When the plane carrying Zion Uness and his family touched down in Jerusalem, the Ethiopian native felt as if he had returned home.
“As they got off the plane, the people, they bowed down to the ground and cried,” he recalled. “It was like the Messiah had come.”
Uness came to Israel in 1984 as part of Operation Moses, which airlifted more than 8,000 Ethiopian Jews who had made their way to Sudan. Along the difficult trek, more than 4,000 lost their lives, including Uness’s older brother.
Uness spoke at a program sponsored by Rutgers Hillel Feb. 29 at the George Street student center on the New Brunswick campus, which attracted close to 50 attendees, mostly students.
The program was designed to counter events being held on campus as part of the annual “Israel Apartheid Week” tied to the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel.
Uness toured college campuses here in February — also Black History Month — speaking ahead of the anti-Israel message being delivered by the BDS factions, said Jason Holtzman, northeast campus coordinator for the Zionist Organization of America.
“On many campuses we linked with black student groups to build bridges using both Black History Month and the shared relationship of Jews and African-Americans,” Holtzman told NJJN.
Now 34 years old, Uness recounted his sometimes difficult adjustment to the modern nation of Israel having spent his early years in a village in rural Ethiopia, where, he said, the Jews were accepted but always treated as strangers.
“The Ethiopians called us ‘Falashas,’ which means ‘strangers,’ he said, “because we were strangers to that land even though we had lived there for 2,000 years.
“We were not oppressed, we did not starve. We had cows, chickens, and worked the land — but we were strangers.”
For the Jews of Ethiopia, Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, was always their true homeland. Uness sang a few lines of a song in Amharic — the language of the Ethiopian Jews — expressing those ties to Jerusalem that his mother sang to him when he was a small child.
Yet he remembers his fear as he got off the plane in Israel and looked out at the sea of people welcoming the new olim.
“I had never seen white people before and I was very scared,” he said. “But my mother told me not to be rude to them.”
Uness admitted the approximately 120,000 Ethiopians now in Israel have encountered some racism and resistance, but the incidence of such negative reaction was small. “I believe the majority of Israelis do not have that perspective,” said Uness. “They don’t represent the majority of Israelis, and I want to put the spotlight on the good people.”
‘Only one land’
After immigrating, Uness’s family was placed in an absorption center for five years to learn Hebrew and to smooth their integration into Israeli society. For people who lived without modern conveniences, Israel was a place of wonder; when his mother first saw a toilet, he told the gathering, she assumed it was a place to wash clothes.
“When we saw TV for the first time, me and my friends just stared at it for a half-hour,” Uness said. “We could not understand how those people got in that small box. We went to the back to see if there was any access or doors.”
There was also a religious acclimation even though the Ethiopians had maintained Jewish practices outlined in the Torah, including kosher dietary laws and Shabbat and holiday rituals, for centuries. However, because the community was cut off from the rest of the Jewish world, it was unfamiliar with later Jewish texts, including the Talmud, and certain holidays that entered the canon later.
“We did not know about Purim or Hanukka,” said Uness. “But we have embraced them.”
In Ethiopia, he said, educational opportunities were few, but in Israel he graduated from high school and studied occupational therapy at Haifa University.
Uness also served in the Israel Defense Forces. “In the army, I felt the most equal because it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, everyone is equal under the law,” he said. “Therefore a lot of Ethiopians have risen to a very high rank in the Israeli army.”
Serving his country also gave Uness a sense of pride “that we have our own army to defend ourselves after going through so many things like the Holocaust and pogroms.”
Currently a nursing student at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, Uness added, “I had opportunities that could only come in Israel,” a message that he wanted to transmit to a wider audience.
“You as American Jews and friends of Israel need to speak up,” said Uness. “You need to raise your voice because as Jews — whether you come from Ethiopia, America, Europe, or Morocco — we have only one land, Israel.”