JERUSALEM (Jan. 8)
“Hope is not lost” for the rescue and repatriation of Ethiopian Jews, Premier Shimon Peres declared in a statement to the Knesset today. He pledged that the government “will do all in its power, and even more than that, not to end this operation, which is so humane and so Jewish, until the very last Jew from Ethiopia reaches his homeland.”
The statement was the first by Peres to Israeli lawmakers and the public since the airlift rescue of Ethiopian Jews was suspended Sunday after its premature disclosure here. “Despite the difficulties and the breakdowns, hope is not last,” he said. “The single main problem before us is how to continue this exhilarating rescue operation, and to bring it to a successful conclusion.”
Peres took full responsibility for the press conference last Thursday night at which government and Jewish Agency spokesmen confirmed that an airlift had been bringing thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel since last November, via Sudan and an obligatory stopover in Europe. Many Israelis have charged that the press conference, which gave the previously secret airlift worldwide publicity, contributed to suspending it.
Peres said he had approved the conference after “consulting with all the relevant bodies” in an effort to divert public attention away from “sensitive aspects” — meaning apparently the airlift from Sudan — to Israel’s efforts to absorb and integrate the Ethiopian newcomers.
URGES ABSOLUTE DISCRETION IN THE FUTURE
But the Premier did not take issue with his critics. He urged, instead, absolute discretion in the future. “We must renew the self-discipline and the necessary silence,” he said. “National confidence is required in order to complete this sacred mission.”
The airlift, although known to the media, was subject to military censorship until last Wednesday when a small magazine published by West Bank settlers quoted the director of the Jewish Agency’s aliya department Yehuda Dominitz, as saying that the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews were now in Israel.
With censorship broken, the Israeli and foreign media published sensational accounts of the arrival of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, their welcome in most places but rejection by some townships where unemployment is running high.
‘NO…OUTWARD DIFFERENCES CAN DIVIDE US’
Peres may have been referring to this when he called for an “honorable and serious process of absorption to prove an ancient truth in our lives: that despite whatever differences of origins and shades and emphases, we are one nation, bound to one ancient, wonderous heritage. No physical force or outward differences can divide us.”
The Premier added: “All of us, representatives of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel, rabbis and public servants, government and citizens, towns and development towns, kibbutzim and moshavim, the center of of the country and the periphery–we must all meet this exciting challenge of absorbing our brothers and sisters from a distant land.
“We must do this while respecting their customs and way of life, their special culture and heritage and their deep feelings. For we are all one people. There are no white Jews and there are no black Jews. There are just Jews. History and faith tie us together forever.”
Peres cited rabbinical authorities including Rabbi Avraham Hacohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, who ruled that the Ethiopian Jews were full-fledged Jews and called for their redemption.
It was not until 1973, however, that the Israeli rabbinate ruled that the Ethiopians were bona fide Jews entitled to repatriation and it was only in 1975 that the Israeli government found them eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.
Peres concluded his statement with a call for aliya from lands of distress and other lands: “The State of Israel is the only real guarantee of the existence of both Jews and Judaism. And when a time of opportunity has come, let us not turn to picayune (arguments), let us not miss it. Let us all mobilize to the principle that unites us, and not to passing quarrels. Aliya continues and it will continue.”
PERES PAYS ‘DEBT OF HONOR’ TO BEGIN
The Premier told the Knesset that he wished “to pay a debt of honor to Menachem Begin whose government invested much effort and resourcefulness in order to make possible the first thin and secret trickle (of Ethiopian Jewish immigration) which broke through the barriers.”
The organized rescue of Ethiopian Jews began shortly after Begin and his Likud-led government took office in 1977. But the airlift it inaugurated was forced to end after two flights when Begin’s Defense Minister, the late Moshe Dayan, made the politically dangerous disclosure that Israel was selling arms to the Marxist regime in Ethiopia with which it has never had diplomatic relations.