Holiday comes as Israeli president and justice minister call on members of community with criminal records to request pardons
Jewish Ethiopians celebrated the holiday of Sigd, amid renewed calls to end racism in Israeli society. During Sigd, members of the community pray, fast and renew their covenant with God as well as express their longing for Zion.
At a ceremony in Jerusalem organized by the Ministry of Culture and the Center for the Legacy of Ethiopian Jewry, spiritual leaders, Israeli officials, and curious onlookers gathered to celebrate.
“This is a central holiday in the Jewish Ethiopian calendar which we have celebrated for thousands of years,” Dr. Simcha Gathon, Director of the Center for the Legacy of Ethiopian Jewry who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1984, told The Media Line. “It’s a religious holiday with origins in the Bible that commemorates the giving of the Torah [Bible] at Mount Sinai. We pray for peace in Zion, Jerusalem and for the people of Israel as whole.”
Ethiopian Jews, historically referred to as Beta Israel (House of Israel), are believed to be descended from the ancient Israelites, possibly from the lost Tribe of Dan or from Jews who were dispersed from the Kingdom of Judah following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE. Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, roughly 95,000 Beta Israel have immigrated to Israel. Most of the community arrived in two waves as part of dramatic covert evacuations by the Israeli government: Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991.
In honor of Sigd, this year Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked appealed to members of the Ethiopian community to submit requests for pardons in order to have their criminal records expunged. The majority of pardons granted would apply to minors or young people who committed non-violent crimes, such as refusing to present identity papers, consuming alcohol in public, or disturbing the peace.
“I welcome the president and Justice Ministry’s decision,” Ethiopian-born Israeli Member of Parliament Avraham Neguise, a member of the Likud party declared to The Media Line. “It is very important to bring trust between the Ethiopian Jewish community and those who are enforcing the rule of law. This really gives an opportunity to correct [the past] and start a new life for many young people, especially.”
Despite recent progress, many Ethiopians have struggled with integration into Israeli society. A report published two years ago by Justice Ministry Director-General Emi Palmor delineated the discrimination faced by the community in several areas, including law enforcement, health, education and employment. The report also noted that a significantly higher rate of charges was brought against the Ethiopian-Israelis than other populations.
During her speech in front of the thousands gathered in Jerusalem, Culture Minister Miri Regev said Israelis will have “some collective soul-searching to do” in order to eradicate racism against Ethiopians.
In a statement to The Media Line, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who has long advocated for the Beta Israel, said “our duty today is to ensure the Ethiopian Jewish community’s absorption into Israeli society.”
“There is no other country in the world that has gone as far as Israel – even endangering our soldiers and intelligence agents’ lives – to bring this community here,” Ariel asserted.
According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics’ latest figures, 148,700 Jews of Ethiopian origin currently reside in Israel. Of these, 87,000 were born in Ethiopia, while the remaining 61,700 were born in Israel. In 2017, 1,467 Ethiopians immigrated to Israel.