The shared humanity and vision of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jewish leaders during the Civil Rights Movement period forged a special bond between two peoples in the United States.
More than 50 years later, King’s oldest son, Martin Luther King III, sat beside Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky in Jerusalem on Sunday to further that dream by presenting three Israelis with the 2016 Unsung Hero Award for championing the rights of the country’s marginalized Ethiopian community.
The awards come from the Drum Major Institute, a civil rights organization established in 1961 by the senior King and his Jewish adviser Harry Wachtel that was later revived in 1999 by Wachtel’s son William and King’s son, who serves as president.
On Sunday morning, King joined forces with Sharansky to honor singer Idan Raichel, former member of Knesset Pnina Tamanu-Shata, who was born in Ethiopia, and journalist Anat Saragusti, for their activism on behalf of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants.
Sharansky referred to his incarceration in the Soviet Union and to the protests in the US that helped set him free, which occurred while operations to bring thousands of Ethiopians to Israel were under way. Being with King’s son in Israel felt like coming “full circle,” he said.
“It is a very symbolic thing, and many people do not know that the leaders who fought for Soviet Jewry in America all came from the Civil Rights Movement,” said Sharansky at the gathering at Jewish Agency’s headquarters on King George Street in Jerusalem.
“I am very excited by the fact that the first time that this prize of Martin Luther King is given abroad is given by his son here in Israel, and is connected to aliya from Ethiopia in this historical building,” he said.
“Six years after Operation Shlomo, where thousands and thousands of Ethiopian Jews were taken from the heart of Africa, I was on an airplane, too, coming to Israel.
We can be very proud that we are the only country that took over 100,000 citizens of Africa and brought them here not as slaves, not as refugees, but as full citizens.”
Adding that the subsequent integration process has been a “challenging” process, resulting in claims of institutionalized racism by Ethiopian Jews, Sharansky emphasized that true assimilation will only come through dialogue, understanding and tolerance.
“I am so grateful to the three honorees for the work they are doing to help do this,” he said.
King, who was 10 years old when his father was assassinated, said he has visited Israel on six occasions.
“As we talk about human rights in this country, but really globally, my dad’s mission was essentially around the modern civil rights movement,” he said. “He started as a civil rights leader, but I believe he became a human rights leader.”
Adding that his father’s closest advisers and confidants were Jewish leaders, including Wachtel, whose son William joined King at the ceremony, King said his family’s friendship with the US Jewish community has been an enduring one.
“Most importantly, much of what my dad was able to do was because people like Harry Wachtel… opened their hearts and minds… and all kinds of wonderful things happened so that my dad and his team could be successful and effective in what they were doing,” he said.
Indeed, King said that his father was so grateful to Wachtel that he invited him to join him upon accepting the Nobel Prize.
While not addressing Israel’s Ethiopian community’s many challenges directly, King noted the problems people of color are facing in America, particularly as they relate to violence between African-American communities and police, are often rooted in racism and poverty.
“There are a lot of issues that are related to poverty in America,” he said. “My dad used to say – and my mom worked throughout her life to eradicate – what they called the triple evils: the evil of poverty, the evil of racism, and the evils of militarism and violence.
“And somehow, he had the vision to believe that one day we, as a society, can eradicate those evils. I still believe that it is possible, even in the face of terrorism…
So I am here in that spirit as we are here to honor these special honorees today for the work they are doing, to thank them, and to lift them up.”
Still, Tamanu-Shata, who was rescued by Israeli soldiers during Operation Moses and became the first Ethiopian woman to be elected to the Knesset, noted that there is still much work to be done.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, these are the inspiring words of Dr. Martin Luther King,” she said.
“From Martin Luther King I learned that a struggle that is rooted in the love of mankind is destined to succeed… I learned that love is preferable to hate and violence, and when a single voice is heard in the desert, it is our duty to speak out loud again and again, until it echoes.
“The fight against racism and discrimination, is the cornerstone of a better and more just world,” Tamanu-Shata.