President Shimon Peres has condemned what he called the growing phenomenon of racism in Israel, saying that it is ugly and despicable. On Thursday, following reports of racist slurs against Israelis of Ethiopian background, Peres visited the Reishit School in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Menachem neighborhood, where the student population includes a large number of Ethiopians who are residents of the Reishit Urban Kibbutz.

The president was eager to hear from the students – most of whom are native-born Israelis of Ethiopian parentage – what their reactions were to the most recent outbreaks of racism, that include refusal by home owners in certain neighborhoods to sell apartments to Ethiopian families.

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The Reishit School has an impressive record in the absorption and integration of Ethiopian students, and Peres was equally interested to know the secret of its success.

When Emanuel, a sixth-grade student, asked Peres about his opinion with regard to revelations of racism, Peres was emphatic in his condemnation.

“Everyone in Israel should be ashamed of what we have witnessed in recent days,” said Peres. “We should all be grateful to Ethiopian immigrants that they chose to come to Israel and not the other way around.”

Peres was alluding to remarks made the previous day by Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, who said in response to anti-racist demonstrations by Ethiopian immigrants that they should be “thankful” for what Israel has done for them.

“There is no room for Hitlerism or racism in Israel,” said Peres.

“Racists should be ashamed of what they do and what they say. I know that there are a lot of unpleasant situations, but you have nothing to be ashamed of. The racists should be ashamed. You shouldn’t have to say thank you. They should say thank you. Racism and outbursts of rage are untenable and should not be tolerated,” he said, adding that all people are created in the image of God.

“When we established the state,” he continued, “our dream was that it would attract Jews from Ethiopia, Russia, Libya – in fact the whole world.

Everyone who came had absorption difficulties, but there are those who simply do not know how to behave towards new immigrants.”

Looking around at the integrated class of youngsters who are being trained to grow up to be productive citizens of Israel, Peres told them that they could serve as a paradigm. He was pleased to see how well they related to each other, he said.

Ever curious, the youngsters wanted to know what difficulties if any, Peres had encountered when he came as a child from Poland. Peres admitted candidly that at the age of 11, his Hebrew was far from fluent and other children in his class used to make fun of him. He was also dressed differently, and they used to tease him mercilessly about his appearance.

Although he found this very hurtful, he persevered because he was enchanted by the thought of being in the land of Israel. He loved the shades of blue of the sky and the sabras who worked the soil in the effort to build up the land.

“It took a while for me to acclimatize,” he said, “but after that I was like any other Israeli.

Today I can tell you honestly, that if you invest in your studies, you can be anything you want – even the president of the state.”

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