(Translated from Hebrew)
Independence. Our son Eran never knew what independence was. Tonight, my wife Didi and I are here to represent him. Throughout his life, Eran never spoke a single word. He never called Didi “Ima,” he never called me “Abba.” Yet even so, he was the greatest teacher of my life. And so it is in the name of Eran and his friends, who never understood the meaning of independence, that I make my request: May this ceremony for the 2016 Israel Prize mark the beginning of a journey toward Tikkun Olam, towards the transformation of Israeli society to a more tolerant and inclusive one of which we may all be proud. May this evening constitute one small step along the road to a model society.
When he was born, we named our son after my brother Eran who never returned from battle. We had high hopes for our Eran – that he would be more successful than us. But at 8 months, he was diagnosed with autism and severe intellectual disability, and our whole world came crashing down upon us. We had to reinvent our life plans, to push off the dream that our son would be a ‘success’. Instead, we would strive diligently just to get a smile. All we hoped for now was for him to be happy. We made a promise never to be ashamed of our son. Never to hide him away. To love him with all our hearts. After his untimely passing nine years ago, we understood the meaning of Tikkun Olam: to build on the love that we designated for Eran and use it to instigate a profound change in how disabled people are perceived by society.
Society values its members according to the measurement of their abilities and achievements. People with severe disabilities are virtually left out of the equation. After all, they will never complete nursery school, serve in the army, or defend their country. They will never contribute to the wealth of human resources who are such assets in this country – like those distinguished representatives who are my fellow recipients of the Israel Prize. Eran and his peers have no ego; they are utterly powerless and helpless. The question we must ask is not what they can do, but rather – what we can and must do on behalf of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society – those who serve as an ever-present reminder of the ephemerality and fragility of our own lives here on earth.
With the help of all of our friends at ADI and our partners in the Israeli government, the Merhavim Regional Council, our colleagues from the JNF, KKL and at the UIA, and so many generous donors of high moral caliber from Israel and throughout the world, we built an unparalleled Rehabilitation Village in the Negev. This Village was designed to bring the cry of Eran and his friends far and wide, to create a new social ethos and a novel model of integration.
This special place was designed to be:
~ a warm and loving home for society’s weakest members, for the duration of their lives, offering them the highest quality of life;
~ a center that offers rehabilitation, education, and employment for the entire Negev population – irrespective of race, gender, or religion;
~ a utopian community where love of mankind shines in every corner;
~ a haven where Jews, Muslims, and Christians live together in harmony;
~ a refuge of kindness where a spirit of giving, volunteering, tolerance and acceptance of those who are different, are the norm in daily life;
~ a place where every visitor experiences a virtual shock to the system, and is ultimately transformed by the profound insight gained – that a society of tolerance, love, and mutual respect can indeed be created and nurtured in the State of Israel.
The Israel Prize is a salute to the chosen few. My colleagues who are recipients of the Israel Prize are parADIgms of excellence, diligence, and talent – serving as inspiration to educate the youth of today. This evening, the State of Israel is proudly waving two banners of education, both of critical importance to our Nation: The Banner of Personal Excellence, and the Banner of Societal Excellence. Human assets alone do not create an exemplary society. An exemplary model society requires the creation of social capital, based on mutual responsibility and a love of mankind rADIating at every turn – in the kindergartens, at the schools and universities, in the public and private sectors, all the way to the upper echelons of society. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed through baseless hatred, and it is only the power of love that instills hope for the future.
The strength of human society can be judged only by the strength of its weakest segments. The more hope and assistance we can provide for the most vulnerable individuals among us – including grieving families, people with disabilities, the sick or the wounded, the needy or the poor – the stronger and more solidarity-based our society will be. The more tightly woven the moral fabric of our society is, the greater the mutual responsibility and inner fortitude will be to deal with crises and overcoming challenges on any level.
“The world is built with loving kindness.” Strengthening the weaker sectors within our society is the first step in our collective journey toward Tikkun Olam. The day that children like Eran and his friends become our moral compass – guiding us to less egoism, greater altruism, compassion, giving, dedication, and unconditional love, for the sake of those who might be weaker and different from ourselves – on that very day, we will become transformed into better people, in a worthier society; our independence will be solidified, and we will then have earned the privilege of being called a model society.
In the name of all my colleagues, esteemed Israel Prize recipients, I would like to express my profound gratitude for this honor and privilege. I wish to thank the President of Israel, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Education and his staff, members of the Prize Committee, Israel Government Ministers, Knesset Chairman and Members, the Supreme Court Justice, and the Mayor of Jerusalem. In particular, I thank all the wonderful people who have always stood by our side, working with us and supporting us every step of the way with boundless love and endless dedication – our dear families and closest friends.
Thank you to our parents who gave us life, respect and love, and who accompanied us on the journey of our lives with endless love and dedication.
Thank you to my wife Didi, the love of my life.
Thank you to our daughter Nitsan Almog, Eran’s sister, who has dedicated her life to the inclusion of people with disabilities within society.
Thank you and all my love to our grandchildren Karni, Ori and Yali, our rays of light and hope.
Finally – but really first and foremost – thank you to Eran Almog, our beloved son who made me into a different person, and who should really be the one standing here instead of me to accept the Israel Prize.
I ask all of us to consider this Prize as constituting yet another step in individual and societal endeavor, that will help propel the State of Israel toward the creation of a just and model society.