This week on Yom Haazmaut 68 as we pause to celebrate the wonder of Modern Israel, I will be hosting a screening of, “Mekonen: The Journey of an African Jew” produced by Jerusalem U. The film, as described on its website, is a, “new mini-documentary that follows the personal journey of Mekonen Abebe, a young African-Israeli Jewish soldier, as he returns to Africa to explore his roots, make peace with his past and embrace his future in Israel”
I have previewed the film and was moved to great emotion. Seeing Mekonen transformed from a troubled high school student to a graduate of the Elite IDF combat officers course was inspirational and profoundly thought provoking. I accompanied him as he marched, shot, slept in the field, and finally finished his officer training. He exhibited perseverance and bravery. One of the fascinating aspects of the film was that it was unscripted. Mekonen spoke directly from his heart; he serves in the IDF because he truly feels gratitude for and a deep connection to our country. He has taken upon himself the responsibility of ensuring that our people living in Israel and Jews throughout the world are secure.
Whilst many of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community can trace their roots in the country to the two dramatic airlifts of 1984 and 1991 (Operations Moses and Solomon), Mekonen’s journey from Ethiopia was quite different. Orphaned at the age of twelve, he came to Israel together with his mother and five siblings. He came without the emotional, social, cultural, financial and linguistic skills necessary for an easy absorption. Instead of wallowing in self-pity for the harsh lot given to him by life, he rose above it, and through sheer grit and determination arrived at the point where he is today, an IDF Officer in the Elite Paratrooper brigade.
It is important to acknowledge that with all of Israel’s incredible successes in many fields since its creation, there are issues that Israel is grappling with as it continues to stride in the 21st century. The problems that the Jewish State faces include topics as far ranging as: security, religion, society, environment, how to harmoniously co-exist with a minority population and immigrant absorption. Ethiopian immigrants have especially felt the last issue, immigrant absorption. After the dramatic rescue from certain death by Israel, which was a fine example of Zionism in action, many Ethiopian Jews still feel marginalised in society.
The Western Wall, liberated by the Paratrooper brigade in 1967 is the symbolic location that brings the film to a close. Mekonen is the officer of soldiers who are sworn in at the Western Wall midway through their basic training. Each received his IDF issued Bible and rifle at Judaism’s holiest site. The film brought a lot of personal memories flooding back from some of the most meaningful years of my life as a Chayal Boded (Lone Soldier) in a combat unit in the IDF. I vividly remember during my IDF service standing at that same spot and being struck by the feeling that we live in a fortunate generation where we Jews can once again defend our land and people and be in charge of our own destiny. The oath states:
I swear and obligate myself on my word of honour to remain loyal to the state of Israel, its laws and its legitimate administration … and to devote all of my strength, and even to sacrifice my life, in the defense of the homeland and the freedom of Israel.”
Mekonen’s patriotic and selfless devotion to our Jewish homeland and his ability to overcome all of life’s hurdles, are inspirational reminders of how far we have come as we celebrate sixty-eight years of independence this week. Mekonen’s story symbolises that Israel can go anywhere. He reminded us that we have revived our language, made the desert bloom, rebuilt our homeland, ingathered our exiles, have the ability to defend our homeland and protect Jews worldwide and we continue to reach for the stars. Imagine if you told a twelve-year-old orphan in a new country that he would overcome many of his absorption difficulties and serve as an officer in the IDF all within less than a decade after his arrival? Only in Israel!