Bereaved families, distinguished guests,
Three words – "Jerusalem of gold" – have bridged the vast distance between Ethiopia and Israel throughout the generations. I am not referring to Naomi Shemer’s wonderful song, but to the essence of your faith. Living in the heart of Africa, you yearned to reach precious Jerusalem, Yerusalem, which you believed was built out of pure gold.
Those of us who were born in Israel see Jerusalem like that: a city of light, a hallowed city with unique and dream-like beauty, a city like no other in the world. The song Jerusalem of Gold played us along 50 years ago during the fateful battle for our existence. Thousands of kilometers away from here, your hearts beat in rhythm with ours. When we won, your joy knew no bounds. The late Yona Bogale, one of the leaders of the Beta Israel community in Ethiopia, sent a heartfelt letter to Jerusalem after the Six Day War.
He wrote: "After the unrest we experienced and fearing for the fate of the State of Israel, we received word about your tremendous victory. May we be given wings to make aliyah, to prostrate ourselves on the soil of the holy city and on the graves of our forefathers, to kiss the Western Wall, the remnant of our Temple." It was written in beautiful Hebrew and pierced the heart.
Yona Bogale was fortunate to have come to Jerusalem, as you did. But thousands of Jews from Ethiopia did not survive the journey, and their absence is sorely felt. Today, we bow our heads in their memory and give everlasting validation to the story of their bravery and your bravery.
They embarked, with you, on a journey full of danger, with Jerusalem as their map and compass. "Jerusalem" was the magic word that compelled many of you to leave behind crops in the fields, property and close friends, and set off. The light of far-away Jerusalem spurred you on as you suffered heartrending hardships – the forces of nature, hunger, thirst, predatory animals (including human predators), contagious diseases, gangs of robbers and death that lurked around every corner.
You parted tearfully from your loved ones whose strength expired along the journey and laid them to rest out there in Ethiopia and Sudan. With supreme effort, you continued to forge your path to freedom – until you reached the extended arms of Israel’s representatives. This is also an amazing chapter in the story of our national revival: the first extremely stirring encounter between you, the guardians of the embers of ancient Judaism, and our soldiers, who were risking their lives for you in foreign lands. My Chief of Staff, Yoav Horowitz, was one of the soldiers who met you on Operation Solomon. He is always moved when he tells me about the historic encounter, this national convergence of dispersed Jews. One thing is clear: You are the champions of this story. You paid a heavy price in order to realize your dream.
My brothers and sisters, I often hear you say, "If only veteran Israelis would acknowledge what we suffered, the huge sacrifices we made." Your heroic story is reaching a broader audience thanks to the ceremonies that we hold here and welcome efforts made in the education system, but also because these things are taught to the young generation. A child might introduce his grandfather, a Prisoner of Zion, to his classmates; another might tell her class about her family’s yearning for Jerusalem; youth movements hold ceremonies honoring those who perished on their way here.
And here is another story that my wife and I, like all Israelis, found deeply moving: A few weeks ago, I was visited in my office by Major Yerus Shigut. She is, of course, named after Jerusalem. Yerus, an officer in the Education Corps who lit one of the Independence Day torches, left a deep impression on the audience and on all of Israel’s citizens. She came to Israel from northern Gondar as a four-year old, without her father, who had fallen ill and died. With great determination, she made it to Israel. She recently decided to go back to the village where she was born. She celebrated Seder night in Ethiopia. The emotional turmoil that she felt peaked as she stood by the grave of her father, on which the Star of David is engraved. She returned to Israel almost directly to the Independence Day torch lighting ceremony, and she continues to be involved in teaching values and educating IDF soldiers. She has certainly come full circle.
I salute Yerus, and I salute you all. Not only did you return to the bosom of your nation, you have the privilege to contribute to the building of our country in numerous fields. And I see myself as having had the great honor, together with other prime ministers such as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, of having ordered steps that in one fell swoop brought thousands of our Ethiopian brothers and sisters to the Land of Israel.
When I visited Ethiopia last year, and that was the first time since the Queen of Sheba came here 3,000 years ago that we had an official exchange of visits. We will make sure not to wait that long for our next visits. When I visited Ethiopia last year, I told those in the highest levels of government about the unique contribution that the immigration of Ethiopian Jews made to the State of Israel and to our incredible human tapestry. However, I also know that you still face many obstacles and potholes along the way. There are difficulties that stem from moving to Israel, and they are painful. But the greatest pain lies not in those difficulties. The greatest pain arises from the way you are treated. When it happened in Kiryat Malachi, I held a government meeting there, because I could not tolerate it. As Jews, how can we talk in racist terms? How can we talk like that? And about our own people?!
When another such incident occurred more recently, two years ago, I said that I would not accept this. And so I established a ministerial committee which I head. We have a clear goal of advancing Israeli citizens from the Ethiopian community and to do everything possible to ensure that you are not merely a part of Israeli society, but leaders in Israeli society. The committee convenes once a month or every few weeks, and I personally follow its progress and support its efforts by providing many resources. We have made great strides which will continue – in housing, education, employment, health, welfare, military service.
I follow with great pride the integration of our young men and women who serve in the best units of the IDF. It is a source of pride, but not everybody knows about this. I know it and you probably do too. It goes together with the progress we are making in the war against racism and discrimination. We must not tolerate disparaging behavior toward Ethiopians.
We will continue to stand up against these incidents, shoulder to shoulder, until they are eliminated from our lives. We are all equal. We are all brothers. At the same time, I ask you all to do everything you can to preserve the heritage of your wonderful community. You have so much to be proud of.
We will forever cherish the memory of the members of the community who perished on their journey to Israel, and we will pass on their stories from generation to generation.
Their memory will be engraved in the glory of Jerusalem. As the Prophet Isaiah said, "Like a man whose mother consoled him, so will I console you; and in Jerusalem will you be consoled." May it be so.