Ethiopian Immigration Rates Drastically Fall

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Sigd holiday in Armon Hanatziv, Jerusalem 2013. Photo by Inbal Gross/TPS on November 12, 2015

As Ethiopian Community Celebrates Sigd, Immigration Rates Significantly Fall

Written by Alexander J. Apfel/TPS on November 12, 2015

The Ethiopian population of Israel celebrated this week their annual festival of Sigd, a word derived from the Hebrew word S’gida which means “prostration” or “worship.” For Ethiopians, the holiday symbolizes not only a celebration of unity between God, his people and the Torah, but also a prayer to return to Zion. The festival, which was marked this year on Wednesday, November 11, has its origins in the Talmud, the rabbinic collection of Jewish law and traditions.

Gabaye Takaleh, an Ethiopian immigrant, who lives in Jerusalem, shared with Tazpit Press Service his experiences celebrating the Sigd holiday both in Ethiopia and in Israel.

“We would pray together on a mountain once a year. Every year we did this as it is written also in the Talmud. You are supposed to go up to a mountain and do it like Moses did on Mount Sinai. Thousands of people did it,” recounted Takaleh, who made aliyah to Israel from Ethiopia five years ago.

As with most Jewish festivals, indulging in fine food is an important part of this holiday. “We celebrate, drink, eat for the entire day,” explained Takaleh.

Asked whether he preferred celebrating the festival here or in Ethiopia, he replied that his former country is not free of the prejudice which has historically followed Jews wherever they have resided.

“It feels much better to mark this holiday in Israel because here you don’t actually have to go up to a mountain to do it. In Ethiopia, you have to celebrate the holiday secretly by going up to a mountain so that people can’t see you. In Israel, you can keep this holiday publicly,” he said.

Today, the Ethiopian population in Israel stands at approximately 138,000. The community has seen a drastic decrease in aliyah.

Indeed, an annual report issued by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics shows that the number of Ethiopians to have made aliyah reached its lowest point last year since 2000. A mere 211 new Ethiopian immigrants arrived during 2014.

The decrease marks a significant drop not only over the course of the decade, but over the last year alone. In 2013, a total of 1,355 Ethiopians made their way to Israel.

A spokesperson at the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, Noga Katz, told TPS that the reason for the decrease in Ethiopian aliyah is simply because there are very few Ethiopians who are officially recognized by Israel as Jews according to the Jewish law (Halacha).

“There aren’t many more Jews in Ethiopia today or at least those that can immigrate to Israel through the right of return,” the spokesperson said.

According to Katz, an operation carried out last year found that those residing in Ethiopia still wishing to immigrate to Israel are part of the Falash Mura. This is a tribe of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries either voluntarily or under pressure from missionaries. “They are technically Jews in Ethiopia but not in Israel, so this is a major reason why the number of immigrants has dropped so dramatically.”

The first group of Ethiopians arrived to Israel in the 1980s, when former Prime Minister Menachem Begin presided over a clandestine operation known as “Operation Moses.” Since 1984, Israel has seen an annual absorption of Ethiopian Jews.

Takaleh said that despite the various challenges which come with being a new immigrant, he is happy to have returned home. “From a Jewish point of view, there is no place like Israel. I can do what I want here. There, if you are Jewish you can’t do all that you want; even to wear a kippa in public can cause problems.”

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