On a national holiday for Ethiopian Jews, before a crowd of tens of thousands, the president of Israel vowed that the citizens of his country will not discriminate on the basis of skin color. The festival and the president’s pledge came at a time when Ethiopian Jewish immigration to Israel is all but frozen, with 8,000 people awaiting permission to make aliya.
“We are brothers and sisters, and anyone who tries to undermine that has no place amongst the tribes of Israel,” Reuven Rivlin said in his address Wednesday to mark Sigd, a state holiday since 2008 that marks the Ethiopians’ yearning to return to Jerusalem and Zion.
Ethiopian Jews living in Israel and their supporters gathered for a mass prayer at Sherover Promenade in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood of Jerusalem to mark the holiday. The promenade offers a wide view of the Temple Mount, and was designated by the Ethiopian community as the central meeting place for the holiday when the first immigrants began to arrive in Israel.
“’Jeena, Jeena, Ierusalem,’ ‘Longing, Longing for Jerusalem’ – this is what we sing to Jerusalem in the prayers of the festival,” Rivlin said. “And those prayers: those ancient, wonderful prayers that you kept hold of and held dear to you and learned by heart and taught your children and passed down the generations. They are prayers of wonder and expectation all the way to Jerusalem.
“You brought a spirit of heroism and nobility that was sorely tested on the difficult journey you undertook, and over the long years of expectation and yearning. And you brought with you an ancient and passionate love for Zion, a love without bounds,” he said.
The holiday had been first observed in Ethiopia, where the Jews led by their elders went to the mountains 50 days after Yom Kippur for prayer and fasting. A festive meal and singing and dancing to celebrate Jerusalem followed the fast.
Rivlin, the first Israeli president to visit Ethiopia, assured the crowd that Israel was working to secure the release of Avera Mengistu, the Ethiopian Israeli being held by Hamas in Gaza.
On Monday, Rivlin and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked issued a special appeal to the Ethiopian-Israeli community to submit requests for pardons for public order offenses in honor of Sigd. They noted that a government report adopted two years ago described discrimination against the Ethiopian-Israeli community in various fields including law enforcement, health, education and employment. The report found that criminal investigations were opened and charges were brought against Ethiopian Israelis at a significantly higher rate than their representation in the population.
The call for pardon requests was made “out of a desire to complete a process of healing and closing gaps, as well as to strengthen the trust between the Ethiopian-Israeli community and law enforcement and justice authorities, in honor of the Sigd holiday,” the statement said. “The requests will be considered positively, out of a belief in the significant contribution made by these young people to Israeli society as a whole.”
There are some 135,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel.
Some 8,000 Falash Mura, who claim Jewish descent, remain in Ethiopia awaiting permission to immigrate to Israel, most of whom have some family members in Israel. In October, Israel’s Cabinet approved a plan to bring some 1,000 of the Falash Mura who have children living in Israel to the country.
However, only one Ethiopian family has been allowed to immigrate to Israel so far this year: The first and only Ethiopian family to move to Israel in 2018 arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday night, the eve of Sigd.
The family of Sintayehu Shafrao, 18, who represented Ethiopian Jews still living in Ethiopia in the 2018 Bible Quiz, and made it to the final round, arrived in Israel on Tuesday evening.
Shafrao, from Gondar, reached the final round of the prestigious competition. The Interior Ministry originally required Shafrao to deposit thousands of shekels to ensure he would leave the country after the conclusion of the Bible Quiz, held annually on Israel’s Independence Day. Shafrao has siblings who were already living in Israel, but he, his mother, and other siblings were separated and lived in Ethiopia.
After activists lobbied Knesset Members, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri eventually granted Shafrao citizenship in April, a few days before the Bible Quiz. In August, after a private organization raised money to bring Shafrao’s relatives to Israel, the Interior Ministry granted permission to the rest of his family still in Ethiopia to move to Israel.
The Heart of Israel organization raised money to bring Shafrao’s mother Alem Wondie, siblings Bezabeh Mulugeta, Mesekerem Tadesse and Zemna Tadesse, and nephew Dawit Ayelign to Israel after months of lobbying. The pro-settler organization has floated a controversial proposal encouraging all of the 8,000 of the Jews remaining in Ethiopia be moved to the settlements upon their arrival in Israel.
“I hope that this is only the first of many Ethiopians we see arrive in the holy land,” said A.Y. Katsof, director of The Heart of Israel.
The 2019 state budget, which was approved by the Knesset in March, does not include funds for Ethiopian immigration, including the long-term costs of acclimating the immigrants.