This story is part of a series called Israeli, Palestinian Women: The Only Way Forward Is Together. The series highlights Israeli and Palestinian women about their connection to Israel/Palestine, and how they are working to improve relations, and promote equality and coexistence between both groups of people. See the links below for each article of the series.
It was a few days into the latest escalation between Israel and Hamas and Ashager Araro was exhausted. The 30-year-old works as a captain in the Israeli reserves for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and she’d been grinding nonstop in the “war room,” or command center. She’d finally been permitted to go home to sleep for eight hours to her apartment in Tel Aviv, which she shares with her sister. But within moments of placing her head on her pillow, she remembers her sister jolting her awake.
“There were a lot of sirens in Tel Aviv, and my sister woke me and said, ‘Are you serious that you’re sleeping?’” Araro said. “But I was so exhausted that I slept through the sirens. I didn’t have any energy left in my body.”
Araro lives in an older building, and there is no bomb shelter. So when Hamas, the Palestinian resistance group, or fundamentalist, militant, and nationalist organization that controls the Gaza strip fires rockets towards Tel Aviv, her sister, Araro, and their neighbors run to the next “best” thing — the stairwell.
“It’s not actually helpful, or safe, in any way but maybe if a rocket hits, it won’t collapse on your head,” she said.
Araro was raised in Yavne, Israel — about a half-hour south of Tel Aviv. But she was born in Ethiopia while her parents were fleeing during Operation Soloman. This Israeli operation airlifted more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
Being Jewish in Ethiopia was difficult for Araro’s family. Despite looking like everyone around them, she says that her parents, grandparents, and relatives experienced relentless antisemitism. They were “othered,” even called falasha, an offensive term that means “outsider, exile” in Amharic (an Ethiopian language) for Ethiopian Jews.
“During certain times, Jews couldn’t own land in Ethiopia, or when there were diseases, they [Ethiopian Christians] would say, ‘The Jews brought the diseases to us,'” Araro said. “It’s the same old antisemitism we experienced in every other country around the world.”
The antisemitism enhanced Araro’s family’s dream to one day immigrate to Israel.
Israel, and more specifically, Jerusalem, is part of the fabric of Jewish identity. Both places are in Jewish prayers and songs. Jews are said to be indigenous to these areas, but they were exiled under various regimes and empires at different times in history.
Ethiopian Jews are believed to have emigrated from ancient Israel to Ethiopia between the 1st and 6th centuries. Many of them were forced to convert to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries. But still, many observed Jewish traditions in secret with the hope of someday returning to Israel.
The dream of returning started to become a reality for Jewish people after the creation of Israel in 1948. And there were two government “operations” that helped Ethiopian Jews find their way back to Israel.
First in 1984 during Operation, Moses, Israel brought around 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Over seven weeks, Ethiopian Jews walked by foot through the deserts of Ethiopia and Sudan, where they confronted deprivation, dehydration, and even attacks by brutal militias. Once they arrived at specific Sudanese refugee camps, Israeli officials airlifted them to Israel.
A similar operation occurred in 1991 called Operation Soloman— this was when Araro’s family decided to flee to Israel. During this time, Ethiopia had been involved in a decades-long civil war. Israeli and Jewish American officials on the ground in Ethiopia were becoming concerned for Jewish Ethiopians safety. Diplomats negotiated a deal to evacuate Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Araro’s family were some of those Ethiopian Jews.
Her father and mother, who was nine months pregnant with Araro, walked for days to Ethiopia’s capital. During the journey, Araro was born. In fact, Araro’s first name (Ashager) means “going forward” in Amharic, symbolizing her parent’s journey forward to Israel.
In total, there were 35 aircraft involved in Operation Solomon. All the seats inside the planes were removed, and each plane carried hundreds of people. Some held more than 1,000. Araro and her parents boarded the plane, side-by-side, squished with other Ethiopian Jews, and made their trek to the place they had dreamed about for generations.
“Imagine your entire life, you’ve talked about this place, and you were praying about this place, generation after generation,” Araro explained. “And every generation passes it down to the next generation and you never feel at home in the country you were born in because you’re always looked at as ‘other,’ as strangers, as falasha, and you know, there’s a better place for you.”
