The first and only Ethiopian family to move to Israel in 2018 arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday night, the eve of Sigd, an Ethiopian Jewish holiday celebrating the return to Zion.
Tens of thousands of Ethiopian Israelis were set to celebrate the Sigd holiday on Wednesday in Jerusalem, with festive prayers led by kessim (Ethiopian spiritual leaders), music performances, lectures, and dancing at the Armon Hanatziv promenade.
The vast majority of Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, but there are approximately 8,000 Jews in Ethiopia with close relatives in Israel who are waiting to emigrate.
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.
On October 7, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that it would support the immigration of 1,000 Ethiopian Jews in 2019, starting on January 1. However, there are no more Ethiopian Jews expected to move to Israel in 2018, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office said on Tuesday.
Activists with the Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah are furious over government inaction. In February, the government said at least 1,000 Ethiopian Jews still living in Ethiopia will be able to immigrate to Israel in 2018, after the Prime Minister’s Office and the Interior Ministry worked out an initial list of potential immigrants.
Although the list of potential immigrants was ready a month later, the state budget did not include the approximately NIS 200 million ($57 million) needed to absorb the 1,300 immigrants planned to arrive over the year, freezing the immigration process.
This week, the Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah presented a petition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, marking three years since the prime minister first decided to bring the 8,000 Jews in Ethiopia to Israel over a six-year period.
“Promises are meant to be kept!” said Alissa Bodner, the spokesperson to the foreign media for the Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah. “The continued disregard of your government resolution has caused serious distress for the members of the community and reflects governmental behavior that defies basic decency and humanity.”
The process for immigration approval for Ethiopian Jews has been plagued by accusations of racism and inefficiency against the Interior Ministry, and there was a six-month delay in the flights in 2017.
In November 2015, the government announced it would bring to Israel the remaining Ethiopian Jews awaiting immigration. The Finance Ministry allocated money for 1,300 Ethiopians to immigrate in 2017, the first step of a five-year program to bring new immigrants at a rate of approximately 100 per month.
The Jews left behind in Ethiopia are classified as Falashmura, a term for Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago.
Because the Interior Ministry does not consider the Falashmura to be Jewish, they cannot immigrate under the Law of Return and therefore must get special permission from the government to move to Israel.
Critics fear that tens of thousands of Ethiopians could claim eligibility under this process. The community counters that the process to determine their Jewishness was poorly executed and inaccurate, dividing families. At least 80 percent of the Jews in Ethiopia have first-degree relatives living in Israel, they say.
In August 2013, the government announced the “end” of Ethiopian immigration, claiming that all Ethiopian Jews were now in Israel. Since that time, the Jewish Agency withdrew its funding from the community synagogue in Gondar, canceling a nutrition program for children, and at one point even removing the town’s Torah scroll.
Although the government unanimously approved the immigration of all the remaining Jews from Ethiopia in November 2015, the decision faltered three months later when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement the program because the NIS 1 billion ($284 million) it said was needed to fund the absorption process was not in the state budget.
Celebrating the return to Zion
Shafrao’s family’s immigration to Israel coincides with the Sigd holiday.
Sigd is a traditional holiday for Ethiopian Jews held 50 days after Yom Kippur. Originally, Ethiopian Jews would journey into the mountains and fast and pray for the return to Zion. At the end of the fast, the Kessim (Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders) break bread known as ‘Dabu’ which symbolizes the bread served in the Temple in Jerusalem. Afterwards, there was a festive meal and dance.
Now that the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, the community celebrates with a giant, colorful block party on the Armon HaNatziv promenade, which provides a breathtaking view of the Old City of Jerusalem.
For the second year, the Culture and Sports Ministry is one of the official organizers of the Sigd celebration, along with the Center for the Legacy of Ethiopian Jewry and the Kessim Associations. At noon, there will be a state ceremony with President Reuven Rivlin, Culture Minister Miri Regev, Supreme Court Justice Yael Wilner, Center for the Legacy of Ethiopian Jewry director Dr. Simcha Gathon, and leaders of Ethiopian community associations, youth movements, and soldiers.
The government participation is a significant step for a community that has long felt marginalized in Israeli society.
“This year, the government approved standards for kessim, the community’s spiritual leaders, thereby constituting state recognition of their status and importance,” Regev said ahead of the event. For decades, Ethiopian kessim have not been recognized as spiritual leaders on the same level as rabbis, a point of contention that many Ethiopians found condescending.
“The Sigd holiday is a holy and important day for the Ethiopian-Israeli Jewish community,” Regev added. “For thousands of years, the Jews in Ethiopia have worshiped Jerusalem and dreamed of reaching it.”