My Word: The fight and plight of the Sabra Ethiopians

The vast majority of those demonstrating this week were not “Ethiopian immigrants” but Sabras, part of the generation born in Israel – proud of their heritage but eager to lose the “Ethiopian” label.

July 4, 2019 21:24
Ethiopian-Israel youth protest in Beersheva

Ethiopian-Israel youth protest in Beersheva. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A lecturer in a journalism course once posited that the reason the London School of Economics was so strongly perceived as “red” during the student unrest of 1968-1969 was because of its location near the legendary Fleet Street, which then housed most of the major newspapers. This made LSE the go-to place for journalists looking for a story. I reflected on this as I dodged demonstrations when I left The Jerusalem Post’s offices on Tuesday night. My usual route home was completely blocked by rioters from an extremist ultra-Orthodox sect protesting the arrest of a young man who not only refused to serve in the IDF but wouldn’t even collect an exemption.
When I finally got home, after an extra long and uncomfortable journey, I discovered it could have been worse. A wave of protests by members of Israel’s Ethiopian community closed major junctions and highways (including the roads near my office), some of them for nearly six hours.
There was a certain irony in the proximity of the two demonstrations – one by a community that wants to remain isolated, the other by a community that longs for full acceptance; one community avoiding military service, the other marked by high recruitment to combat units.
The vast majority of those demonstrating this week were not “Ethiopian immigrants” but Sabras, part of the generation born in Israel – proud of their heritage but eager to lose the “Ethiopian” label. 
There was an even greater irony at protesting police violence with violence. The image of cars being attacked, and even set on fire, and rocks being thrown at police officers (and police horses) gave the Ethiopian community publicity but not sympathy.
The youths used social media to create the “spontaneous” demonstrations. The general public used social media to protest the protests: Friends shared stories of a bride and groom unable to get to their own wedding, young children and a sick baby stuck in cars, and a man who created a minyan on a bus to recite kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, for his father.
The background to the protest was the death of 19-year-old, Ethiopian-born Solomon Tekah, killed by an off-duty police officer, in circumstances that are still being investigated. Tekah’s friends and family claimed he was killed because his skin color made the “white” cop trigger happy. The police officer claims he came under attack when he tried to break up a fight in a playground.
As always, there’s a world of difference in the words used. Protesters and members of the broader 150,000-member Ethiopian community insist Tekah was “murdered.” I’m sticking to the more neutral “killed.” 
The tragedy of the Tekah family was multiplied by its exploitation. It didn’t take long for this to turn into an issue of Left and Right, particularly as the slogans heard on the blocked Ayalon and Trans-Israel highways echoed mantras of America’s Black Lives Matter movement. No wonder there was speculation that an outside hand helped fund and direct the demonstrations.
As in the previous wave of protests in May 2015, images of the members of the Jewish black community decrying discrimination and police brutality were transmitted around the world and Israeli TV stations canceled scheduled programs in favor of live footage and heated studio debates. As always, it was sad to see that when small groups hijacked the protests for their own purposes, the genuine reasons for the anger and pain became less of a story.

“THE GENERATION that was born here identifies primarily as black because it feels that Israeli society rejects them,” Tsega Melaku, a leading member of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, tells me when I call to get her insight. Melaku immigrated from Gondar in 1984 at the age of 16. She is a fellow journalist and a neighbor, living on the same street in a gradually gentrifying Jerusalem neighborhood.
Melaku condemns violence – “it’s not the way of our community and it was not the way of my generation” – but understands the pain and frustration behind it.
She often recalls that when she was the head of Israel Radio’s Reshet Alef station – the first woman in the post as well as the first Ethiopian – she was approached by a passerby who asked if she was available to clean his home. The stigmas have not disappeared despite her doctorate in communications.
Melaku breaks many stereotypes, but she abides by the one of the proud Jewish mother. She talks of her son who recently finished his medical studies and will serve as a doctor in the IDF. But she also notes that her older son only recently told her of an incident he had when out with three friends, all of them white. As they left a pub, a policeman singled out her son to search for drugs – stopping only when the friends protested that they were all four serving soldiers.
Melaku fears that many police are “unbelievably light on the trigger” when they see Ethiopian youths.
She notes the difference between the “Russians” and the “Ethiopians”: The first generation of women who arrived in the mass immigration from Russia were stigmatized and received dirtier job offers than cleaning houses, but their offspring are well integrated; the second generation of Ethiopians, on the other hand, are still looked down upon.
“This is a generation that can barely speak Amharic,” she notes, “but it is judged by the color of their skin.”
The generation gap is evident in other ways: Melaku notes that her generation suffered from antisemitism as they grew up in Ethiopia and it only strengthened their Jewish identity, whereas the generation born here has turned feelings of rejection into a stronger black identity.
In another important difference, Melaku notes that her generation was willing to suffer in silence because just being in Israel was the realization of a dream. The generation born in Israel is not willing to suffer, in silence or otherwise – and shouldn’t have to. 
One of the differences we both note is the lack of a strong leadership in the community today. The independent-minded Sabras do not answer to the traditional leaders of the community, the kesim. 
“This is a generation that organizes protests via the social media,” she notes. “The impact of the social media can also be seen in the slogans and style of the protests.”
Melaku was on the board of the Palmor Committee established in 2015 after the previous mass demonstrations. There has been much progress she says but calls for the immediate implementation of the rest of the findings, such as the use of body cameras by police officers. She also wants an independent state committee of inquiry to examine the death of Tekah.
“There’s a lack of trust in the police and in the Justice Ministry’s Department for the Investigation of Police. An independent inquiry could help solve that.”
The police needs to root out officers who abuse their power – and not just against Ethiopians; citizens need to decry demonstrators who assault the police – police cannot be placed in the untenable position of being afraid to respond to lawlessness. 
Violence cannot be fought by violence, Melaku and I concur. Demonstrations with no permits, no responsible leaders, no set hours or defined boundaries are neither legitimate nor legal.
One thing Melaku doesn’t want is well-meaning programs that end up being discriminatory – “pet projects” ostensibly to help the integration of Ethiopian youth can distance them from their peers.
Some 35 years after Operation Moses brought the older generation to Israel in what still seems like a miraculous feat, the Israeli-Ethiopian community shouldn’t have to fight for acceptance. The struggle against stigmas and stereotyping should not be theirs alone. 
“If I have one main message, it’s that this should not be seen as an ‘Ethiopian’ problem but a problem of all Israeli society,” she says.
And to the protesters – of all types – I’d add the reminder that rioting is a show of force, but not a demonstration of strength.

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