“And for me, just knowing that I’m the first generation, able to live the dream that my parents and my grandparents had, that I can live the dream of being here, being Jewish, being safe, and something that they dreamed of… wow.”
Araro says growing up in Israel was a blessing, and her memories are mainly of a happy childhood. But she distinctly remembers the terror attacks that occurred during the first and second Palestinian Intifada or uprising that left her emotionally scarred. From suicide bombings on buses to terror attacks in nightclubs, Araro and her family were constantly on high alert. Her parents refused to let her go anywhere or even step outside to play. Anxiety and stress became the norm.
“After that, when you see a bag left behind, you don’t think, ‘Oh, someone forgot their bag,'” Araro said. “You think, ‘Oh my god, that is a bomb, something bad is going to happen. So you call the police because that is where your logic goes.”
Araro never let the despair and violence stop her from making friends with Arabs and Palestinians. She jokes and calls her group of friends “the minority league” because it includes Jews, Ethiopians, Arabs of Palestinian descent, Christians, Russians, etc. And they all grew up and live in Israel. Because they all come from different backgrounds, they have diverse political views and opinions. But at the end of the day, they learn from one another and never demonize each other when disagreeing.
Araro and her friends discuss and frequently debate politics, specifically the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. She says the conflict has come to a boiling point, with extremists on both sides spewing extreme hatred, leaving a solution seeming far-fetched and nonexistent. Making it worse? She says social media.
During the latest intensification, Araro says she saw nonstop propaganda about Israel and Jewish people online — propaganda that she has consistently tried to combat on her Instagram and Twitter. Aside from using social media to educate, she used it to promote her belief that Israelis and Palestinians both deserve self-determination.
“Israel is a country with almost 10 million people. It’s a diverse community with different backgrounds. We were built like any immigrant country, of different nationalities, and from different places. And we came here because we were chased out everywhere else,” Araro said. “Demonizing the Israeli side and demonizing the Palestinian side doesn’t get us closer in any way to a solution.”
“Because the Palestinians are not going anywhere. And we are not going anywhere.”
Despite loving Israel, Araro said there are definite issues of inequality within Israel proper, especially when it comes to Arabs and even Israelis with darker skin, like herself.
“I always say when my parents were in Ethiopia, they looked like everyone else, you couldn’t see they were Jewish, but their black skin didn’t protect them from antisemitism,” Araro said.
“And my life here, the fact that I’m Israeli and I’m Jewish doesn’t protect me from racism.”
But she says when she sees people comparing the situation in Israel to America — it frustrates her, and she finds it disingenuous.
“If you look at it on a system level, Israel was established as a democratic country, with democratic values, with no laws that discriminate against one group of people. We’re all equal — Israeli, Arab Israeli, Muslim, Christian, Jews— under the law from the establishment of this state,” Araro said. “But when you look at the United States, you have a system that was born with the idea of racism in mind, and it was the idea that Blacks don’t matter and are not as important as white people. Like the idea that in the U.S., police were established to catch a running slave. Or the fact that some jails are for-profit, as a business — that would never happen here.”
“We have our own problems, don’t get me wrong. I’m not dismissing racism in Israel. I don’t want to come across like that in any way. But I think it’s two different systems.”
“Racism in America was built into the fabric of the society, and it’s so hard to take it away. Here, you have bad people, bad government leaders, but we can fight it like with the law and other resources.”
Over the last several months, Araro has been recovering from the latest escalation in Gaza. She reminisced on being in “the war room,” where sometimes there would be an alarm about Hamas rockets fired near her family’s home, and she could do nothing but watch, wait, and pray.
But even as the terror reigns down, Araro hopes for a future where Israelis and Palestinians can coexist.
“I think both Palestinians and Israelis just want to live their lives. Take out the leadership and extremists on both sides. The people who live their life day in and day out, who have families, children, friends, sisters and brothers, they just want to live their life peacefully with respect,” Araro said.
“The best way for us to move forward is to listen to each other.”