Ha'aretz has a disturbing report about the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Ethiopia. Locals dig up Jewish bones and trade them, believing that they have the power to cure illness. They also use the land to grow crops. Locals have extorted large sums of money from Ethiopian Jews trying to protect the cemeteries and have shot at Jews trying to arrange for cemetery reconstruction. The problem has been known in diplomatic circles – including the Israeli government – for several years. Until the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel this week went public with the problem, the Israeli government apparently did nothing to try to prevent the desecrations.
The good news? The very poor Israeli Ethiopian Jewish community rasied $9 million from its own members to reconstruct and preserve the cemeteries.
Locals damage Jewish graves in Ethiopia believing bones lucky
By Ayanawu Farada Sanbetu, Haaretz Correspondent
Warteo Shai Sisa returned about a year ago for a visit to Belobokha, the village where his family is buried, and was informed by locals that the Jewish cemetery had been vandalized once again. It had recently been restored at a cost of some NIS 200,000, but now some bones of the deceased were scattered and the land was being used for agricultural purposes.
Sisa has made several such visits to Ethiopia in the course of his 18 months as chair of the forum of Ethiopian Jews for cemetery preservation - one of the most delicate positions in Israel's Ethiopian community today.
When he got to the graveyard, Sisa had trouble identifying his grandfather's grave, because the tree that had sheltered the grave had been burned and the tombstone shattered. Broken bones were scattered in every direction.
"The local residents believe that Jews' bones can heal medical ailments and bring good luck, so they even trade them," he said. "I asked the residents why they dig, but they did not answer. This isn't a cemetery, it looks like a garbage dump."
The newly-built fence was also destroyed. "The Christians told me that the people who built the fence were threatened that unless they destroyed it, they wouldn't be allowed into church," Sisa said.
The grave of the Ethiopian chief rabbi, Kes Meherat Tayim, was also desecrated.
Sisa documented the scene with video and stills cameras, adding to the growing collection of findings. "The community weeps when it sees the tapes. My parents feel like their parents were murdered, instead of dying of natural causes," he said.
Ethiopia has more than 200 Jewish cemeteries in various provinces. Over the past six years, 32 of these cemeteries (some 2,000 graves) have been desecrated by locals, especially in the north of the country (Tigray, Gondar and Welo). Israeli and Ethiopian officials say that the desecration is perpetrated for agricultural purposes, not out of anti-Semitism.
In recent years, Israel's Ethiopian community has managed to raise more than $9 million from its members. Each donated between NIS 250 and NIS 500. "We received no help from any institutional body. We went to every Ethiopian home in Israel and raised money," Sisa said.
The money paid for hiring local workers, building walls around the cemeteries, gathering bones, reinterring remains and covering expenses for a delegation of six to eight people. However, the recurrent desecrations led activists to approach Israeli officials about making the Ethiopian government responsible for preserving the graves. Israel's ambassador to Ethiopia, Yaacov Amitai, submitted an official protest, and the Ethiopian ambassador to Israel will be summoned to the Foreign Ministry next month to offer clarifications on the matter.
Haaretz has obtained three videotapes that attest to the tremendous damage done to three cemeteries. The first tape documents the gathering and reinterment of bones in the village of Boyat Ras six years ago. The second shows the ruins of the wall that was built three years ago to protect the cemetery in the village of Ewa from vandalism.
The third tape, which documents restoration work on tombstones and the construction of a wall, was filmed by Melkmo Tchena. The Ethiopian embassy in Israel assured Tchena three years ago that he would have the local authorities' cooperation and provided him with the necessary permits. But things worked out differently in reality.
"The locals demanded a large sum from us so that we could build the walls," Tchena said. "We told them that we don't have enough money, so they ran us off with gunfire, despite our previously excellent relations with them. We
complained to the official in charge of Gondar province and he sent us back to the village with soldiers and policemen, whose wages we paid. At the end, we donated gifts to the church so that it would help protect the cemetery. Recently, I received a letter from a villager warning me not to return to Ewa unguarded because people who did not get presents are disgruntled."
Zega Sabhet had a similar experience in July, when he paid a visit disguised as a local villager for his own protection to five Jewish cemeteries in the village of Aberwark in the Balesa region. He found that locals had scattered the tombstones and flattened the ground for farming. "They did away with every last sign of it being a cemetery. In the winter, the floods wash over the graves and conceal them," he said.
Cemetery preservation activists protest their disdainful treatment by the Ethiopian embassy in Israel, which has not helped them resolve the situation despite the film footage and other findings they submitted. Furthermore, Israeli delegations have found that embassy-issued permits for cooperation have no value in the provinces. In many villages, the delegations barely escaped being murdered. Gangs tried to rob them, and village and provincial chieftains demanded money in return for their cooperation. In some villages, the Israelis had to pay policemen NIS 30 a day to accompany them several times the average wage.
Sabhet met with Foreign Ministry officials three months after returning from Ethiopia. He gave them the collected evidence and warned that if no action is taken in the coming months, the graves will be lost forever, turned into farmland.
The Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee convened last February to discuss the matter, and the chair, MK Colette Avital (Labor) demanded that the Foreign Ministry take action. If it fails to do so, Sisa promises a big demonstration. "I expect the Israeli government to act in the face of the community's pain the way it acts when cemeteries in Europe are desecrated," he said.
The Ethiopian embassy declined to respond to this article.
Yaki Dayan, head of the political department in the foreign minister's bureau, said that ministry officials have been meeting with representatives of the Ethiopian Jewish community to discuss the problem. Dayan said that it was decided at a meeting on October 10 to continue working together and reassess the situation every month.
Miriam Ziv, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director general for African affairs, has asked the Ethiopian ambassador to come in for a conversation on the issue, Dayan said.