Creating new perspectives since 2009

Protests by Ethiopian Jews bring Israel closer to fragmentation

July 8, 2019 at 8:00 pm

Security forces take a protester into custody during a protest against the killing of Solomon Tekah, a young man of Ethiopian origin, who was killed by an off-duty police officer, near Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv, Israel on 3 July 2019. [Oren Ziv/Anadolu Agency]

Israel has been in chaos since last month, when an Israeli police officer killed a young Ethiopian Jew in Haifa, suspecting that the young man and his companions had thrown stones at him. The incident sparked anger within the Ethiopian community, which insists that the police shoot its members too readily for racist reasons; this was not the first incident of its kind. Similar events indicate racist motives, leading to protests, some of them violent.

In the days following the killing of the young man, hundreds of Ethiopian Jews started demonstrating in different parts of Israel, particularly Tel Aviv, and closed some of the major crossroads. The protests expanded until thousands of people blocked other streets. Masked protesters set fire to rubbish containers and tyres; dozens of them were arrested, and some were injured.

The Israeli police tried to talk to Ethiopian Jewish leaders but were told that the elders have a major crisis of confidence with the police — protesters were throwing stones at police stations —and little control over the young men in their community. Politicians called for calm when the protests spread to major roads in northern and southern Israel, causing traffic congestion and delays for tens of thousands of vehicles.

The Ethiopian Jews were promised that they would enter a land of prosperity and happiness when they migrated, but for them it has become a land of persecution, death and funerals. Israeli society doesn’t afford them any legitimacy as Jews; it actually perceives them as criminals and violent individuals.

“The problem is that the rest of the Jews in Israel do not consider us as human beings,” said one Ethiopian protester. “This starts with the white citizens who do not want their children to play with black children in public parks, and continues with the police, who deal with us based on colour. We cannot hide our colour.”

A fellow protester concurred. “It’s hard to be black and feel safe in Israel.”

READ: Years after the blood dumping scandal, Ethiopians are still resisting racism in Israel

A third feels that Ethiopian lives are “worthless” in Israel. “Young people fear encountering the police in the streets. We face racism every day. They do not hire us, they do not rent us houses and we are not allowed to enter bars during the weekends.”

One Israeli police officer took to WhatsApp to insist that, “Ethiopian Jews still think that they are in Africa, and they better go back there.” Such an attitude was reflected on social media. After one protester was run over by a car, social media posts were full of comments like, “Just crush them, they will only understand this way.”

Amazingly, Israeli experts and officials have claimed that foreign parties are involved in incitement, fuelling the Ethiopian protests on social media. Some networking sites, they allege, are used to share information about racism against Ethiopians by the authorities in order to widen the cracks in Israeli society.

Recent events shed light on the 140,000 “Falashas”, the Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel between 1984 and 1991 and who make up 2 per cent of the population. Their status indicates their relative isolation, with 88 per cent marrying other Falashas, and 43 per cent of other Israelis refusing to marry Ethiopians. Only 55 per cent of the Ethiopian community’s students receive high school diplomas, and just 39 per cent of them meet the necessary academic level to enrol in university. Ninety per cent of the community is illiterate.

Protesters of the Ethiopian community of Jerusalem gather for a protest against the killing of Solomon Tekah, a young man of Ethiopian origin, who was killed by an off-duty police officer, in Jerusalem on 2 July, 2019 [Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Anadolu Agency]

The average monthly income of Ethiopian Jews is 35 per cent lower than other Jews in Israel. Most of them have low-paying jobs requiring no academic qualifications. In fact, 65 per cent of young Ethiopian Jews are unemployed and the rate of delinquency among their children is three times higher than the children of the other Jews in Israel. A considerable number do not speak Hebrew and cannot cope with Israeli society, despite the integration programmes launched by the government. Eleven have been killed by racist “white Jews” over the past two decades. The racist situation is such that the state authorities in Israel do not recognise Ethiopian Jewish scholars as rabbis.

The only political party representing Falashas could not garner sufficient votes to warrant a seat in the Knesset in this year’s General Election. Some Israeli schools refuse to accept Ethiopian Jewish students and Israeli law prohibits receiving blood donations from black Jews. The Israeli Ministry of Health dumped sackfuls of blood donated by Ethiopians in 2006 on the pretext of the risk of AIDS.

Ethiopian Jews generally live in slums and shanty towns on the outskirts of Israel’s cities, including Afula and Hadera. They suffering from housing, education, labour, religious and identity problems and face questions about their Jewish origins. Integrating them into Israeli society thus represents a major problem, an issue which is mirrored in the Israeli military. There are no Ethiopian Jews among the ranks of senior officers in the Israeli army; indeed, they are classed as second class soldiers.

Ethiopian-Israel protests in Israel: Threats of escalation and police menace

Given that the protests by Ethiopian Jews were preceded by similar demonstrations by ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews, and that Israeli police attacks against Palestinian citizens are ongoing, it is reasonable to suggest that social disintegration is happening before our eyes in Israel. It is ironic that the state established thanks to Jewish solidarity is now facing disintegration and division, and society is split into conflicting groups.

This has led to the reality of the proliferation of conflicting groups in Israel wherein the members of one completely ignore the struggle by the members of another, and never interfere. However, they miss no chance to harass them, rub salt into their wounds and push the majority of Jews to mistrust the state. Israeli citizens, it seems, no longer care about each other. The police officer is not willing to understand the struggle of the Ethiopian Jew, but is afraid of him. When he is afraid he grabs his gun and shoots him. The Jewish driver who did not understand why Ethiopian Jews blocked public roads drove his car into them, and killed one in full view of everyone.

Hence, Israeli society appears to be on the brink of falling apart, with growing numbers of people lacking confidence in the state. Societies losing internal solidarity soon dissolve into ethnic, national and social conflicts before shattering from within. This is what Israel will witness in the years ahead. Its strategic analysts and government regard this domestic threat as no less serious than any external existential threat.

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