Social Affairs: Silent no more!

Unlike their parents, the younger generation of Ethiopian-Israelis will not stay quiet about racism.

Ethiopian protest Kiryat Malachi 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ethiopian protest Kiryat Malachi 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The words were spoken clearly. Captured on camera and broadcast on national television in the first week of 2012: “The only good Ethiopian is a dead Ethiopian.”
Referring to them also as “jukim,” or cockroaches, a tenant from an apartment block in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi stated proudly that he would never sell his home to an Ethiopian family because “it brings down the value of the neighborhood.”
The man revealed that 120 other families spanning four residential buildings had collectively signed an agreement with the neighborhood council not to sell or rent their apartments to families of Ethiopian descent.
The news report was only the tip of the iceberg. In the week that has followed the broadcast, members of the Ethiopian community have galvanized their people, especially the second generation of immigrants, to speak out against a phenomenon that fails to abate and that spreads far beyond Kiryat Malachi.
“People always tell us that it will take time; they tell us to be patient and that it will take another generation for us to feel part of Israeli society.” says Ethiopian activist Elias Inbram. “But I have lived here for more than 30 years, I have a law degree and a master’s degree, I served in the army, so what else do we need to do in order for people to accept us?” Inbram, who also spent time studying in Chicago, was one of many highly educated and articulate young Ethiopian Israelis that came out Tuesday to protest the discriminatory housing policies in Kiryat Malachi and what he calls “institutionalized racism.”
“This is not something new. We have seen it in so many areas: in the education system, in the job market and in housing,” he says. “We keep hearing a lot of promises [from the government] that things will change but no one does anything.”
“Even though we are talking about something specific that happened in Kiryat Malachi, this kind of racism against Ethiopians happens everywhere in Israeli society,” observes Efrat Yerday, spokeswoman of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), who also joined in Tuesday’s protest.
Yerday, who was born in Israel to Ethiopian immigrant parents, adds that “it stems from similar attitudes within the political system, the education system and even within the police force. It is everywhere and this is just another event in a series of events.”
Both Inbram and Yerday – who not only participated in the anti-racism protest in Kiryat Malachi on Tuesday but also joined other Ethiopian activists in the Knesset on Wednesday for an emergency hearing in the Committee for Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs – say that the second generation of Ethiopian Israelis (those who came as young children or who were born here) is no longer willing to sit in silence and suffer from ignorance or racism like their parents’ generation.
“We can no longer sit on our hands and do nothing when we are confronted with this kind of racism,” concurs lawyer Itzik Dessie, executive director of Ethiopian legal rights organization Tebeka, which has already started to lobby parliamentarians to create specific legislation to criminalize racism, including harsh punishments for those who are verbally racist.
He says that in the past, the community tried to be patient and opted to simply ignore “stupid comments” about Ethiopian immigrants.
“We would just say, ‘oh, there is another idiot saying something stupid, it will pass,’ but today we are seeing that it is not passing. It is not only about individuals in the street who are making racist comments but people in politics and other areas of public life too,” Dessie laments, adding that the next generation is ready and willing to take up the battle in a way that has not happened before in Israel.
“We are not afraid to speak out against racism anymore,” he continues. “We want to see change. We are sick of the situation and now there are tools such as Facebook that can reach many other young people all at once.”
According to Dessie, the story in Kiryat Malachi is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“The fact that Ethiopians are prevented from buying buildings is not really the issue here; it goes much, much deeper,” he says.
Indeed, just over the last few months, several incidents of blatant or unwitting racism and forced segregation of members of the Ethiopian community have been exposed by the media.
In September, attempts to close down a Petah Tikva public school with a student body comprising almost exclusively Ethiopian pupils put the spotlight on what the community calls “ghettos” – neighborhoods where new Ethiopian immigrants are forced to live due to limited financial means.
The incident also raised awareness to government housing policies that limit where the new immigrants can purchase accommodation. In order to receive a subsidized government mortgage, community members are forced to buy on certain streets and neighborhoods in only 10 specific towns. This restriction then creates a problem wherein some have an extremely large concentration of Ethiopian students.
A recent report compiled by the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews found that more than 10 schools countrywide in which the number of Ethiopian pupils is more than 80 percent of the student body and a further 40 schools in which Ethiopians constitute 40%.
Another example of this problem was discovered last month in Beit Shemesh, where it was revealed that the municipality had forced the majority of Ethiopian children in the town to attend one of three kindergartens. The story was further exacerbated when Mayor Moshe Abutbul explained the policy by likening the Ethiopian immigrant community to small fish in a dangerous aquarium.
“In an aquarium there are big fish and little fish. First you have to take out the little fish in order to help them grown and stop them from being eaten by the big fish. That is how we are helping to better prepare Ethiopian children for first grade,” he told local Israeli media.
“We need to change this situation and break down these ghettoized neighborhoods,” notes Inbram, suggesting that money raised by international Jewry to support Ethiopian immigration and absorption could be put to much better use by focusing more on integration into Israeli society in a holistic way.
“Not only does there need to be a law against racism and efforts to enforce existing laws against discrimination but there also need to be better policies on integration in housing, education, industry and the public sphere,” he says.
At Tuesday’s protest, demonstrators expressed hope that tackling racism would now become a central issue in the struggle for social justice among mainstream Israeli society.
“We hope that this is the first step and that we can really make a change,” comments 27-year-old student Shira Esayas, who traveled from Haifa to join the protest in Kiryat Malachi.
She continues: “We saw our parents being subjected to racism and they tried to protest it but no one listened.
Now we are here and if we do not speak out loud and clear then our children will also have to go out and fight racism.”
Waving a banner with a well-known quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – Esayas said that she had always been inspired by the changes King made in the US and is hopeful that this new stand for equality would achieve the same in Israel.
She points out that fight against racism is not exclusive to the Ethiopian community but rather a battle that “everyone in Israeli society should be involved in.”
Avi Yalou, a resident of Kiryat Malachi and one of those who organized the protest this week, says that he too feels this is a battle relevant even to those outside the Ethiopian community.
Although few people – lawmakers, social rights activists or otherwise – from outside of the Ethiopian community joined Tuesday’s anti-racism protest, Yalou says that “this is only the start of more things to come.”