BY JEREMY SHARON
JUNE 3, 2019
The government must do more to integrate Israelis who immigrated from Ethiopia and to combat racism and discrimination against them, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.
Speaking at the annual state ceremony in memory of the Jews of Ethiopia who died en route to Israel in the 1980s – which coincides every year with Jerusalem Day – Netanyahu lauded the community and its contribution to Israeli society, and described their aliyah as a critical chapter in the story of the State of Israel.
“You were determined, you did not give up the dream you preserved for 2,500 years to return from foreign lands to the Land of Israel,” said Netanyahu, noting that the entire country “mourns the massive loss and heavy price you and your loved ones paid. It was a journey of suffering in which you fought for your lives, in which you fell victim to outrageous violence and cruelty, and perhaps the worst cruelty when you had to leave your family members who did not have the strength to go on.”
Approximately 8,000 Ethiopian Jews made aliyah during Operation Moses in 1984, while another 4,000 died either on the arduous journey on foot through the desert from Ethiopia to Sudan, or in the Sudanese refugee camps.
Netanyahu said the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews was “a central chapter in the story of the State of Israel,” and that other Israelis were increasingly interested in hearing their experiences.
Of the difficulties and mistakes made in the integration of the community in Israel, Netanyahu said: “There is more work in front of us to increase integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israeli society,” noting that the government convenes a task force on combating racism and discrimination in Israeli society every few months.
“We are making progress on housing, employment, quality of life, IDF service, and other fields,” Netanyahu insisted.
“I also recognize the problems, the racism and discrimination which Ethiopian Jews suffer, and we will not tolerate this phenomenon in the democratic State of Israel,” he said. “This is your land, your country and your capital. You are our brothers and sisters.”
Michal Avera Samuel, director of the Fidel NGO that provides assistance to the Ethiopian Jewish community, described the day as “extremely difficult.”
She said she came in Operation Moses with her parents and siblings, and although all the immediate members of her family survived the journey, four of her cousins perished along the way.
At the time of their journey to Israel, Avera Samuel said, there was “a sense of mission” amongst those who left Ethiopia, “that we must come to Jerusalem and rebuild it, despite the fear and suffering, and that we would do everything to survive to fulfill this dream and to fulfill the will of our ancestors.”
One of the greatest challenges for the Israeli Ethiopian Jewish community, Avera Samuel said, is to convey the narrative of its history, heritage and aliyah in a positive light to broader Israeli society. Not enough is known of the heritage of Ethiopian Jews and it is not taught sufficiently in Israeli schools, she said, and that only through bridging this knowledge gap can the racism and discrimination that members of the community still experience be eradicated.
“When Israeli society understands the greatness of the Ethiopian Jewish community, we will be able to reduce racism and prejudice against Ethiopian Jews,” she said. “We are immediately identifiable, but we are proud of our color. When knowledge of our heritage and culture increases, our skin color will be less important and we will not be judged by it.
“The majority of racism is due to lack of knowledge, and lack of familiarity with Ethiopian Jews, and greater awareness and knowledge can topple these perspectives and allow us to be identified just as people and not to be tagged by skin color.”