Ethiopian Community kicks off Sigd Festival

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

sigd 311 (photo credit: Yossi Avi Yair Engel)
sigd 311
(photo credit: Yossi Avi Yair Engel)
Just as the Mimouna festival of Moroccan Jews and the Saharane festival of the Jews of Kurdistan have become national festivals in Israel, the Sigd festival marked by 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 participants 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 part of 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 many 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 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. The event coincided with the 25th anniversary 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 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.
Until then, the Ethiopian government had been fairly cooperative with regard to the Jewish community and its migration to Israel, but it feared pressure from the Arab states.
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 operation to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel was Uri Sela. 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 Sela was sent by his parents on a kindertransport that saved his life.
On his way to Sudan, he had to fly via Frankfurt, where he had left 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 was 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.”
Sela could not identify who was Jewish and who was not, and had to track down some young Jews within the refugee camp that was filled with Ethiopians of different backgrounds.
The young Jewish activists were also couriers. Sela supplied them with money and medications to distribute among the Jews.
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 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 with Israel who had good connections throughout Africa.
“Interrogation was a nightmare,” recalled Gola.
Naphtali Abraham came on his own to Israel at age 13.
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 (Israel Beiteinu) 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 was prime minister during Operation Moses, had been to Ethiopia long before then to discuss with Emperor Haile Selassie the possibility of Israelis training the Ethiopian army.
Peres said on Sunday that he is overjoyed when he sees Ethiopian officers in the IDF.
“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,” he said.
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.
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.”