We hear all too often the false claim that Israel is an “Apartheid state.” I grew up in the world’s only Apartheid state, South Africa, and the contrast is total. It was a brutally oppressive regime where State sanctioned racism was enshrined in the law. The colour of one’s skin was the sole factor as to whether one did or did not have rights. The contrast between Apartheid South Africa and the State of Israel is total. Israel’s Declaration of Independence enshrines equality for all of her citizens by categorically stating:
The State of Israel… will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions…
No-where is equality seen more than in the IDF. During my own service as a combat soldier, I saw first-hand how it is totally irrelevant what ones skin colour is, or what ones religious, political or socio -economic background is. What is important is that everyone is there to serve ones country and to give and not to take. To paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King Junior, soldiers are respected by the strength of their character not the colour of their skin, or any other factor.
I recently saw a mini-documentary that follows the personal journey of Mekonen Abebe, a young African-Israeli Jewish soldier from Ethiopia, as he returns to Africa to explore his roots, make peace with his past and embrace his future in Israel. 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 much we can achieve as individuals and as a state. Mekonen’s story symbolizes 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.
This is the story of Mekonen Abebe, a young Ethiopian shepherd, who overcame financial, familial and racial hardships and rose to the rank of officer in the Israel Defense Forces. 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!