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Why Jews see racism in Israel

Ethiopian immigrants say the refusal of schools to integrate their children is part of a pattern of discrimination that has diluted the idealism that drew them in the first place.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 2, 2009

A protester holds a placard outside the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem Monday, during a protest against three Jewish religious schools refusal to admit 100 Ethiopian Jewish students. The placard reads in Hebrew, "There is no racism in the Bible".

Ronen Zvulun/ Reuters


Petach Tikvah, Israel

On the eve of the Israeli school year's start on Tuesday, recent Ethiopian immigrant Ayenew Belay didn't know whether his 7-year-old son Avi would be starting first grade.

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Government officials had asked several private religious schools, which are publicly subsidized, to accept about 100 children of Ethiopian Jews – some of whom would be well behind their peers in language, religious studies, and other areas. The schools informed their parents, including Mr. Belay, that the children could not be integrated into regular classes until they caught up, but offered separate "preparatory" classes.

"I bought my son a backpack. He's seen the school," said Belay at a demonstration Monday outside of the Petach Tikvah municipality building. "But they won't accept the boy.... It's because he's black."

While the Israeli Education Ministry struck an 11th-hour deal with three religious elementary schools to allow 30 students to be integrated, activists say the incident is likely to leave an enduring mark on the community's children. Many Ethiopian Jews see the schools' actions as symptomatic of persistent racial discrimination, a phenomenon that has diluted the powerful idealism that drew many to the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterized the refusal of admission as a "moral attack," using a word often used to describe terrorist strikes. President Shimon Peres said it was a national "disgrace."

Despite the Education Ministry's intervention, many Ethiopian students were reportedly turned away today, the first day of school, according to Israeli news outlets.

'This is leaving a scar on our kids'

At the Monday demonstration, hundreds of protesters blocked the entrance of the municipality building and nearby intersections.

Wearing a T-shirt that read "We want equality, we're all Jewish," protest leader Uri Kabadeh shouted through a megaphone in the community's native Amharric and Hebrew. "Down with racism, down with discrimination," the crowd chanted.

"This is leaving a scar on our kids," said Mr. Kabadeh. "It will prevent them from advancing [in society]."

Israeli police walking with arms linked to push back demonstrators evoked images of the US civil rights anti-segregation battles in the south in the 1950s. But most Ethiopians say this is a different situation.

Shlomo Molla, the sole Ethiopian member of Israel's 120-seat parliament, said ethnic tension is a fact of life in a society which has accepted immigrants from diverse backgrounds. He insisted the anti-Ethiopian discrimination in Petach Tikva, a Tel Aviv suburb, is local rather than chronic.

"There is no racism policy against Ethiopian Jews," he said. "The Israeli government and parliament are very welcoming to the Ethiopians. They have done a lot."

Ethiopian immigrants once celebrated