Arrested for trying to leave Ethiopia for Israel, Herut Admasu’s father was tortured for years, until he could no longer walk or even crawl. But despite the torture, he refused to give up the dream he shared with so many Ethiopian Jews: to live freely as a Jew, in Israel.
Admasu told her family’s story at the opening film of the “Israeli Citizens of Color: From Ethiopia to Chicago to the Negev” series hosted by the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME). The film, “Mekonen: The Story of an African Jew” follows an Ethiopian shepherd whose family emigrates to Israel. Forced to grow up too young, Mekonen must figure out who he is as an Ethiopian Israeli and what he wants in life.
For Admasu, connection to her Ethiopian heritage was complex. Like most first-generation children, she wanted only to identify with the country of her birth, Israel. She refused to learn Amharic and even rejected her name, which means “freedom,” in favor of a more mainstream one.
But during a trip to Ethiopia with her father, Admasu finally began asking questions. Sitting outside the prison where her father had been imprisoned, she heard for the first time what he had endured in order to gain freedom for himself and his family – and why he had given her the name of “Herut.”
Now using her birth name again, Admasu is committed to sharing her story and working on behalf of Ethiopians in Israel. Sometimes, she said, that puts her at odds with her parents. For them, Jerusalem was built of gold; to Admasu, Israel is a country like any other, which needs its citizens to speak out when something isn’t right. “That’s what being a democracy means,” she said.
During the Q&A after the film screening, Admasu reflected on the difficulties Mekonen and his family faced in adjusting to life in Israel. Anyone moving to a new country faces such challenges and needs to make adjustments, she said. The important difference for Jews like Mekonen is that there is no going back: Israel is the country of last resort for Jewish refugees from all over the world.