Commentary

Ethiopian Jews Confront Racism in Israel

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

On Sunday, Israelis of Ethiopian descent took to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest against systemic discrimination. The demonstrations, triggered by a leaked video showing police officers physically assaulting an Ethiopian Israeli soldier and then filing false charges against him, soon turned violent, with many expressing fears of greater civil unrest to come. The demonstrations have been compared to the anti-police-brutality protests in many of America’s cities, most recently Baltimore. But Israeli politicians and commentators rejected any comparison, suggesting that the two contexts are very different from each other, claiming that discrimination in Israel is not nearly as systemic and endemic as in the United States. Yet many are calling for serious social reflection on the matter, warning that unless action is taken to better integrate the Ethiopian Jewish minority, things can only get worse.

The initial response from the government, according to this Haaretz report, was one of condemnation for both the police violence as well as the lawlessness that followed it: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday in an address to Knesset that the government of Israel was determined to change the situation on the ground for the Ethiopian Israeli community, following days of violent protests over claims of racism and police brutality....Earlier Monday, President Reuven Rivlin said Israel must look upon the ‘open and bloody wound’ which the protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem revealed. He made the comments during a meeting with the local leaders from Israel's ultra-Orthodox community.... ‘We've erred. We have failed to see and listen enough. Among those protesting in the streets, there can be found the best of our boys and girls, excellent students and former soldiers. We must give them answers.’”

Despite the anger on display and the grievances expressed by members of the Ethiopian Jewish community superficially resembling the recent experience of Ferguson or Baltimore, Jerusalem Post’s Abramowitz argues that America is the wrong lens through which to see the developments in Israel: “The marches in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv belonged to the plain-clothed Ethiopian soldiers. Nearly all of them have served, are serving or are about to serve in the IDF. Today’s battle is not against external enemies, but against invisibility and injustice....The Jews of silence today on racism in Israel are found not only in the Israeli government and the police force but also among world Jewry....These rallies by the Ethiopian community should be seen through the lens of hope and not despair; through the lens of Zionism and not Ferguson. There are only about 130,000 Ethiopian Israelis, with thousands of college graduates, near universal military service and now a whole generation that is empowered. There is not a single issue facing the Ethiopian community in Israel that can’t be resolved through enlightened philanthropy and government action.”

Arutz Sheva’s Shalom Pollack also makes an effort to distance, perhaps unconvincingly, the plight of Ethiopian Jews in Israel from that of the African-American community in the United States: “Ethiopian Jews dreamed for thousands of years to ‘return to Jerusalem.’ They were not snatched out of Africa to be slaves but were reunited with brothers in Israel....The color of the rioters' skin may be the same as those burning Baltimore down, but my Ethiopian brothers and sisters  have a Yiddishe neshama [soul]. They never terrorized Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn or mugged my grandfather. These brothers came home to us with a pure heart and soul....Surely we need cops — good Jewish cops, with a good Jewish education. Then their sticks would be holy... as their Jewish neshamot. Israel would do well to cultivate the Jewish neshama. That would solve just about all our problems.”

Many have expressed similar support for making that distinction, but it is clear from this Times of Israel report that many Israelis of Ethiopian descent feel like strangers in their own country, a feeling shared by many African-Americans in the United States when faced with policy brutality: “What began as a peaceful protest turned into bedlam in the heart of Tel Aviv Sunday, as demonstrators gathered to protest police brutality and alleged institutional racism against Israel’s Ethiopian population....Yitzhak, a religious Ethiopian man with side-curls and a large white yarmulke, commented, ‘I feel like we’re strangers, like we’re not Jews.’ ‘We fight all these wars,’ he said, ‘but this is the real war.’ While Yitzhak believed that he, as a father, had to come to the demonstration for the sake of his children, he was unconvinced that there would be any discernible effect. ‘This protest — there will be more and more of it,’ said Yitzhak, who like the rest of the protesters refused to provide his last name for fear of legal consequences. ‘But in a few days it will blow over. Then where will we be?’ he asked.”

It is true that the protests leading up to and including Sunday’s violence have shaken many in Israel, with the Knesset Speaker warning “of imminent social crisis at opening summer session as Ethiopian protests against discrimination set to continue....Specifically referencing the demonstration Sunday night in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Edelstein called the events ‘a sad chapter in the history of Israeli society.’... ‘We must ensure freedom of speech with a broad hand; however, once it becomes incitement, violence, and anarchism — we must not only not allow this to happen, but treat it severely. The Speaker then called on all citizens of Israel not to be dragged into a civil war, in spite of continuing protests in Jerusalem later on Monday.’”

While distancing from the violence that took place on Sunday, there is no question in the mind of many Israeli commentators that the frustration is justified given the discrimination members of the Ethiopian community are subjected to. As Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea points out: “Xenophobia is not only rooted in Israel — it is also encouraged by politicians on the eve of elections. The young protestors are forcing Israelis to look in the mirror, and it's not a pretty sight....The Israeli society is infected with racism. Racism is far more common and far more poisonous than we dare tell ourselves. It doesn’t start with Ethiopian immigrants and doesn’t end with them. There is racism of skin color, whose victims are foreign workers, Israelis of Ethiopian descent and sometimes Israelis of Yemeni descent and Israeli Arabs; there is racism of nationality, of sexual inclination, of gender....Mistakes have been made and will be made, but the racism comes from the bottom, not from the top, and it cannot be erased through budgetary decisions.”

Accepting that reality can help the recent events become a turning point for race relations in Israel, says Ben-Dror Yemini: “The protest which paralyzed Tel Aviv on Sunday was a furious, justified and pivotal protest....It's less important that 90% of Israelis oppose this violence. It's much more hurtful when the Ethiopians feel, again and again, humiliated by those who should be defending them. It's painful. It's frustrating. And to add insult to injury, the police went out of control on Sunday, and the smart restraint was replaced by another display of pillars of smoke and fire by the police. All of us, not just the police, should turn this protest into a turning point. Because it's not us and them. It's us, only us.”

However, as Michael Freund points out in a recent op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, it is clear that any answer to this vexing issue, if it is going to provide effective relief and improve race relations in Israel, must take into account the needs of the Ethiopian community living in Israel: “[T]he violence that erupted should hardly come as a surprise. Given the failures that have characterized efforts to integrate Ethiopian Jews into the Jewish state, the turmoil that ensued was as predictable as it was lamentable....With more than half of Ethiopian immigrant families living below the poverty line, including nearly twothirds of Ethiopian children, more needs to be done to empower community members and give them hope for a better future....While violence by protesters in any form cannot be tolerated, it is essential that Sunday’s riot in Tel Aviv be used as a turning point, one that will ensure that a greater effort is made to address the challenges facing Ethiopian immigrants....We brought Ethiopian Jews home, but now we must make them feel at home, for their sake as well as ours.”


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