Avera Mengistu is not a household name in Jewish Atlanta, but it’s time for that to change. His plight says a lot about Israel, the Diaspora and Hamas.
Avera Mengistu, 31, is part of a family of 10 who made aliyah from Ethiopia in Operation Solomon in 1991. He was the playful rascal who brought light to the family home, befitting for someone whose first name means “light” in Amharic, one of his brothers, Ilan, told a gathering of the American Jewish Press Association in Los Angeles on Monday, Nov. 13.
But that light had a dark side — mental illness — and Ilan Mengistu said that darkness began to dominate Avera after their oldest brother, Michael, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces’ Golani Brigade, became sick and died in 2012.
Avera battled depression and rage and was in and out of institutions the next two years as his mental state deteriorated, his brother said. When he was home in Ashkelon, Avera had a habit of wandering off. On Sept. 7, 2014, he wandered all the way into the Gaza Strip, where he was taken hostage by Hamas.
More than three years later, he’s still being held somewhere in Gaza. No Israelis and no nongovernmental agencies have seen Avera. No one knows how Hamas has cared for him. As Ilan noted, all those countries and international organizations that seem so concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza have remained silent.
Avera’s case is a humanitarian situation, plain and simple. He never served in the IDF and never posed a threat to Hamas or any other Palestinians. It’s “cynical and cruel” that he has been kept from his home and his family, Ilan said.
The irony is that the same reason Avera should be of no interest to Hamas is likely the reason his case has not created excitement in Israel: He’s not a soldier. He was not abducted like Gilad Shalit; he just wandered away.
It’s time to bring Avera home. His family is pushing for an international advocacy campaign. That’s why Ilan and his mother, Agrenash, visited the AJPA and the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin mentioned Avera and his family when he addressed the General Assembly, and he met privately with the Mengistus. Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, did the same a week later in New York.
“The terrorists of Hamas have refused to even provide a sign of life to these suffering families,” Danon said. “All those who demand an end to the humanitarian plight for the residents of Gaza must also demand the immediate release of all Israelis held by Hamas.”
Likewise, all those who campaigned for Shalit’s release, all those who were outraged when three Israeli youths were abducted and slain, sparking the 2014 Gaza war, just a few months before Avera was captured, should be just as angry and just as active now.
One of our people is being held hostage. It reflects how we Jews value human life if we organize to demand his release. It reflects how little Hamas cares about humanity if it ignores those demands.