Ethiopian Israelis demonstrate outside PMO in J'lem 370.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On July 24, a Jewish woman of Ethiopian origin reported that she was subject to
racist abuse while trying to help an elderly Ethiopian immigrant couple board a
bus in Beersheba.
The elderly couple did not have the small change that
the driver demanded and when the woman tried to help negotiate she reported that
he called her a “stinking Ethiopian” and cursed her.
The Metrodan bus
company defended the driver. “What’s baffling is that the driver allowed the
elderly couple to board the bus, so why would he go through all the trouble?”
Metrodan operates buses under a state license to provide public transport to
people in the Beersheba. Under Israeli law people do not have to have exact or
small change to board a bus. It is not uncommon, as many Israelis or visitors to
the country can attest, that bus drivers get into altercations with the public
that result in cursing and shouting. However this incident, if the accusations
are accurate, is part of a wider pattern of racist abuse that is all too common
in our country.
In a 2011 case, an Egged bus driver was accused of
racially abusing an Ethiopian Jewish student by telling her he didn’t let blacks
ride the bus. “Ethiopians are stupid people who don’t belong in Israel,” he told
Yadena Varka. Luckily in this case the Rishon Magistrate’s Court found in favor
of the victim and ordered her to receive NIS 60,000 in
Egged roundly condemned the racist comments.
2009, an Egged bus driver was fired after telling an Ethiopian security guard at
the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, “Perhaps you should drink milk and
be white like me.”
In 2005, another driver at Mount Scopus refused to let
an Ethiopian security guard enter the bus, saying, “Hey, cushi [a pejorative
term for blacks], you’re nothing, who put you here?” The abuse directed at
Ethiopians by bus drivers crosses ethnic and religious lines. The bus driver
accused in the Beersheba incident is a Beduin and one of the bus drivers at
Mount Scopus was an Arab. This points to a wide pattern of acceptance of racist
attacks on the public and security workers. The list of incidents is longer than
presented here and it can be assumed that many other incidents go unreported
because the victims either do not know the verbal attacks could result in legal
actions against the perpetrators or choose not to speak up.
companies, such as Egged, and courts are starting to take notice and punish this
kind of racism. But more can be done.
In January, thousands of Ethiopians
took to the streets in a mass anti-racism rally
after it became known that a
group of homeowners in Kiryat Malachi had signed a letter not to rent to
Ethiopians. However, this protest was never supported by the mainstream Israeli
Elias Inbar, an activist, said at the time that “the [social
justice] protests were very middle class and they don’t want to reach down into
the lowest layers of society, where Ethiopians are.”
In May, when
and attacks broke out in south Tel Aviv, some of
the public was mobilized against racism, but they were interested only in the
racism directed at immigrants. The local Ethiopian community exists in a public
blind spot. When Ethiopians set up a tent protest outside the Prime Ministers
Residence it was ignored for months.
Organizing the Israeli public also
demands educating the public about what the Ethiopian community finds offensive.
It is still incredibly common to hear the word “cushi” on television and in the
street, despite the fact that Ethiopians find it highly offensive.
Mekonen Degu of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews says that the term can
be considered like the n-word for African-Americans, “it derides people as if
they are slaves and harms them grievously.”
On the reality singing show
The Voice Israel, judge Shlomi Shabat, who since apologized, described one of
the contestants as singing “like an American cushi from Harlem.”
Hebrew subtitles to the film Scary Movie broadcast last week on YES, the word
“black man” is translated as cushi. This mainstreaming of offensiveness demeans
Israel’s social activists should embrace anti-racism,
not only regarding immigrants but also Ethiopian citizens, as a cause. Legal aid
organizations that help Ethiopians, such as Tebeka, should be encouraged through
government and private financial support to provide more tools and awareness for
members of the Ethiopian community, particularly the elderly who often cannot
read and sometimes may not know Hebrew well.
As the civil rights movement
learned in the American South, recourse to the courts can be as effective as