Time for change

Frustrated Ethiopian-Israelis demand an end to discrimination following the myriad of failings in their integration into Israeli society.

Ethiopian Israelis take part in a protest in Tel Aviv on May 3 against police racism and brutality (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ethiopian Israelis take part in a protest in Tel Aviv on May 3 against police racism and brutality
(photo credit: REUTERS)
UNDER DIFFERENT circumstances, the boys’ behavior may have been construed as insolent.
As an adult walked up to them, all of the teenage boys of Ethiopian descent who were sitting around a basketball court in the Kiryat Menahem neighborhood of Jerusalem averted their eyes and, seemingly, barely deigned to answer questions directed at them.
For some people, this reaction could have been interpreted as disrespectful, even offensive, eliciting an antagonistic response that, in turn, could have escalated into a confrontation, when, in fact, the boys had behaved in what in Ethiopian culture is a form of respect toward an adult.
“In Ethiopian culture, we are very respectful of our parents and elders,” says Tsega Maleku, a radio broadcaster and social activist, who came to Israel on her own in 1984 as a 16-year-old at her father’s bidding. Her family followed several years later.
“They have no idea of our traditions, of our way of life,” says Maleku. “As many as 800 Ethiopian-Israeli children have been sent to special education because they wouldn’t look the teacher in the eye and so the teacher thought they had some emotional problem. Whoever is working with the Ethiopian community has to understand our special culture. Western culture is not our culture.”
WHILE THIS situation would have been, perhaps, understandable 31 years ago when the first large group of Ethiopian Jews came to the country in Operation Moses, it is utterly unacceptable ‒ and even destructive ‒ now, says Maleku, who had been the highest ranked woman on Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu’s ticket before the March elections. She held the No. 3 slot until she was reluctantly disqualified by the Central Election Committee because, as a state worker, she had not left her position with the Israel Broadcasting Authority far enough in advance to conform with the “100 day cooling off” requirement at the time of the elections.
In the Ofek Juvenile Prison, some 40 percent of the detainees are Ethiopian-Israelis.
Ethiopians as young as 10 and 12 drop out of school because of problems they encounter within the system, and even at that young age they have faced discrimination and police brutality, she says.
And, yet, the young generation born here has a high percentage of induction into the Israeli army, wanting to integrate into Israeli society ‒ and though some have become officers, many others face difficulties. At the same time, she says, while the group accounts for almost two percent of the population, it is represented far below that percentage in governmental offices.
Even those who reached the pinnacle of Israeli leadership as Knesset Members, such as Adisu Massala, who was elected the first Ethiopian-Israeli MK in 1996 with the Labor Party, and Shlomo Mula, who served in the Knesset from 2008- 2013 with Kadima and Hatnua, have left the country to work as businessmen in Ethiopia because they were unable to find suitable work in Israel after they left office.
In a recent television interview from his office in Ethiopia, Massala said that, unlike other Knesset Members who have finished their terms and quickly find employment in public companies or on directorates, he did not receive any job offers and, so, returned to Ethiopia to work while his wife and three daughters remained in Israel. In the interview, he noted that Ethiopian youth are still fighting the same fight he did years ago when he protested against mandatory conversion of all Ethiopian immigrants and the secret dumping of blood donations from the community.
Although Israel made a supreme effort to bring the Ethiopian Jews who for 2,000 years prayed for their return to “Jerusalem,” to Israel, and, according to surveys, most Israelis characterize Ethiopians as “nice,” only 25 percent of Israelis actually want to live next to Ethiopians.
Therefore, Ethiopians have been largely shunted aside to weaker neighborhoods and periphery towns, living virtually in ghettos; study in de facto segregated schools, classes and, sometimes, even playgrounds in certain cities; and their religious leaders, the kessim, have been stripped of their religious authority, say Maleku and other activists from the Ethiopian-Israeli community.
“I am the mother of two sons born here and when I came I knew it would be hard for me but I thought that for my children it would be easier,” Maleku tells The Jerusalem Report. “But I am now sorry to see that for my children it is, instead, harder than for us.
“Life is not easier for my children and that is a sign that something is very wrong here. It is not the Ethiopian community’s problem. It is a problem for the whole of Israel, for the whole Jewish world. They are systematically destroying the younger generation. We are losing a generation.”
THE ISSUE of police brutality against the Ethiopian community was brought to the forefront in April, when a video surfaced showing two policemen viciously beating Damas Pakada, an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier who was in uniform, seemingly without cause, at a time when rioting broke out in Baltimore after a black man died in police custody.
Several demonstrations ‒ one of which turned violent in Tel Aviv leaving 60 people injured ‒ led by young members of the community and organized via social media, shocked many an unaware Israeli, but did not come as a surprise for others who have been working with the community for years.
And it really should not have come as a surprise to the government or the police, as already in 2013 the State Comptroller’s report pointed to a myriad of failings in the integration of Ethiopian-Israelis into Israeli society and Fentahun Assefa- Dawit, of Tebeka, an Ethiopian advocacy group, has spent years in contact with the police and government ministries demanding that a stop be put to police brutality.
They are not satisfied with the two police officers who perpetrated the crime being fired, he says. They want them brought to justice.
“We saw the writing on the wall. No one can say that they didn’t know,” says Assefa- Dawit, who says he sent a letter to the police denouncing the amount of police brutality against youth of Ethiopian descent even before the first demonstration, with copies sent to the president and the Ministry of the Interior. The chief of the Israel Police contacted him the very next day inviting him to an urgent meeting, says Assefa-Dawit.
