Ethiopian-Israeli film director, Avishai Mekonen, talks about his latest project, Heroes, and the journey he took in reclaiming the true history of the Ethiopian-Israeli people. This film was proudly supported by Asylum’s Small Grants Program.
During the making of our documentary-in-progress, Heroes, I have been learning so much about and gaining a great deal of pride in the true stories that have never been told about the history of the community that I come from, the Beta Israel, also known as Ethiopian Jews.
The Beta Israel experienced genocide under the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. His regime, supported by the Soviet Union, unleashed the infamous “Red Terror” in Ethiopia, which aimed to completely wipe out various groups of people. He especially targeted the Ethiopian Jews. In that time, our community leaders decided that they needed to take action for our survival and find a way out to get to Israel. But even until today, public understanding of our story leaves out our experience of religious persecution.
Ethiopian activists meet with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir
My community collectively feels immense gratitude toward the State of Israel for their role in our survival. But the experience of assimilation for refugees when making their way into a new country can also come with other complex struggles, such as finding a balance between assimilation and preservation of cultural identity. I especially see our experience echoed in headlines today about immigrants and refugees battling similar issues around representation and historical truth.
As an Ethiopian-Israeli who grew up in Israel, I often felt helpless, as the story of our journey from Ethiopia to Israel painted our community as one that was saved by others and rescued by the Israeli army. We were seen as a group that didn’t empower ourselves, didn’t have any leaders or heroes fighting for us, didn’t have any roles in our own survival and were just trying to escape starvation from a poor African country. This left me to feel a sense of emptiness and disconnectedness from my community and its past, culture, and identity.
I’m not the only one. Ethiopian-Israeli youth today often feel they come from a weak community, without leaders and without a past, feeling pressured to adopt a different identity. As Mali Aklum, a current-day activist and daughter of heralded Ethiopian leader, Ferede Aklum, says in the film, “The distortion of the community’s story makes the people castrated, it takes away a people’s past and identity.” It is time for the young Ethiopian-Israelis who are fighting for social justice today to have the opportunity to correct the distortion of our history and to reclaim our narrative.
For my entire adult life thus far, I have been trying to create work about my community that counters this. My photography/video project, Seven Generations, explored the Ethiopian Jewish oral history cultural tradition of counting generations as a means of honoring our people and keeping our past alive. My last documentary, 400 Miles to Freedom, takes a look at what it means to be a Jew of color and led me to dive into the traumatic events of what happened to me at age 9, on our journey out of Ethiopia. I needed to tackle this personal story of my survival first, the process of which lifted me up to dig more and to discover the full power of our community’s history. I needed to get justice for our story, and to have it be told from within and not from the outside.
It eventually led me to discover stories of our Aliyah that I and many in our community have never heard of. After making that film, I understood that I actually didn’t know about my past, the history of my community, and its leaders. I pretty much knew what the world knew - a very limited excerpt of a much larger story.
Through making the documentary, Heroes, I am beginning to understand how strong my community is, how they fought through the generations for 2,500 years to keep the community alive and strong, and how they had crucial roles in our survival and in our Aliyah. I’ve learned the names and remarkable stories of leaders, activists, and kessim (religious and community leaders of the Ethiopians) that I didn’t know of before, and have had the honor to meet and interview incredible people and help tell their powerful stories. But our story is not just about these amazing community leaders, it’s also about the bravery and sometimes quiet, hidden, and unsung acts of heroism and strength of each and every family who, together, contributed to our survival and freedom.