Israel made some mistakes during the absorption process of immigrants from Ethiopia over the years, and must strive to do better, President Reuven Rivlin said on Sunday at a memorial held by the Ethiopian-Israeli community for those who died while trying to reach the Jewish state.
“Israeli society is obligated to continue to readdress the failures, and ensure that aliyah [immigration] to Israel becomes more and more attractive and fitting,” Rivlin said at the ceremony Sunday morning at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem.
Ethiopians who made their way to Israel paid a dear price, Rivlin said, “financially, physically, spiritually, and in the difficult acclimation.”
Between 1979 and 1990 Israel organized several transports of Ethiopian Jews to Israel via Sudan. Hundreds or, by some estimates, thousands of people died on the trip from Ethiopia to the Sudanese camps from where they left to Israel.
Some 1,500 names of those who died while en route are engraved on a monument at the site. Some 18,000 who survived the journey.
Many in the community say that upon reaching Israel, they found a country that did not do enough to integrate them into society.
“There needs to be a great effort in the everyday way we relate to the immigrants from Ethiopia, and also in spreading the community’s story of devotion, the story of those who perished, and those who were held captive, so that it is an integral part of the Israeli story,” Rivlin said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also spoke at the ceremony, expressed a similar sentiment, saying that “the wonderful story of [Ethiopian Jews] must become inseparable from the story of Israel.”
Netanyahu, like Rivlin, also acknowledged the “big challenges that come with a return home” and with the integration process into Israeli society.
The prime minister said that above all, his number one priority was to see the eradication of racism and discrimination many in the community feel.
“It’s an infuriating phenomenon in our society, it’s intolerable and we are fighting it full-force,” Netanyahu said.
And while acknowledging the difficulties, the prime minister also touted the success stories from among the Ethiopian community, touching on the pride he feels when he sees young members of the community wearing the IDF uniform.
Netanyahu also addressed a burning issue in the Ethiopian community, that of relatives left behind who have yet to make aliyah amid government obstacles throughout the years.
Netanyahu said he had “the privilege… of making the special effort and allowing the immigration of the rest of [them].”
Some 1,300 Ethiopians who claim Jewish descent, known as Falashmura, will begin arriving in Israel this month, with 9,000 to come over the next five years, under a new Israeli government agreement reached in April. The agreement came after a public campaign launched by the Ethiopian community in Israel and volunteer organizations.
The cost is estimated at $1 billion.
Falashmura are Ethiopians who claim links to descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago, but now seek to return to Judaism and immigrate to Israel. Their permanent entry into Israel will be dependent on completing the conversion process.
The memorial ceremony in Jerusalem on Sunday was also attended by new Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beytenu), Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Israel and other dignitaries.
JTA contributed to this report.