President Reuven Rivlin said on Wednesday that Israel’s effort to absorb the Ethiopian Jewish community has proven insufficient and should be augmented with new initiatives.
Rivlin spoke during an event celebrating Sigd — an annual Ethiopian Jewish festival marking the yearning for a return from exile to Zion — in Jerusalem.
“The Israeli community tried to do important and wonderful things, but didn’t do enough,” Rivlin said, according to Channel 10. “I believe it is in our power to correct this.”
The festival was also attended by Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
Members of the Ethiopian Israeli community staged a series of demonstrations across the country earlier this year protesting decades of perceived discrimination. The protests were triggered by the publication of video footage showing a seemingly unprovoked police assault on an Ethiopian Israeli soldier in April.
Thousands took to the streets demanding the government address the alleged systematic and institutionalized racism faced by the Ethiopian Israeli community. Activists also expressed their frustration with what they said was the state’s shortcomings in addressing the quality of life of their community.
Held on the 29th day of the Jewish calendar month of Heshvan, the Sigd festival recalls the biblical stories of how Ezra the Scribe and Nehemiah, the builder of the Second Temple, renewed the covenant between God and the Israelites by reading the Torah to exiles who had returned to Jerusalem.
The Ethiopian Jewish community, called Beta Israel, would celebrate the event by fasting and ascending a mountain where their religious leaders, known as kesim, gave sermons and read from their Torah scrolls, which are traditionally written in the ancient Ge’ez language. The kesim reminded the gathered congregations to abide by the commandments of the Torah and so merit a return to Zion. The event ended with a festive meal.
Although the Ethiopians Jews in Israel have realized the ancient dream, they maintain observance of the festival and annually gather at the Sherover promenade in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood of Jerusalem, which overlooks the Old City and the Temple Mount. Participants listen to traditional sermons and and partake of a celebratory dinner.
The festival is recognized as a national event in Israel and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry provides buses to bring participants from towns across the country with large Ethiopian communities.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.