What’s the protest point?

Drop the extremism and pick up a broom

July 9, 2019 21:16
What’s the protest point?

A protester confronts a policeman during a demonstration in Tel Aviv on July 2 over the shooting death of 19-year-old Ethiopian- Israeli Solomon Tekah. (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)


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I envy the fanatics dominating Twitter and TV. Life’s easy if you view the latest protests by Ethiopian Israelis through an extremist prism. No need to think. Those who just want to call Israel “racist” don’t have to acknowledge Ethiopians’ tremendous advances, or Israel’s original, remarkably non-racist gesture in becoming the only Western country in history to welcome blacks “home” en masse to be free and rejoin our multi-racial national Jewish family. Those who want to brand the protesters “agitators” can ignore the genuine frustrations with progress not yet made, and Ethiopians’ widespread sense that the joy with which most were met is partially obscured by clouds of that ugly social pollutant: racism.

Thinkers and moderates caught between those extremes should ask two pressing questions of our Ethiopian brothers and sisters: “What’s your protest point?”

The ambiguity is intentional.

First, “What’s your protest point? At what point do you protest? What enrages you?” The strangest thing about this week’s riots is that the police officer involved in the accidental killing of Solomon Tekah seems to have acted properly. The policeman was with his family, followed procedure, shot at the ground, and may have aimed at a different non-Ethiopian troublemaker entirely. Tragically, a ricocheting bullet killed Tekah.

But protests are rarely about the sparks that ignite rather than the dry tinder that’s been too flammable for so long. Protesters should assess the triggering event because it reflects on their protests’ credibility. And we all should honor the Tekah family’s request to avoid violence, and thank them for that generous gesture of leadership amid their unspeakable sorrow.

The deeper challenge comes from the second question: “What’s the protest’s point? What do these demonstrations seek?” First, and existentially, the protesting Ethiopians demand acknowledgment of their frustrations; validation that problems persist; and respect for their pain.

Second, and symbolically, protests serve as safety valves and jackhammers – helping citizens who feel wronged blow off steam while aiding communities to take a stand and start breaking new ground, in fighting systematic problems like prejudice and the general lethargy that suffocates progress. Most important is the third level – in this case, substantive demands to fight racism, improve education, generate jobs, offer employment coaching, and fight violent crime while curbing violent crime fighters.

Riots rarely produce real progress, but protests can sensitize the majority while empowering the minority who finally feel heard. Protests risk oversimplifying the situation and obscuring any good news. Mohammad Darawshe of Givat Haviva-The Center for a Shared Society, hijacks the great dueling-islands metaphor to compare middle-class Israeli Arabs with the Israeli-Arab underclass. But there are two Ethiopian islands, too.

One, the blue-and-white island, is growing and thriving, reflecting a beautiful Zionist tale of an oppressed people coming home: crossing the continent, transcending cultural barriers to enter universities, serve honorably in the army, build good lives and contribute their unique accent and a generic all-Israeli approach to our national revival.

The second, black-and-white island is stagnant and racist, reflecting an all-too-human dysfunctional tale of a people dispossessed, disrespected and disliked because of their differences – particularly their skin color. Our collective challenge is to expand the Ethiopians’ blue-and-white island while contracting their black-and-white one. The protests shouldn’t make it all look black-and-white and obscure the key formulas that can help the blue-and-white island grow.

IN HEALTHY democracies, such social upheaval during an election campaign would be a great opportunity for leaders to strut their stuff. Sigh.

I’ve been asking my friends: “Did you hear what Bibi had to say about the Ethiopian problem?”

“No,” they say.

I respond, “Neither did I.”

I’ve asked others: “Did you hear what Benny Gantz had to say about the Ethiopian problem?”

“No,” they say.

“Neither did I,” I respond, sadly.

This is a leadership moment that’s degenerating into yet another lost opportunity. Here’s the chance to avoid the demagoguery of one extreme or the other. You don’t call Israel a racist state; you condemn those racists among us. You don’t dismiss all the protesters; you expose the provocateurs among them. You don’t cower in your tower when society is stressed, traffic is blocked and your people seek guidance; you mark the progress and set benchmarks for more. You detail successful programs and scale them up. You identify weak spots and failures, and think through solutions.

Life isn’t a final-exam question in a public-policy class. We want three-point programs but we all yearn for a vision, too. This Ethiopian community is in pain. Their existential need for validation, and ours for inspiration, are gifts to effective leaders, opportunities to shine – and ordeals for tired, dispirited duds who find their inability to lead exposed.

The United States has, alas, much experience with riots. They provide a bank of inspiring moments when leaders, citizens or celebrities responded poetically. In 1968, Robert Kennedy spoke emphatically and eloquently in Indianapolis after the assassination of Martin Luther King, essentially talking Indianapolis out of a race riot. Baltimore pastors in 2015 constructively challenged rioters to stop destroying their own community, and four average citizens ran outside during the 1992 Los Angeles riots to save Reginald Denny’s life after rioters beat him savagely. Even before those LA riots ended, the actor Edward James Olmos took a broom and started sweeping up the debris, setting an example that dozens of others followed.

We need our leaders to lead, but each of us should also do what we can to encourage quiet, stop the suffering, and join the clean-up patrol, sweeping up the social, cultural, political and actual debris around us regarding Ethiopians – regarding all our fellow citizens.
The writer authored The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. He is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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