Martin Luther King III awards Israeli activists for the first time outside the US

Martin Luther King III, son of the famed US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., visited Jerusalem on Sunday to present the 2016 Unsung Hero Award to a trio of Israeli activists for their work on behalf of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to Israel.

The award was given for the first time ever outside the US and honored Israeli musician Idan Raichel, former MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, and journalist Anat Saragusti on behalf of the Drum Major Institute.

“My dad’s mission was initially around the modern civil rights movement,” said King III, who was only ten years old when his father was assassinated in 1968. “He started as a civil rights leader, but I believe he became a human rights leader.”

“The philosophy that Dad used was non-violence,” King III said. “I still believe that it’s possible, even in the face of all kinds of terrorism. I have to believe that the philosophy of nonviolence will work and I’m here in that spirit to honor the honorees today.”

The ceremony was held at the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem and featured remarks by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, a renowned human rights activist in his own right, having spent nine years in a Soviet prison on account of political dissent and activism for rights in the former Soviet Union.

Sharansky spoke of the confluence of causes linking the US civil rights movement, the struggle for Soviet Jewry, and the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry and their absorption into Israel.

“I was in a Soviet prison when Operation Moses occurred, and only from the Soviet press I found out that the Soviets were accusing the Israeli army of kidnapping the citizens of an independent African country,” Sharansky said, referring to the secret Israeli airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984 that rescued them from a civil war.

“Thousands and thousands of Jews were taken from the heart of Africa and brought here,” he added. “Israel can be very proud that we are the only country in the world that took thousands of citizens of Africa and brought them here not as slaves, not as foreign workers, not as refugees, but as full citizens.”

Sharansky also described the connections between the American civil rights movement and the activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

“It’s not well-enough known that the leading figures of the student struggle for Soviet Jewry in America all came from the human rights movement,” Sharansky said. “People were still at the demonstrations together with Martin Luther King Jr. and decided to create the struggle for Soviet Jewry.”

“So it’s all closing so many circles,” Sharansky concluded.