Clash of cultures

'What have you done to absorb me?' Ethiopian protesters ask the state.

ethiopian woman crying88 (photo credit: )
ethiopian woman crying88
(photo credit: )
Ethiopian Israelis have had it. And this time, it's the young people who are leading the struggle. The demonstration in Jerusalem Monday, in which several protesters and police were injured, was organized and led primarily by students. Older Ethiopian Israelis, including recent arrivals and kessim, the community's religious leaders, were also present. National and local Ethiopian Israeli organizations like Tebeka, which deals with legal matters, were among the organizers. While the trigger for the demonstration was the discovery that health authorities were once again discarding donated Ethiopian blood for fear it is infected with the AIDS virus, the protest was primarily against racism and the sorry situation of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. "The situation is bad. Simply bad," says Sinai Magen, a 32-year-old kollel (yeshiva for married men) student from Beit Shemesh. "So much money is poured into the community, but it doesn't get to the right places because there is no well-thought-out program. We have a great desire to become part of the nation that sits in Zion," he says, using biblical terminology. "But our children are not being helped. We are in despair." A handful of non-Ethiopian Israelis joined the hundreds of Ethiopian protestors who had come from throughout the country. In Jerusalem asks two young men holding similar professional-looking signs, one black one white, "What's your connection?" Without skipping a beat, the Ethiopian Israeli answers: "Judaism." As the crowd mills around waiting for the action to begin, two young Ethiopian Israelis are arguing: She: "What, we should sit with folded arms and do nothing?" He: "We should all refuse to serve in the army. They say it's not our country." A smiling young woman says into her cell phone: "I'm here with the whole community." Two young women held a Hebrew sign between them as they marched toward the Prime Minster's Office: "I changed my name to be an Israeli. And what have you done to absorb me?" The combination of the crowd chanting slogans in Hebrew and the kessim singing in Gez, the ritual language of Ethiopian Jews, sounded like an Idan Reichel record. "The absorption failure has been going on for 30 years," said Gadi Yavarkan, a law student and chair of the committee that organized the protest. "Israeli society doesn't accept our culture. Our culture has so much to teach Israelis. My parents can't read or write but they succeeded in teaching me to respect my elders." Kes Tasama Germai, a religious leader from Givat Olga and the father of 10, stood under his polka-dotted purple, green and yellow umbrella, a symbol of the kesses' status. "Kessim had all the authority in Ethiopia, and here we are not recognized," he says. "All we want is equality." After a long struggle over Jewish identity and a breathtaking rescue dubbed Operation Moses in 1984, the first mass immigration of Ethiopian Jews was received with open arms by Israelis. Volunteers as well as donations of clothing and equipment came pouring in to welcome the newcomers. But a complex combination of paternalistic if not unwise government integration policies, a cultural gap even wider than the authorities anticipated, adjustment difficulties and the eventual expression of innate racism led to seemingly intractable problems. Immigrants from Ethiopia receive seemingly generous mortgages of about $100,000 - just enough to buy a four-room apartment in a drug- and crime-infested slum. While 3,000 of the immigrants have graduated college, many of them are unemployed. The school drop-out rate is high. The juvenile crime rate is high. Seventy percent live on government subsidies. "We want to belong! We want change!" Yavarkan shouts over a loudspeaker in the opening salvo of the demonstration. "Real change," a young woman with hundreds of braids murmurs. Yavarkan continues: "We come here out of strength. We are proud of our identity. We are proud of our Judaism. We are proud of our mothers! How many here are proud of their mothers?" The crowd bursts into applause and cheers. "From today on we want to have a say in everything that happens in our community," one speaker cries. "Enough of this paternalism!" The demonstrators, some of whom stood in the streets from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., did not succeed in meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as they demanded, but they did meet with Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim. Their demands, in addition to re-examining government policy on Ethiopian blood donations, included: a government commitment to fight racism; the implementation of government decisions regarding affirmative action hiring policies in the public sector; the recognition of Ethiopian religious leaders; a serious investment of funds in education and programs for at-risk youth; the inclusion of Ethiopian Jewish culture and history in school curricula; and an increase in the numbers of immigrants brought from Ethiopia monthly. Among the demonstrators was Mazal Zeru, from Lod, who was 15 at the time of the large, violent demonstrations that came to be known as the "Blood Affair" 12 years ago, when it was first discovered that the health authorities were throwing out blood donated by Ethiopian Israelis. At the time, Zeru got her 15 minutes in the sun thanks to a poem she wrote and read in the Knesset. "The blood affair is just a symptom," she says. "The people in our community experience discrimination daily because of their color and origin." A demonstrator's sign summed it up: "Our blood was spilled in the Diaspora, in the desert, in defending the homeland, in the blood bank." At 2 p.m, a group of religious eighth-grade boys from the Himmelfarb School in Jerusalem left a bar mitzva at the Park Plaza Hotel and joined the march. "We identify with them. It's not fair what's happening to them," one says, while the others nodded in agreement. "The government worries only about itself." A man well past his student days stands listening and smiling. He looks happy. "I'm very happy," says the man, Takale Mekonen, director of Fidel, an organization that trains school and community mediators of Ethiopian origin. "The revolution is beginning. Twenty years ago, we didn't dream of this. We were 20 Ethiopian students then. Now there are thousands. They will become the leaders. They will make the change."