Of the various immigrant groups in Israel, it’s clear that Ethiopians have it especially tough. There is widespread poverty in the Ethiopian community and the country has not overcome the fact that the educational level of immigrants on arrival was largely lower than that of immigrants from other backgrounds. Still today, the educational standard is often lower than among other Israelis leading to fewer opportunities.
The problem is recognized at the highest levels of the country’s leadership. “Ethiopian Jews’ feeling that they have been wronged is not detached from reality, a reality that we must change,” Ehud Olmert, then-Prime Minister, declared at the end of 2007. In 2008 the state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, said in a report that pretty much every state body had failed the Ethiopians in some way — see a report on what he had to say here.
On a cultural level, Ethiopian traditions and practices have largely failed to interest or influence the Israeli mainstream. The community’s major festival has had a bittersweet feel since Ethiopian Jewry started arriving in Israel three decades ago. On the one hand Sig’d, which takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur (November 16 this year), acquired a new poignancy, as the day’s ritual involves calling for a Jewish return to Jerusalem. But while the majority of Ethiopian Jews made it to Jerusalem, or at least to Israel, it was largely ignored by the establishment and the general public.
For the first time today, President Shimon Peres played host to leaders of the community in honor of the festival. This follows the passing of a law in August 2008 declaring the day a national religious holiday, which means that people have the right to a day off work (unpaid) if they want it, and requiring a state ceremony to mark the day.
Almost 250 people were invited to the event today — community leaders, youth, and Ethiopian figures involved in public life. There was music from a band of the scouts and a passionate speech from Peres in which he called Israelis of all backgrounds, not just Ethiopians, to get involved in celebrations for the festival.
Perhaps more significant in the long-run than the President’s reception, as a result of the law children of all backgrounds will learn about the holiday as part of the compulsory government-set curriculum.