For the first time in 20 years, a prime minister of Israel formally recognized Sunday the suffering and loss experienced by thousands of Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel during the 1980s and 1990s.

At a memorial ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told more than a thousand members of the Ethiopian community – all of who lost loved ones on their journey to Israel – that the history of Ethiopian Jewry is inseparable from the overall history of the Jewish people.

“Your history is part of our history and you future is part of our future,” he told those gathered for the annual ceremony, which only in the past two years has become an official state event but never before included a direct address from the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s presence and that of other dignitaries for the first time since the community started holding a memorial for its dead – prior to 2005 an unofficial event took place at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel – was greeted with mixed emotions.

“Of course it’s an honor that the No. 1 person in the country is here,” commented Uri Kabada, a journalist and activist from Petah Tikva.

“But we are also painfully aware that this is the first time it is happening.”

Michal Avera Samuel, director of FIDEL – The Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post that while it was certainly a sign of respect, there was still a feeling of paternalism from the establishment, which last week unveiled a controversial plan to tackle immigration problems and widespread discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis.

In addressing the problem of racism against the immigrant community, Netanyahu highlighted during the ceremony that there is no room for such attitudes in Israel and he called on the community itself to help spread the word about their commitment and contributions to the state.

He also said it was time for the whole of Israeli society to recognize the pain and loss of the Ethiopian Jewish community, which lost so many members during the two massive aliya operations that brought the majority of them to Israel. (Operation Moses took place in 1984-5 and saw thousands of Jews walking from their villages in northern Ethiopia to Sudan, whence they were eventually brought to Israel, and Operation Solomon in 1991, where thousands more people were airlifted here during a covert operation over a single weekend.) “The journey that you have taken is not just one of distance,” concluded Netanyahu in his address. “It is a daily journey of identity and inclusion for all of the community and it is still on-going.”

He added, however, that Ethiopian Jews had become part of the Israeli narrative and he referred to the community’s success in all areas of professional, academic and political life, as well as in the military.

“I hope that our new plan for improving immigration and integration will help you all to go beyond that glass ceiling,” said Netanyahu, whose words were immediately translated into Amharic and drew a heavy sigh from those gathered.

Emotions were further stirred during the event when Shay Shembal Wassa, who witnessed the death of seven family members in Sudan on his way to Israel, shared his personal story.

The 40-year-old border policeman sobbed as he recalled how his mother, four sisters and two young nieces perished in a refugee camp in Sudan. Wassa said that the remaining family members have never quite come to terms with their loss and that they suffer the pain of that journey even today.

Overcome by emotion, Wassa could not finish his speech, which culminated in a poem written in his native Amharic and caused many members of the crowd to break down in tears.

Sunday’s ceremony, which also included a speech from Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beytenu), music from young Ethiopian Israeli singer Aviva Desse and a special prayer for fallen Ethiopian Jews, took place next to a monument for Ethiopian Jewry, which was inaugurated in November.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Knesset Speaker MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) and the parliament’s only Ethiopian lawmaker, MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima), were also in attendance, as well as Ethiopian Ambassador Yosef Hilawe and Kadima party leader and newly installed government minister Shaul Mofaz.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger