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Amid war in Ethiopia, Herzog urges bringing remaining Jews to Israel ‘quickly’

In comments marking the Sigd holiday, president says some of the ‘thousands’ who are still waiting to immigrate are ‘threatened and in a worrying situation’

President Isaac Herzog, left, greets leaders of Israeli Ethiopian community during a ceremony to mark the Sigd, in Jerusalem, November 4, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog, left, greets leaders of Israeli Ethiopian community during a ceremony to mark the Sigd, in Jerusalem, November 4, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

President Isaac Herzog called Wednesday to bring to Israel without delay the remaining Ethiopian Jews waiting to emigrate from their home country, where their lives have become further imperiled by a flare-up of violence.

Ethiopia declared a state of emergency earlier this week as the civil war that has killed thousands of people and displaced millions since November 2020 threatens to engulf the capital.

“The longings of the past are in large part the foundation of this holy day, but it is important that we not neglect for a moment our longings for the future,” Herzog said at a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd. “Thousands are still waiting to make aliyah to Israel, and some of them are threatened and in a worrying situation. We must continue to act bring them over to Israel quickly.”

The president also addressed the circumstances of the Ethiopian immigrant community in Israel, saying that the country’s “national mission, for the best possible integration of Ethiopian Jews in their land, has not ended. This is not just a duty — it is a tremendous privilege, because we all see the immense contribution of immigrants from Ethiopia wherever we look.”

The project of bringing to Israel the thousands of Ethiopian Jews still waiting in Addis Ababa has long been mired in controversy and multiple delays. Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, herself a native of Ethiopia, has vowed to do so quickly.

Last year a group campaigning to bring remaining Jews in Ethiopia to Israel begged the government take action after a member of the community was killed in the fighting. Girmew Gete, 36, had been waiting for 24 years to bring his family to Israel.

Since then, over 2,000 Ethiopian Jews have been brought to Israel in a state-run operation.

Children belonging to the Ethiopian Jewish community in a compound where several Jewish families live, in the city of Gondar, Ethiopia, on October 27, 2020. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP)

There are thought to be 7,000 to 12,000 Ethiopian community members still waiting to come to Israel, many of whom live in the Tigray region, the heart of the conflict. Others, who left their villages years ago, eke out livings near the Jewish community centers in Gondar City and Addis Ababa.

The coronavirus pandemic has seen donations and support from families in Israel drying up, and poverty and malnutrition are rife.

Sigd, which is marked 50 days after Yom Kippur, was established as a national holiday by the Knesset in 2008, and is celebrated on the Hebrew date of the 29th of Heshvan.

The two holidays are linked in the Ethiopian Jewish tradition: while Yom Kippur focuses on personal introspection and self-correction, Sigd focuses on collective atonement.

It is also a holiday that celebrates the return from exile to Jerusalem, a key theme of the Ethiopian Jewish tradition over the centuries, which believes the community must repent — Sigd, like Yom Kippur, involves special prayers and fasting — in order to make itself worthy of the return to the holy city.

One of the key communal events in Israel surrounding the holiday sees thousands of members of the community and its rabbinic leaders, or kessim, gather on the promenade overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem in the capital’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood. The kessim read from Psalms and other biblical passages, after which the community breaks its somber ceremonies with food and dancing.

About 140,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin live in Israel today. Some 22,000 were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991, mostly from the Beta Israel community. Many ​are integrated across all strata of society, though accusations of institutionalized racism persist.

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