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Ethiopian Jews face entrenched Israeli racism

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, many of them airlifted into the country secretly in two separate operations in 1984 and 1990 that helped them to escape famine and war. These operations followed a rabbinical ruling that they were direct descendants of the Biblical Jewish Dan tribe.

However, despite the government drive to bring them to the country, this community – which now numbers about 135,500, around 1.5 or 2 per cent of Israel's eight million people – has struggled to integrate. For years, Ethiopian Jews have complained of racism, lack of opportunity, endemic poverty and police harassment.

This tension has been simmering for years and occasionally blows up. This dissatisfaction recently erupted into protests, after a video surfaced last week showing two policemen beating an Ethiopian Israeli soldier. Two police officers have been suspended on suspicion of using excessive force. Thousands of people from the community took to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over several days. On Sunday, the protest turned violent after some demonstrators tried to storm the local municipality building. Police fired tear gas and stun grenades while protestors threw bottles and bricks. At least 46 police and seven protestors were hurt, while dozens were arrested.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin condemned the violence but was sympathetic to the grievances of Ethiopian Israelis. "The protests exposed the pain of a community crying out over a sense of discrimination, racism and of being unanswered," he said. "We must look directly at this open wound." Benjamin Netanyahu took some time out of the final days of his coalition negotiations to call for calm, saying that he would speak to Ethiopian activists next week. "All claims will be looked into but there is no place for violence and such disturbances," said the prime minister.

The question now is whether anything will actually change, for Netanyahu is not known for his sympathy towards minority communities. This is not the first time that Israelis of Ethiopian descent have protested over racism. In 2012, they marched on the Knesset after reports that some landlords were refusing to rent their properties to Ethiopian Jews, and nothing changed. Yet the latest round of protests seems more urgent, triggered as it is by the visceral anger of seeing a uniformed soldier – so respected in Israeli society – beaten-up.

There is no doubt that this community is seriously marginalised. In 2013, there was an outcry after it was revealed that Israeli authorities working with Jewish immigrants in transit camps in Ethiopia were giving women long-term birth control injections without their consent, as part of a plan to control birth-rates. The same year, Israel's equivalent of the Red Cross refused to accept blood from an Ethiopian Jewish MP, citing a blanket ban on donations from anyone born in Africa. A report has revealed that more than 40 per cent of Ethiopian men serving in the army were sent to military prison during their service.

Ethiopian households earn 35 per cent less than the national average and only half their young people receive high school diplomas, compared with 63 per cent of the rest of Israel's youth. They make up 30 per cent of those in juvenile detention. The community complains of marginalisation, of not being welcome in elite schools or universities, of being treated as second class citizens. Although they are recognised officially as Jews, some rabbis will not allow them to marry other Israelis without a nominal conversion process. The popular assumption is that they should do the lowest-ranking jobs, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and alienation.

Racism in sections of Israeli society is entrenched; in the recent general election campaign, Arabs were described as "Neanderthals", while concerns about the birth-rates of non-Jewish communities are frequently discussed. In recent years, racism specifically against black people has worsened with the arrival as asylum seekers of non-Jewish migrants fleeing wars in Africa. Israel's politicians and public are constantly anxious about the country's status as a Jewish state. Nowhere is this anxiety more evident than in the suspicion with which outsiders are viewed. In the midst of this heightened racism against African migrants, Jewish Ethiopians have felt the need to prove that they are true Israelis.

The protests in Tel Aviv are not dissimilar to those in Baltimore: these are communities trapped in cycles of deprivation and perpetually discriminated against, for no other reason than the colour of their skin. Any society purporting to be just and fair should listen to their concerns.


Images by Anadolu Agency:

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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