The onset of protests by Ethiopian Jews Israel may have something to do with suggestions coming out of Baltimore, or they may reflect their own dynamic. It's one of the questions that are impossible to answer about the social realities and politics of this issue.
From the beginning, what has grown over the years to perhaps 125,000 Ethiopian Jews, with several thousand coming in two prominent events, has presented a mixture of excitement and worry. Each of two clusters, coming in 1984 and 1991 had been brought about by inspired Jewish activists in Israel and America, assembled and moved in secrecy, with the help of the US government, and welcomed with great excitement and a sense of national fulfillment.
Yet alongside feelings of doing the right thing there was also a concern for the integration of people from a culture so different from that existing in Israel. An acquaintance well placed in the upper reaches of national politics said in 1984, "This is a problem we do not need."
What we have now is a mixture that is both commendable and worrying. Individuals have reached the upper middle levels of the media, the military, government bureaucracies, and other professions. On the other side, Ethiopians are disproportionately represented in news items about family violence, the records of criminal courts, and the population of prisons.
Immigration continues despite several government decisions that Israel had accepted all of the Ethiopians entitled, in the face of continued demands to accept people claimed as relatives by those who are here.
Activists charge that police and judicial racism is responsible for the high incidence of criminal charges and convictions. Especially prominent in provoking this wave of protests was a video clip, made by someone's cell phone, of two police beating a Ethiopian soldier. The lame excuse heard from one of the cops, that they thought he was Sudanese or Eritrean (the two prominent groups of illegal African immigrants who present their own set of problems), did not fit with the IDF uniform the beaten man was wearing.
Following mass protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv there were competing claims about the police response. While activists assert brutality and insist on the release of the protesters taken into custody, critics perceive excessive police tolerance. They allowed much greater freedom and disruptions before unleashing the water canons, tear gas, and stun grenades than would have come much earlier if the protesters were Arab. Chances are that the police would also have used dogs, "non-lethal" gunfire, and then lethal ammunition against Arabs. Instead of the light injuries being counted after the Ethiopian protests, it's likely that there would have been deaths from comparable actions by Arabs.
The police allowed marchers to clog Tel Aviv's main traffic artery for several hours during the evening rush hour.
It is common to blame the Israeli establishment for errors in the absorption of Ethiopian Jews. Like previous mass migrations from North Africa and Asia in the 1940s and 1950s, the Ethiopians were settled together in several small towns and urban neighborhoods. Officials claim they were kept together for their own good, where their special needs could be served by the programs created for the various age groups. Critics smelled segregation, with a combination of racial and religious motives. Religious authorities had doubts about the immigrants' Jewishness and religious leaders.
Demands that individuals pass through a ceremony of conversion prompted early animosity from immigrants.
The principals of various schools have refused to accept Ethiopian students.
Ethiopian religious leaders may have been expressing a residual sense of alienation when they refused police requests to calm the recent demonstrations, saying that they would not serve to cover the deficiencies of the police in dealing with demonstrations they described as appropriate in light of genuine grievances.
Israelis seeking to excuse the problems cite the Ethiopians' backgrounds. They differed from other Israelis in their language, culture, education, and the nature of their Judaism. Many were illiterate. There were stories of individuals coming into contact for the first time with electricity, running water, toilets, and Jews who where not Africans.
The combination of paternalism and segregation appears in Ethiopian families living for years in Absorption Centers. While they benefit from subsidies and are arguably better off than they were in Ethiopia, they remain apart from the challenges and opportunities of Israeli society, with high levels of unemployment.
Ethiopian and other critics emphasize that the 30 years since the early wave of Ethiopian Jews should have permitted more successful treatment of whatever problems the immigrants brought with them, and that the country should have learned from comparable experiences 60 years ago with Yemenites and Moroccans.
The Central Bureau of Statistics publishes comparisons between Arabs and Jews on just about every social and economic statistic, but has produced only limited surveys of the much smaller Ethiopian population. A report from 2013 indicated significant gaps between Israelis of Ethiopian origin and others in income and education, but also promising findings about the Ethiopians' pursuit of higher education and attainment of professional positions.
Whether this wave of protests occurred because of Baltimore, the beating of an Ethiopian soldier, the accumulation of frustrations and anger by Ethiopians and the enthusiasm of non-Ethiopian activists, there is not likely to be a quick fix.
Not only is there much to sort out between those who claim racism, and those who claim that there remain serious problems among the Ethiopians. There is also a full slate of other demands, not associated with the Ethiopians, that are clamoring for attention.
Political noise is especially high given the problems in creating a government, with a host of small parties, each making a full set of expensive demands, and each having enough votes to scuttle the possibility or lifetime of a coalition if they do not get what they want.
The Prime Minister responded to the protests by calling a meeting of major officials, along with various spokespeople from the Ethiopian community and the soldier who was beaten by police. While that is an obvious step for the sake of public relations, one should be wary about predicting its consequences.
The latest word from the police is that they will not tolerate further disruptions by demonstrators who exceed the license granted for a protest.