Ethiopian Community kicks off Sigd Festival

Ethiopian Community in Israel
Ethiopian Community in Israel. Photo by: Yossi Avi Yair Engel

By Greer Fay Cashman, JPost

Ethiopian Jewry

Holiday is celebrated by mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem; coincides with the 25th anniversary of Operation Moses.

Just as the Mimouna festival of Moroccan Jews and the Saharane festival of the Jews of Kurdistan have become national festivals in Israel, so the Sigd Festival which tells of the history of Ethiopian Jewry, is also entering the Israeli psyche as part of the national heritage.

Kess Semai Elias said as much on Sunday at Beit Hanassi, when he blessed the opening of the annual Sigd festival where the huge attendance included a large number of non-Ethiopians among them people who had been part of the Mossad missions to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Elias, clad in the pristine white robes and turban of the Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders, said that today Ethiopian Jews are not alone in celebrating Sigd, which has become integral to the Israeli calendar.

Referring to the thousands of Ethiopian Jews who followed a centuries old dream to return to Jerusalem and who took the perilous path via Sudan, where they were constantly at risk, where many were set upon by robbers, and where the weakest died or were killed along the way, Elias said, “I am one of the lucky ones who realized the dream. There were many disappointments, but we never gave up hope”. Everyone who undertook that dangerous journey through Sudan was a hero or a heroine, he said, and expressed appreciation to the many good people who had helped so many Ethiopian Jews to get to Israel and to become absorbed in Israeli society.

This was the second consecutive year in which the Sigd festival activities were launched at Beit Hanassi, and the tenth year in which Sigd was celebrated in Israel, coinciding with the 25th anniversary year of Operation Moses, the cooperative effort of the Mossad, the Israel Air Force and the Israel Navy to covertly transport some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews then known as Beta Israel or Falashas to Israel.

One of the Ethiopians who had been an aliya activist in Sudan, implied that more Ethiopian Jews would have been rescued sooner had Moshe Dayan not told a press conference in Geneva in February, 1978, that Israel was helping to arm Ethiopia against her enemies.

Up until then, the Ethiopian government had been fairly cooperative with regard to the Jewish community, and its migration to Israel, but the last thing the Ethiopian government needed was to have Arab States breathing down its neck because of its close relations with Israel.

Aliya activities were suspended for two years after the Dayan revelation, although there was still considerable clandestine activity in that direction.

One of the key Mossad operators in the continuing operation to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel was Uri Sella, for whom it represented the closing of a circle. Sela had already retired from the Mossad and was living on Moshav Kfar Daniel, when in 1980 he was summoned back to duty. He could hardly refuse, because he knew from personal experience what it was to be a refugee. When he was eight years old, the Frankfurt-born Sella was sent by his parents on a kindertransport that saved his life. On his way to Sudan, he had to fly via Frankfurt. He recalled thinking that this is where he had taken his leave of his parents, and had been aided by Jews who had helped many refugees. Now it was his turn he reflected, to help other refugees. It was not an easy task even though he had an excellent cover to protect his true identity. He had to make contact with Ethiopian Jewish activists, and to liaise between them and the Mossad. “They were in greater danger than I was,” he related. “I never really felt threatened.” Sella could not identify who was Jewish and who was not and had to find some young Jews within the refugee camp that was filled with Ethiopians of different backgrounds who were all seeking a better future for themselves and their families. The young Jewish activists were also couriers. Sella supplied them with money and medications to disburse among the Jews, and they reported to him on how the distributions had been made.

One of the activists working with the Mossad was Fareda Aklum, who died two years ago. Aklum risked his life again and again, to aid his fellow Jews and to help them realize the dream. He, himself was a homeless and hungry refugee and had to sell all his belongings including his wedding ring to survive, his daughter Mazal, a communications consultant recounted. “I’m 30 and he was two years younger than I am now. I can’t understand where he found the courage to do what he did in a hostile country,” she said.

Another activist was Rata Tsagay Moges who spoke of some of the hazardous missions he had undertaken, and how he went about discovering who was Jewish. There was also Tesfa Yimer Gola, who worked with the Mossad for two years, was caught by the Sudanese, arrested and tortured before he was eventually released through the intervention of Kenny Rowland, a British sympathizer who had good relations with all of Africa. “Interrogation was a nightmare,” recalled Gola.

Naphtali Abraham came on his own to Israel at age thirteen and a half.

He too came via Sudan on a trek fraught with danger, fear and exploitation. But there were also decent people who gave him shelter and food in return for odd jobs he performed, mostly agricultural chores.

A year ago, he returned to Ethiopia and retraced his steps. “It was only then that I really understood the miracle of my being in Israel,” he said.

Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver noted that Sigd is the expression of Ethiopian Jewry’s devotion to Israel. Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said that while in a Soviet prison he had read in Pravda about what Israel was doing to bring Ethiopian Jews home. He had been overjoyed in his comprehension of Israel’s reach in its efforts to save Jews.

President Shimon Peres, who had been Prime Minister during Operation Moses, had been to Ethiopia long before then to discuss with Emperor Haile Selassie, who had given himself the title Lion of Judah, the possibility of Israelis training the Ethiopian army.

Ethiopian representation in the IDF

Peres said on Sunday, that he gets a real kick when he sees Ethiopian officers in the Israel Defense Forces. “It means we’re still training Ethiopians for the army, but it’s our army. I never really dreamt that such a day would come.” Both Peres and Landver spoke of Ethiopian achievements and Ethiopian representation in the IDF, the most sought-after professions and in academia. It was difficult for the immigrant generations to adjust Peres acknowledged, but even though there are still many gaps to bridge, their children are doing remarkably well, he said.

Even though he is familiar with the story of Ethiopian aliya, even to the extent of knowing details that are still classified, Peres marveled at how Ethiopian Jewry had survived not only an environment of assimilation, but also hostility from so many sides. “This is truly a miracle,” he said, “and it’s not just your festival, it’s the festival of the whole of Israel.”

Ethiopian Jews in plea to Israel