Last Thursday, a hefty middle- aged police officer on horseback sat on his mount in the middle of a crowd of Ethiopian men and women. The sun was beating down on the protesters, who had blocked Route 1 heading north from Jerusalem, and the crowd was berating the policeman.
“You want to beat us? So beat us! You’re used to it, right?” Another asked him, “Don’t you have any shame? I was in the Golani [infantry brigade], my brother was in Gaza!” The police officer tried to argue back, but when he seemed on the verge of telling them off, his commander rushed over: “Shhh, stop, go back, no more,” he instructed.
It was one of many scenes that played out during a week of sometimes violent anti-racism protests by mostly Ethiopian Jews in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – and it took Israel by surprise. Suddenly, the nightly news was filled with Ethiopians speaking to reporters, in a country where they make up 2 percent of the population and are one of the most impoverished and marginalized groups.
Armored vehicles with water cannons and stun grenades exploding, filling Rabin Square; one of the most raucous protests there in decades. How did things come to this breaking point, and what are the lessons from it? In 1977, when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister, one of his first orders to his Mossad chief was, “Bring me our brothers,” by which he meant the Jews stranded in Ethiopia, facing war and famine. But what began as a phenomenal and secretive operation to aid Ethiopian Jewish community leaders in the return to Israel, was met with hurdles. Rabbis denied their Jewishness; one newspaper columnist, Yuval Elizur, hinted that bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel could create a “South African problem”; another, Shmuel Schnitzer, called them “thousands of apostates bearing dangerous diseases.”
When the Ethiopians crossed those hurdles of ignorance, they found themselves relegated to development towns, like previous Jewish immigrant groups from the Middle East.
And a new generation of Ethiopians, born in Israel and serving in the IDF at among the highest rates, found their future stifled.
Forty percent were being sentenced to military prison, often for economic reasons – like fleeing the army to work part-time to help their families.
Juvenile rates of incarceration rose to 30% in one prison; police stereotyping, complaints of profiling and violence grew.
Other indicators published in a 2012 Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute study showed alarming indicators.
Only 41% were passing their matriculation exams, and only 24% received scores that met university admission requirements. Large numbers (43% of women, 26% of men) of those employed were classified as blue-collar, “unskilled” workers, and the average wage for Ethiopian Jewish women was a paltry NIS 3,900, compared with NIS 6,400 for Jewish women as a whole.
The picture that emerges is of a community that is young (40% are under age 18), but faces impossible hurdles. Israel drafts them into the IDF but can’t seem to invest in basic educational requirements. Indeed, protesters chanted, “Our blood is good enough for the war in Gaza, but not back home.”
In 2012, this activism burst on the scene with an anti-racism march on Jerusalem – after a housing project had posted signs saying Ethiopians were not wanted. Pnina Tamnu-Shata, a young and outspoken Yesh Atid MK in the 19th Knesset and a member of the community, demanded answers to long-term institutional issues, such as why Magen David Adom was not accepting Ethiopians’ donated blood. This wasn’t the first time the issue was raised, as in 1996 thousands of Ethiopian Jews scuffled with police in Jerusalem when it was revealed that Ethiopian blood donations to MDA were being thrown out.
This new generation of post-army activists became politically aware in recent years; beneath them, there was seething tension. Those Ethiopian leaders who sought dialogue, for example participating in roundtable discussions at the Immigrant and Absorption Ministry, were condemned as legitimizing government photo-ops.
There was a sense last week that the protest was direction-less. It began in Jerusalem at national police headquarters, with shouts of “Police state” and “Send them [the police filmed beating a Ethiopian soldier] to prison.” Earlier in the day, Police Insp.-Gen, Yohanon Danino had spoken with some community representatives to defuse tensions; but young activists like Getahun Kobi Tefara, who came from Yavne, didn’t accept that as enough.
Demonstrating and closing roads, making Israeli society see them, was the only way forward. There was a sense that no one in society cared; this was symbolized by the lack of any MKs present at the Jerusalem rally.
Taking the protest to the heart of Tel Aviv was also part of this sense that Israeli society had to see Ethiopian Jews. Leaderless protests turn violent, and there were elements that wanted a confrontation with police.
“We are not hamudim,” one man told reporters. The term is a reference to the offhand, perhaps infantilizing way some Israelis describe Ethiopian Jews, as “adorable,” “cute” and “sweet.” The image of the “docile, sweet Ethiopian” is not helpful to the community, in their view. Ethiopians have won Miss Israel, The Voice and done well on Big Brother, and they serve in the army, but what they were angry about was why they were ending up in prison and seeing their economic success blocked.
Many people in Israeli society are sympathetic to the Ethiopian view; around 80% agree that they suffer racism, according to a 2014 survey.
Many Moroccan Jews who saw the protests noted their own history of suffering racism in the 1950s, which led to the Wadi Salib riots in Haifa in 1959. Haredim, national-religious residents from the West Bank and left-wingers all felt kinship over the police brutality issue.
Another interesting phenomenon among police and politicians was a sense of not wanting to “lose” this community. In March 2015, a delegation of Ethiopian Jews went to Israel Apartheid Week events in South Africa to speak out against allegations that Israel is a racist state. But some of those same participants’ Facebook pages are now littered with images of police beating protesters, and statuses like “Enough!” It is a reminder that they may go abroad to support Israel, but when they want support at home, the pro-Israel groups shy away.
POLICE CLEARLY showed restraint at the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv demonstrations; it is hard to imagine any other protest being permitted to shut down the Ayalon Freeway for several hours, affecting the commutes of a million Israelis.
From a government point of view, the president, prime minister and leaders of parties – from Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett to Meretz’s Zehava Gal-On to the Joint List’s Ayman Odeh – have all expressed sympathy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Damas Pakada, the soldier whose documented beating sparked the protests, on May 4.
Moreover, the government has spends millions on “national project” funds for Ethiopian Jews; there are pre-army programs, those taking troubled youth to kibbutzim for months, and numerous others. But the community’s economic distress and levels of IDF incarceration are not changing. If not for the video that triggered these protests, we might not have seen this breaking point.
But now that society has seen it, what solutions can be brought are unclear. Investment in education and raising the pay of soldiers or providing flexibility in army service: all of these are good. Special programs offering university assistance and training them for careers in hi-tech or places Ethiopians are not represented would be good.
However, 20 years of boiling anger will not be reduced quickly; and if it is not addressed, it will get worse.
All this is symptomatic of the overall failure of Israeli society to address institutional problems. Why does the IDF imprison 14,000 soldiers a year, more than 10% of those serving? Low wages and lack of being able to afford apartments or go to university are not just Ethiopian issues; police brutality and lack of accountability go beyond the Ethiopian sector.
Yet the lack of non-Ethiopian protesters last week was clear. All the other groups in society were largely missing, disowning these issues as “Ethiopian.”
This Janus-faced political reaction, supporting the Ethiopian soldier while turning away from addressing the larger problems, will likely leave these systematic problems in place.