A call to end racism

Attempting to awaken an ‘indifferent society,’ demonstrators demand an equal chance to succeed.

Activists march down Rothschild Boulevard (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Activists march down Rothschild Boulevard
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Orly Malessa, a graduate of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, born in Ethiopia, stood on a raised platform in the median of Rothschild Boulevard, next to a monument to the founding of Tel Aviv. “Friends, we should be united against racism in our society… it is important for all of us to respect each person as an individual.”
The protest took place across the street from the diminutive Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of Israel on May 14, 1948. A fitting place, she remarked, to examine issues of race and equality in Israeli society.
The march that culminated in several speeches on March 21, was inaugurated to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This year’s UN theme has been calling on leaders to do more to fight racism. The Thinking Forum Against Racism was founded last year and has been active on Facebook; this march was its first attempt to make an active public statement.
The marchers gathered near Azrieli Towers, two dozen people, mostly Ethiopian Jews, and walked quietly to Rothschild Boulevard. They held a large banner with the results of a survey showing that large percentages of Israelis believe there is racism in society. One man held a sign noting that “90 percent of Ethiopian Jews go to the army; 50% are sent to prison,” referring to recent statistics that showed large numbers of Ethiopian men in the IDF are being sent to prison during their service. Other signs included racist quotes that had been reported in the media last year, such as “The only good Ethiopian is one in the grave.”
At the end of the rally, which some people joined along the way, and received some fist-pumping and honking support from onlookers, the organizers gave several speeches. Kobi- Aweke Zena noted that even after 66 years of independence, we must return to the site of the founding to speak out against racism.
“We are here to tell all that we cannot accept this… the public in Israel says that the country has racism and many racist feelings. Statistics show that 61% say children of Ethiopian Jews suffer racism. But it isn’t just related to Ethiopian Jews. We intend to come here on this day every year until this problem ends. We want real equality, and we demand that each person gets a chance to succeed in this country.”
One of the most poignant and emotional moments came when the mother of a child who was stabbed by a racist in January ascended the podium.
Mordechai Michael Tzerki has been indicted for attempted murder; he told investigators that he wanted to attack “black terrorists.” The mother, whose name is still being withheld under a gag order, recalled, “Last year, I was holding my child in my arms and suddenly this guy came and stabbed her in the head with scissors three times.”
She began to cry as she related how difficult it is to describe, and eventually switched to speaking in Amharic. “I came from Eritrea, and in my country no one would ever do this. If I had known this, I would never have come here.”
She spoke with anger of the fact that the media and commentators have excused the man’s actions as that of someone who is “mentally ill,” claiming “he was aware of what he did, he said he wanted to harm an Ethiopian Jew. People pretend to be crazy… and he was raised this way, and it is also due to government policy.”
As she was trying to finish, some bicycle riders, evidently oblivious to the group of people with anti-racism signs and the African woman speaking, began trying to get through, using their bells to get the crowd out of their way. One attendee thought it seemed symbolic of an indifferent society.
As the march wrapped up, Malessa noted that it was important to transform this international day into a meaningful day of discussion in Israel. “We are each individuals, and each should strive to understand the other in our society. We are all the ‘other’ to each other.”
Those who participated had different reactions to the message. Ran Hacohen, one of the few non-Ethiopians in attendance, argued that “there are many kinds of racism, it is against Arabs, and there is a state policy.” He claimed that “part of the problem is that sometimes the victims of racism can be racist themselves, sometimes minorities try to join the majority by adopting the racism of the majority.”
Getahun-kobi Tafara, a social activist and student from Yavne who came to Israel in 1991 from Ethiopia at the age of 12, felt the rally was inspirational. “I came because it is something different; it is nice to see people get up and say they want to see change. It is a strong group from the community… change begins with small groups… I really hope that in the future other groups will join, because we speak about the whole society and we can all love each other. Each person is different, but this is our country.
“I am optimistic.”