living in an oven,” he explained. Furthermore, “The food and water they got from Red Cross was in a bad condition and they got sick. Some died. At least 5 to 6 people per family died,” Asher stated, “You went to sleep and didn’t know if the person next you will get up.”

Asher was traumatized by the ordeal and still suffers from nightmares to this day. He claimed, “There were 19 bodies on the same day surrounding me and sick people had to make graves with their bare hands, even though they were sick. My sister delivered a son who died and she also got sick. She wanted to go back to Ethiopia to see her father and then died. Only her daughter survived.”

Asher finally managed to make Aliyah to Israel and upon arrival within the country, he kissed the ground. Today, he is living and working in Israel, has a family, makes sure to volunteer with the Ethiopian Jewish community and also helps other Ethiopian Jews make Aliyah to Israel so that they can be given the same opportunities that he was. When he was in prison in Ethiopia, Asher promised G-d that he would give back to the community if given the chance to make Aliyah with his family and he has kept his word regarding that. He concluded, “I suffered a lot in Ethiopia. Making Aliyah was like coming back to life. Everyday I thank God for being in Israel.”

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About the Author: Rachel Avraham is a news editor and political analyst for Jerusalem Online News, the English language internet edition of Israel's Channel 2 News. She completed her masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University. The subject of her MA thesis was: "Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab media."


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