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