Prof. Dorit Roer-Strier, director of Nevet, a greenhouse of research and training for children in need at the School of Social Work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says her studies involving young Ethiopian parents and youth a decade ago already pointed to this sense of frustration and a desire for more integration of the youth and a less paternalistic approach.
“Expressing frustration while starting a dialogue may lead to enlightened public awareness and attitudes in the police force, as well as in all the other educational and helping professions,” she points out to The Report. “This awareness should start in kindergarten by encouraging young children to treat others as equals regardless of their race, color, economic standing, religion, or gender. At the same time, we cannot disregard the current policies, social stratification and growing inequalities in Israeli society that are the context for the current frustrations.”
DESPITE THE demonstrations the incident sparked, activists say that it is not just about police brutality, but also about the totality of Israel’s discriminatory, patronizing attitude toward them: The fact that students of Ethiopian descent, even though they were born in Israel, are still being handled by Ministry of Absorption rather than the Ministry of Education; the fact that young people often can’t find jobs unless they change their names to something less-Ethiopian sounding; and the fact that their history is not being taught in a meaningful manner along with other immigrant groups.
Following the demonstrations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a meeting at which Assefa-Dawit, who spent time in Canada and Australia as a student and emissary, demanded that the phenomenon of police violence be reviewed.
“I asked him to stop this vicious cycle of violence and poverty once and for all,” he tells The Report. “He sounded very genuine.
I would like to believe him and take his word for it. It is very clear that if he does not do anything about it, maybe in a year or next year or in 10 years it will be too late.”
In addition, the community wants to see funds allocated for infrastructure for the more neglected neighborhoods where Ethiopians live, he says.
“The problem is more deeply rooted than just the attack on the soldier,” says Mamuye Zeri, 33, a lawyer and one of the activists who participated in the protests.
“It is one of racism and discrimination.
We condemn violence, but in this country in order to be heard you have to make noise. We didn’t come here to our country after 2,500 years for someone else to look at us like we are some kind of foreigner,” he asserts to The Report.
“That’s why we held the demonstration in the middle of Tel Aviv where people live in a bubble and don’t know what is going on in the rest of the country. The fight has begun and there will be more demonstrations. But I think the message has been heard by the government and the prime minister. We have to change how people think. The story of the government knowing what is best for us is over. We want them to work with the community.
We are tired of the paternalistic attitude.
We are not there anymore.”
Activists have vowed to continue with demonstrations until they see a move toward real change.
ETHIOPIAN-ISRAELIS are a diverse group, with diverse opinions, political ideas and attitudes, and they deserve to be treated as such instead of lumping them together in one “big black” lump, say activists.
“The people are not prepared to be quiet anymore,” said Hana Elazar, 46, spokeswoman for the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews. “Most of the youth were born here. Each one has different needs and has the right to be dealt with according to his needs.”
Her daughter deserves to be able to go to a toy store and pick out a doll that looks like her, and Ethiopian children deserve that the story of the immigration of their parents and grandparents be told in schools alongside the history of other ethnic groups, she says. Jewish Ethiopian leaders such as Yona Bogale, Baruch Tegegne, Abba Mahari, and Tezazu Aklum deserve that their names appear in school history books too, she tells The Report.
“Nobody tells our story to our children or to other children. Why do my children have to be embarrassed when hearing the story of their parents coming here, in poverty? If the children heard their real story, if the others heard the real story about us, the situation would change.
“But the situation today is a catastrophe.
It is patronizing and it is racist,” contends Elazar, whose family, in 1977, was the first Ethiopian family to arrive in Israel.
She was the first Ethiopian in her school and she faced the same issues of racism her two sons are still facing. “What should be done? Very simple, just give us our rights. The problem is not with us. It is with Israeli society. They have to want to change.”
At a May 17 ceremony honoring the memory of the Ethiopian Jews who died on their way to Israel, President Reuven Rivlin stressed that Israeli society has erred in the treatment of Ethiopian immigrants.
He called the story of the Ethiopian Jewish immigration one of “faith and hope” recounting that 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died on their perilous trek to Israel, and calling the Ethiopian leaders “courageous.”
“This is also a story that reveals Israel’s disgrace in locking the doors for many years to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world,” Rivlin said.
“Israeli society has erred in the way it has been integrating and treating the Ethiopian community over the years.
We didn’t see, we didn’t act correctly, we didn’t listen enough. But, along with that realization and criticism, we are obligated to believe that we have the power to change this,” he said.
“Israel cannot afford that its finest sons and daughters, soldiers and students feel disconnected and alienated. We cannot afford that our best sons and daughters feel that they have no other choice, as some do already, and return to Ethiopia.
We have to act together to make a change, to create a better and more equal reality.
We have a challenge set before us to build a society that does not turn a blind eye, but ejects and rejects racism, discrimination and hatred,” Rivlin said.
“On the one hand, it’s nice and important that they commemorate this,” said Tehila Yosef, 26, of Ma’ale Adumim following the ceremony at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. “But then at the same time, it is like we have come here and we are not accepted. It is as if all the sacrifices our parents made were for nothing. I hope things will change.”
Elazar echoed the need for change. “This is my home, my country,” she declares. “I want to raise my children here. I want my grandchildren to be born here. So I have to believe there will be a change for the good. Slogans are not enough.”