The problem with the Ethiopian immigrants is not that they’re black, it’s that they’re transparent, opined a journalist a few years ago. No more.
Members of the Israeli-Ethiopian community were definitely seen and heard during the wave of recent protests, culminating in Sunday’s clash with police at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.
Images of the members of the Jewish black community decrying discrimination and police brutality were quickly carried around the world and Israeli TV stations canceled their scheduled programs to broadcast live footage of the demonstration in which scores were injured, both police and protesters.
The violence caught much of the country by surprise: Thinking of the community as “quiet” is part of the patronizing bon ton that many “Ethiopians” find so annoying.
At least part of the problem of the protest which got out of control was that it was legitimate rather than legal: The demonstrators had genuine grievances to voice, but had not applied for a permit to hold the demonstration.
As a result there were no defined route, hours and, most important, no leadership who could control the angry youths.
According to some people present, there were also elements from both far Left and far Right who took the opportunity to exploit the situation – to exploit the 135,000-member Ethiopian community, in effect. The far Left finds the images of blacks being beaten by Israeli police fit in nicely with its narrative of “Israeli apartheid” (the case of migrant workers is a cause célèbre in certain circles) while the far Right wanted to emphasize the picture of police violence, which they claim is often directed toward them.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the demonstration was that as very small groups hijacked it for their own purposes, the reasons for the anger and pain that led to the rally in the first place became less and less the focus of attention.
Given the sensitivities involved, it is hard even to find the politically correct, or at least socially acceptable, description for the community.
The vast majority of those demonstrating this week were not “Ethiopian immigrants” but Sabras, part of the generation born in Israel. They also resent the “Ethiopian” label, although, as I pointed out in conversations with friends, it is common to describe somebody by their perceived community: “Russians” include people from Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and other Russian-speaking states; “French” includes immigrants (veteran and new) from Belgium and Switzerland; and I have got used to being described as “Amerika’it,” a description which is miles off the mark for someone who was the third generation born in London.
Among those with whom I discussed the situation was colleague and neighbor Tsega Melaku, one of the leading members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, not known for taking things quietly.
I live on the same street as Melaku in a rapidly gentrifying Jerusalem neighborhood, and we are both members of the board of the Jerusalem Association of Journalists.
We are also both banned from donating blood to Magen David Adom, I note: me because I visited England at the height of the “mad cow disease” scare; Melaku because she was born in Ethiopia.
Melaku, who took a leading role in the “blood protest” in 1996, fighting the stigmatization of the community as an AIDS risk, doesn’t get my British sense of humor. I didn’t at first understand how hurtful it was for the Ethiopian community that their blood was simply thrown out as possibly tainted.
Melaku, who missed entering the Knesset on Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu list due to a technicality, was for a while considered likely to become the first “Ethiopian” minister in the government.
With her outspoken, colorful personality, Melaku treads the very thin line separating the thought-provoking from the provocative.
She breaks stigmas when she speaks of them. For example, at a time 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 an imperfect stranger who asked if she was available to clean his home.
It still happens, now and again, Melaku says. People don’t see her BA (in political science and sociology) and MA (in business and communications); they see the color of her skin. As a politician, she quips, she wanted to use her skills to try to clean society and put it in order; she’s not available for any other type of housecleaning.
Melaku has written about her experiences in a recently published book (in Hebrew) titled “Not in Our School.” Education is a key theme for Melaku and she insisted that both her sons, now aged 18 and 21, went to a “good” school in Jerusalem.
When I ask her this week how she has been so successful, she puts it down to education and her own assertive nature.
Breaking another stereotype, she notes she received a good education in Ethiopia before she emigrated from Gondar in 1984 at the age of 16.
“It’s not a matter of money,” she says. “There’s plenty of money but it has to be spent correctly and it’s important to help children within the system.” Separate “pet projects for Ethiopians” only further the stereotypes and isolation, she says.
She wants to see better integration of children in regular after-school activities and youth movements, rather than in programs aimed specifically at Ethiopians.
Melaku would also like to see Israeli schools teaching more about the history of the Ethiopian community and what they endured to reach Israel. In Ethiopia, the Jews suffered from anti-Semitism, she notes. It was a community that always dreamed of going to Zion.
Melaku, who made the journey without her parents and three siblings, spent the first five months in Israel without family at an absorption center in Tiberias, and was shocked by the expressions of racism she encountered here, including the aspersions on her being Jewish.
Ironically, growing up in Gondar, Melaku hadn’t known there were white Jews.
“How did you survive on your own, in a new country, in a new language at the age of 16?” I ask.
“You know me, I’m tough,” she replies.
The recent protests did not surprise her. “The video of the soldier [Damas Pakada] being beaten by police was the last straw. There was already a huge, ongoing pentup feeling of discrimination, isolation and humiliation,” says Melaku. “There are people who have pent up their feelings at the failed absorption process for decades.”
She is still upset that she wasn’t allowed to serve in the IDF, which was not interested at that time in having female Ethiopian soldiers.
There is an important generational difference, Melaku notes. Her generation, and her parents who made the dangerous journey to Israel eight years later, were willing to suffer more in silence. Just being in Israel was the realization of a dream. Today, the generation born in Israel is not willing to suffer and shouldn’t have to.
The growth of the independent-minded Sabra generation, however, has also resulted in a loss of status for the traditional leaders of the community, the kesim, and this was partly reflected in the lack of leadership at the rally, she says.
“This is a generation that spontaneously organizes protests via the social media,” she notes.
The fact that they are willing to organize and fight for their rights gives Melaku hope.
The protests, we both feel, cannot end this time with some sweet talking of establishing a committee to look into the problems. The problems are well known. And so are the solutions: integration, education and abandoning the policy of creating artificial ghettos in certain towns and neighborhoods.
The Israeli-Ethiopian community shouldn’t have to fight for acceptance more than 30 years after Operation Moses brought the older generation here in what still seems like a miracle. And the struggle against stigmas, stereotyping and, yes, racism, should not be theirs alone.
Nor should it be political.
But violence cannot be fought by violence.
The demonstration in Tel Aviv on Sunday started with the best of intentions but descended into chaos; the same can be said of the absorption procedure.
The Ethiopian community can at last be clearly seen, but crossing the redline into violent protest will not help its message be heard. 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.
The protest was a cry for acceptance. It’s up to all of us to stress that the protesters already belong.
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