PM’s vow to fight racism rings hollow for Ethiopians

Activists say declaration is "mere cosmetics;" Ethiopian MK: Document will not solve deep racial problems.

Ethiopian Israelis demonstrate outside PMO in J'lem 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ethiopian Israelis demonstrate outside PMO in J'lem 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Members of the Ethiopian community reacted with cynicism on Wednesday to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu comments made a day earlier condemning all acts of racism and to his signing of a declaration committing to take further action against discrimination.
The prime minister’s pledge to “encourage integration and absorption of Ethiopians in society and the economy and to fight racism and discrimination” comes nearly one year after it was revealed that large numbers of Ethiopian students were studying in segregated schools and following several key incidents of extreme discrimination in society.
“Its like they are just trying to placate us before the start of the school year” next Monday, said Michal Avera Samuel, director of FIDEL – Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
“It’s all just mere cosmetics,” she continued. “Signing a piece of paper is not enough, launching a campaign is not enough, we need to see real action such as the sanctioning of laws and holding racist people responsible.”
MK Shlomo Molla, who made aliya from Ethiopia in 1984, called the declaration, which was ceremoniously signed by Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and International Fellowship of Christians and Jews executive director Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, a public relations ploy.
He said it was up to the government to uphold the law, making sure that qualified and educated Ethiopians were not blocked from holding key employment positions and that those responsible for any acts of racism were brought to justice.
“It is not enough to say, “We have done it, we have now signed a document,” scoffed Molla. “I don’t think that signing a document can solve these deep problems of racism that we face in Israeli society.”
According a survey the International Fellowship carried out this week to assess the views of veteran Israelis toward Ethiopians, nearly half the population would prefer not to have their children study in the same schools as Ethiopian students.
In addition, only 24 percent of respondents said they would allow their children to marry an Ethiopian Israeli and less than a quarter said they would be willing to live in the same neighborhood as Ethiopian immigrants.
The survey’s results follows a series of overtly racist acts against the immigrant community that were revealed by the media. In one incident neighborhood residents banded together to prevent Ethiopian families from buying property; another included a school bus driver who told teenage girls that he could not tolerate their smell.
Last September, members of the Ethiopian community protested in Petah Tikva after discovering that a local elementary school had an almost 90 percent Ethiopian student body and that other institutions in the area had opposed the integration of Ethiopian school children.
“I really hope that this problem will not repeat itself next week [when the new school year starts],” said Itzik Dessie, executive director of Ethiopian legal rights organization Tebeka. “However, I would not be surprised because racism in the school system is still widespread.”
Dessie, whose helped to file a legal petition against the Education Ministry in the case of the Petah Tikva school, said that any program aiming to fight racism needed to focus on education in mainstream Israeli society and include providing information on Ethiopian Jewish history and culture.
“It is time for the government to stop with the cosmetic treatments, because discrimination and racism is not something that started yesterday,” Dessie said. “The prime minister needs to admit that many mistakes have been made in absorbing Ethiopian Jews in Israel and we need to seriously consider how to make it right.”
While organizations such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and the Jewish Agency run a variety of programs and services to reduce socioeconomic gaps between Ethiopian immigrants and veteran Israelis, as well as to boost their absorption in society, few steps have been taken to address stereotypes of the often poverty-stricken immigrants and encourage their inclusion.
A spokeswoman for the Jewish Agency explained that the goal of the declaration was to “wake up the government” and make it take action. It was also meant to get the public to become more active in integrating Ethiopian-Israelis and fighting racism.
Sa’ar said in a statement following the signing of the declaration that it was an important step along with others his office is taking to fight against racism and “ensure successful integration of Ethiopian immigrants into society.”
Requests from The Jerusalem Post for more information on Sa’ar’s plan to improve integration of Ethiopian students in the education system received no response on Wednesday.
Ethiopian-Israeli actress Meski Shibru, who witnessed the signing of the declaration, told the Post that all efforts to tackle all discrimination should be welcomed.
“This is a positive step,” said Shibru, who due to her success has become a leader in the community. “As Ethiopians we should welcome all the support that we are given.”
Recognizing that not everyone in her community agreed with her, she also said that it was essential for Ethiopian- Israelis who have become successful to be used as an example to encourage others in the community. She said this was a point that the government could help with.
“I really hope that the start of this coming school year will be different from last year and that we will see a change, but if we don’t, then now we have this declaration and that will help pave the way for future change,” Shibru said.