Israeli Ethiopians & Israeli society

As anger and frustration boiled over in the streets in Tel Aviv and our hearts ached over scenes of confrontation and violence between Israeli Ethiopians and the Israel Police, our thoughts turned to an earlier time for the Ethiopian Jews who made the arduous journey to their Jewish homeland in Israel.
Some 15 years ago in the aftermath of the riots in Los Angeles triggered by police mistreatment of Rodney King, the Anti-Defamation League developed a unique program to foster understanding between minority groups and encourage the development of young leaders who would stand up to prejudice, bigotry and discrimination.
We called it “Children of the Dream,” and the experience of Ethiopian Jewry was the main focus. “Children of the Dream” was designed to empower Israeli Ethiopian teenagers to share their immigrant stories with American youth, to illustrate how Israel brought this endangered community to their Jewish homeland. ADL’s heritage as an American Jewish civil rights and human relations organization and our strong presence in Israel made us uniquely positioned to broaden our work building bridges of understanding within diverse communities in both countries through this program. In the process, we challenged and broke down stereotypes.
It was powerful and moving to see these young Israeli men and women interacting with American students, who were awed by the fact that these young Ethiopian teenagers were not only immigrants from a faraway land, but were also, remarkably, newly minted Israeli citizens and Jews.
In short, they did not fit the stereotypical notion of who is Jewish and what is a Jew. Through the years, the program gave everyone touched by it a feeling of hope. The pride those Ethiopian teenagers felt in being chosen to represent their new homeland as Jews played a critical role in their absorption into Israeli life. And it contributed to their success stories as they fulfilled their service in the Israel Defense Forces, completed their academic studies, chose their careers and built families.
The disturbing images last week of Israeli police mistreating an Israeli Ethiopian soldier, followed by ugly incidents of violence in street protests against the incident Sunday night in Rabin Square -- as with the recent violence in response to allegations of police mistreatment of African-Americans in the US -- were a stark reminder that Israel, also like the US, still has a long way to go in ensuring full equality for all of its citizens.
Israel, which was founded on democratic ideals of equality and has welcomed immigrants from all over the world, must intensify efforts throughout Israeli society to promote and strengthen understanding and respect among its citizens. So where have things gone wrong?
From our work in diversity education, we have learned that the earlier children learn to respect others, the earlier we see the most significant results. Sadly, with the need to meet academic goals, programs to promote understanding and respect are often left behind or de-emphasized.
It cannot be so in Israel, a land of immigrants. And it should not be so in America, either. The chapter on Israel’s efforts to bring Jewish Ethiopians to Israel -- going so far as to airlift them to the Jewish state -- is a magnificent one. Yet 15 years ago, as today, we know it is not enough just to bring Jews to Israel from all over the world.
They must be assimilated and accepted into society. It is likewise not enough to have laws to prevent discrimination; the laws have to be enforced to be meaningful. Just this past week, Israel Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino took the first steps toward engaging in the hard work needed to promote a sense of trust between the Israel Police and the members of the Ethiopian community they are sworn to protect.
Ensuring that all citizens of Israel feel protected by the law and respected by law enforcement requires constant vigilance. While we understand their frustration and anger, we also need to remind the Israeli Ethiopian community that violence will only cause further damage to their cause.
And for the future: The government of Israel and Israeli civil society should commit to a plan of action to counteract racism in general and toward the Ethiopian community in particular as a priority in order to ensure a healthy society for all Israelis.