Brothers and Sisters, The State and people of Israel bow their heads in memory of the thousands of Jews from Ethiopia who died on their way to Jerusalem, to Yerusalem. The emigration of the Ethiopian Jews is one of the most fascinating accounts of great courage in the history of our people – a fascinating, lengthy and unknown saga. My son Avner is a history enthusiast. He told me: “Father, in the fourth century, in the year 334, Frumentius, emissary of the newly emerging religion, Christianity, arrived in Ethiopia and christened the entire population of Ethiopia.” The entire population of Ethiopia, except for one tribe – the Jews.
The Jews were forced to flee the Kingdom of Exum, but they did remain in Ethiopia. Their yearning for Zion, their identification with Judaism is age-old; it goes back thousands of years. That is why the heroic journey that many of you and your parents made on foot to reach Israel proves the deep connection of the people of Israel – and you as part of that people – to the Land of Israel.
Your dedication and devotion to our land and people, even after being isolated for 2,000 years, and in the case of Ethiopian Jews perhaps even longer, symbolizes more than anything the secret of our strength, the secret of our people’s existence and the resilience and depth of the Zionist idea.
It is no coincidence that today, Jerusalem Day, we mark the National Memorial Day for our brothers and sisters who perished on their way to Jerusalem here, in the eternal capital of the State of Israel, of our people. There is no day more symbolic, more worthy or appropriate than Jerusalem Day to remember our loved ones.
The Israeli Government has erected a monument here on Mount Herzl in memory of the thousands who did not reach Israel – babies, children, women, men and the elderly who died on their journey. On this day, we cherish their memory and honor the wonderful heritage that they bequeathed us. Our sages said that Israel is attained through suffering, but the cost the Jews of Ethiopia endured for their devotion to Israel and Jerusalem is more than their fair share of torment and pain. It did not break you or deter you. On the contrary: the harder the journey was and the more difficult the conditions, the greater your love for the Land of Israel and Zion grew.
I am impressed by the way the community of Ethiopian Jews has succeeded in maintaining its Judaism for thousands of years of exile, the institutions you established, the traditions to which you adhered and your community leaders. Unfortunately, many Israeli citizens are not familiar with the rich history of the Jewish community of Ethiopia. This will be remedied in school curriculums. Everyone should know this history and be aware of contributions you make now.
Many of the community’s members were full partners in reinforcing Ethiopia’s strength and maintaining its independence for over 3,000 years. However, although they carried their share of the burden, the Jewish community in Ethiopia suffered, and it happened over and over again. That was the fate of the Jews everywhere. Many Jewish communities suffered despite their contributions to the countries in which they lived, and that is what happened in Ethiopia. There too, Jews were harassed and harmed because of anti-Semitic hatred. In the beginning of the 17th century, diktats against the Jews worsened. Many lost their lands to the Emperor; others were forcibly baptized; and still others died for Kiddush HaShem, the sanctity of God, in the Semien Mountains that the Jews of Ethiopia are familiar with.
Despite the persecution, the decrees, many of the members of the community remained faithful to the Torah and to the Land of Israel, and realized the longstanding dream of coming to Israel because of their faith. The first wave of immigration took place in the early 1980s in Operation Moses, under the leadership of the late Menachem Begin. The second wave continued in the 1990s in Operation Solomon, under the leadership of Yitzhak Shamir. And the State of Israel and the Government of Israel did not forget or abandon the Jews still left in Ethiopia.
My government has twice resolved – in both my first and second tenures – to bring the remaining Jews of Ethiopia back to their historic homeland. However, this is not the end of their journey, because here, in the State of Israel, we are involved in the second part of the journey: in absorbing and integrating them in Israeli society. It is a long, daily journey, a spiritual journey for the community’s religious leaders, the kesim, and the older generation, and a journey of building identity and becoming a part of Israeli society for the entire community, but especially for the younger generation. I think that this is not merely a geographic journey. It cannot be summed up by the miles walked, but by closing the physical and literal gaps, which will ensure that the entire community becomes integrated in all areas of life and progress of Israeli society. It is a journey that is cultural and social, and it is our duty as the State of Israel, and that of each and every Israeli citizen, to help them along the way.
I am pleased to see that the community’s younger generation has become a part of the Israeli landscape. Many of them serve in the IDF in command positions in elite units. As Prime Minister, I often have the pleasure of meeting them, and they are among the best soldiers and commanders in Israel. And I see them, I see you, in academia, the legal system, media, public service, politics, education, culture and diplomacy. I must note the Foreign Minister’s commendable idea to appoint a member of the Ethiopian community as the first female ambassador to Ethiopia. I call that ‘coming full circle.’
I find it very exciting, and it is a harbinger of the future. I am aware that, despite the success achieved over the years, we still face many difficult challenges. I think we will overcome them, all of them. I believe that we will and I am committed to that.
Let me tell you what I think is the most important challenge. It is to rid ourselves of the manifestations of racism and discrimination that the community still encounters. We are fighting these incidents with all our strength. Racism is intolerable in the State of Israel. Ostracizing is unacceptable – in the State of Israel or of the State of Israel or any of its citizens.
In the last few years and months, I have met many members of the younger generation of Ethiopians in Israel. I have seen wonderful young men and women, full of motivation and the desire to contribute to the country and to society. I am happy that, as Prime Minister, I also have the privilege of helping them pursue their talents and dreams – we are committed to doing that even if it is a gradual process. But I ask you never to give up your dream of self fulfillment, or of making your contribution to the realization of the national ideal. I have no doubt that we will continue, together, to help you break through the glass ceiling to fulfill your vast natural potential.
We have passed several resolutions to this end – we will provide assistance with housing, employment, religious services, welfare and absorption. But I think that the most important thing we must do is teach all Israeli children about the heritage of Ethiopian Jewry, the ancient heritage and the more recent one, the journey and self-sacrifice, your love for the State and our love for you. You are a part of us, part of our history and your future is all our futures.
Thank you very much.