Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday paid tribute to the thousands of Ethiopian Jews who died making the long, dangerous journey to Israel, and vowed that he would not rest until an Israeli man of Ethiopian descent held captive by the Hamas terror group is set free.
Speaking at an annual memorial ceremony held at the Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, Netanyahu opened his address by mentioning Avera Mengistu, who has been held by Hamas for over three and a half years.
“Distinguished guests, and mostly of all, our dear and beloved bothers and sisters, Ethiopian immigrants. The family of Avera Mengistu, we will not rest until we bring Avera home,” Netanyahu said.
President Reuven Rivlin was also at the event, which remembered the Ethiopian Jews who perished as they walked overland from Ethiopia to Sudan, from where they were airlifted to Israel.
Israel clandestinely airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s and 90s, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the community to the Jewish state and help them integrate. About 24,000 people attempted the journey via Sudan — some on donkeys and horses, some on foot — but 4,500 died on the way. Many were later flown in 1991 directly from refugee camps outside the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to Israel.
Rivlin, who earlier this month became the first Israeli head of state to make an official visit to Ethiopia, said that during the trip he asked President Mulatu Teshome for assistance in bringing Mengistu home.
“I want to recall our commitment to Avera Mengistu,” Rivlin said. “During my visit I asked the Ethiopian president to do everything he can to help in the efforts to bring Avera, who is held captive by Hamas, back to his family. May the day of his return come soon.”
Hamas believed to be holding two Israeli civilians who entered Gaza of their own volition, Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed. In addition, the terror group is also believed to be holding the remains of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, two IDF soldier who were killed during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, which has since refused to provide any details about them.
Speaking of the ardeous journey that the Ethiopian Jews made to reach Israel, Netanyahu said “You were marching in fear. The thousands of those who died on the way were buried in deep sorrow.”
“Perhaps the whole story can be told in one small note that was left on one of the graves: ‘My body is here, but my heart in is Jerusalem.'”
“The Jewish people can learn so much from you. Of love for Jerusalem, on determination and willpower, on mutual responsibility.”
About 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, a small minority in a country of over 8 million. But their assimilation hasn’t been smooth, with many arriving without a modern education and then falling into unemployment and poverty.
Netanyahu said a special government unit that focuses on combating racism has had some success. “This is also a long journey, by we will not compromise on the goal. Equal and respectful treatment for every citizen. Equal and respectful treatment for you, Ethiopian Jews.”
Agencies contributed to this report.