Following the police killings of young men, the community hopes national exposure to the colorful Sigdyada Festival can improve their integration
The shooting of Solomon Tokah by an Israeli police officer last July led to several days and nights of rioting by mostly young Ethiopian Israelis feeling an increasing sense of alienation. Yet one member of the community believes that things can improve with the help of cultural bridges.
“I believe we live in a very dangerous time,” Shai Ferdo tells The Media Line. “I want to be that guy who builds those bridges.”
Ferdo is the creator of the two-day Sigdyada Festival, an annual celebration of Ethiopian and Ethiopian-Israeli culture. It is held just before the Sigd, a day of prayer, fasting and introspection aimed at recalling the yearning for Zion by previous generations.
The Sigdyada’s explosion of music, dance, comedy and, of course, food, attracts people like Mina Fiat, an Israeli who divides her time between Tel Aviv and Chicago.
“I am interested in every culture I do not know about, especially because it’s a Jewish culture,” she said, adding that Ethiopian Israelis are an authentic part of Israel. “They go to the army and do everything” that other Israelis do.
This year’s Sigdyada, the eighth, got under way on November 7 at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv with speeches that hinted at the overriding issues facing Israel’s Ethiopian immigrants.
“As a society, we haven’t always listened to people who speak a different language, who have different customs or a different color,” President Reuven Rivlin told festival-goers. “Today, we’re a giving a place of honor to the tradition of Ethiopian Jewry as part of the present [and] of the future of Israeli culture overall.”
Joey Low, founder of Israel at Heart, an NGO that seeks to foster better awareness of Israel by the rest of the world, said: “The government specifically, but in general the country, does not appreciate and understand what the [Ethiopian-Israeli] community can give…. Israel will be a better society when it includes everyone.”
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Ethiopian Israelis are more likely to be low-wage earners than other demographic groups in the country, and less likely to pursue a post-high school education. The disparity is heightened even more by police treatment, with the death of Tokah following that of Yehuda Biadga in January, and longtime claims that authorities tend to use more profiling with members of the community, and exhibit less patience.
“There is a lot of anger… about the killings, and I’m also very angry,” Mesret Woldemichael, a 2014 finalist in MasterChef Israel, told The Media Line. “However, we still need to push ourselves and our culture for better exposure. The struggle will always be better if people know who they have in front of them.”
The sense conflict and discord felt by Ethiopian-Israelis has clearly reached a level that politicians and other prominent members of society could not ignore at the community’s first major gathering since the July killing and resulting rioting.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, an ex-fighter pilot and the son of kibbutz founders, urged patience.
“There were always tensions with new immigrants in Israel,” he told The Media Line. “It takes time.”
Yet Ethiopia-born Shula Mola, an educator who chairs the Association of Ethiopian Jews, has heard this before.
“Veteran Israelis repeatedly told us: Be patient; every wave of immigration to Israel has had to struggle for its place in Israeli society,” she told The Media Line. “And yet, unlike previous waves of immigration, this simple truth remains: Our skin color sets us apart.”
Mehereta Baruch-Ron, a former Tel Aviv city councilor who, like Mola, was born in Ethiopia, lauds Israel for having brought Ethiopian Jews to the country.
“There is no other country in the world that voluntarily brought Africans to be part of its society. In many ways, Israel did a wonderful thing,” she told The Media Line. “Having said that, there’s a lot more to do to integrate Ethiopian Israelis into Israeli society.”
Baruch-Ron argues that the government should take a stand against discrimination by penalizing offenders. She also says it should provide Ethiopian Israelis the tools they need to succeed, particularly by earmarking more funds to their neighborhoods.
“In many ways, some of the schools and some of the neighborhoods in which these young Ethiopians live are disadvantaged. There is a gap between an Ethiopian family that came… from a Third World country and Israelis who were born here or came from Europe,” she said. “We have to put more [resources] into these communities.”
She recommends that Ethiopian-Israeli history and culture should be more widely included in the school curriculum, starting in kindergarten, something that has been stymied in part by costs.
“The government should decide it’s very important regarding our Jewish history, that we cannot be a country that discriminates against other communities just because they are different,” she said.
With the Sigdyada being a pre-Sigd celebration – the holiday will be marked this year on November 27 – Baruch-Ron was also reflective.
“Back in Ethiopia, I remember we expressed our longing for Jerusalem during this holiday,” she said. “Now, when we are here, we can say that the physical journey is over, but we still have some ways to go.”
Not to be forgotten in the midst of the tensions is that the heart of the festival is a celebration of the heritage of Ethiopian-Israeli society.
“The festival is to ensure the continuity of the Ethiopian culture and show people that Ethiopians have… a lot to contribute, and that they’re very talented,” Howard Rypp, co-producer of the Sigdyada, told The Media Line.
According to the organizers, festival-goers throughout the years have been almost evenly split, indicating it is indeed a place for non-Ethiopian Israelis to absorb the sights, sounds and aromas of the community, perhaps leading to its more thorough integration.
Woldemichael, the chef, agrees.
“I am very persistent,” he proclaims, “in my display of my beautiful culture.”