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.
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
Some 111,000 Ethiopian Jewish immigrants and their children live in Israel today – a tiny fraction of the country's 7.2 million residents. Most Ethiopians came during the 1990s and 1980s in covert immigration operations that were celebrated in Israel and in the Jewish Diaspora as realization of the state's raison d'etre of taking in at-risk Jewish populations.
The public relations dividend was not ignored. Ethiopian faces were routinely splashed across Israeli brochures to play up the country's multiethnic character and damp accusations of racism.
But today, these communities are struggling socially and economically. About two-thirds of Ethiopian Jews receive support from state welfare agencies. And just over 10 percent recieve post-high school education compared to 40 percent of Israeli Jews, according to an Ethiopian advocacy group.
Explanations vary. Some point to the problems faced by the Ethiopian community in transitioning from an agrarian society back home to the technology dominated economy in Israel. Others see a pattern of ethnic discrimination reminiscent of earlier waves of Jewish immigration from Arab countries. Still others say hundreds of millions of dollars raised in the Jewish Diaspora to absorb the Ethiopians has been wasted in bureaucracy. But many say it comes down to skin color.
"We came here because we thought Israel was our country. We didn't expect this," said Demelash Belay, a 36-year-old English teacher who moved to Israel in 2006. "We heard in Ethiopia that Israel is a democratic country. We found discrimination. And because of it Ethiopians are suffering."
Since 2000, the Jewish state has accepted thousands of immigrants from the "Falash Mura," Ethiopian Christians who trace their ancestry to Jews. The Falash Mura, like some Ethiopians before them, have been pressed by the Israeli Rabbinate to undergo a lengthy process of conversion to confirm their Jewish authenticity.
Schools deny racist policies
The religious schools, which are partially funded by the municipality and the Education Ministry, have defiantly resisted efforts by the national government to intervene. Spokespersons for the schools and the municipality denied accusations of racism.
Tzachi Lieber, a spokesman for all three elementary schools, said they already have 30 Ethiopians enrolled and that the staff considers it an "honor" to have the immigrants enrolled there: "That proves it's not an issue of racism."
Still, Petach Tikvah municipal spokesperson Hezi Hakak conceded that there's de-facto segregation in the public school system. One school is nearly 100 percent Ethiopian. But some activists, such as Molla, remain patriotic and express optimism that Ethiopians will eventually take their place along side other immigrants in key decisionmaking roles in Israel.
But the official obstacle now facing Ethopian Jewish children was keenly felt by Daw Jambh, a young demonstrator who repeatedly confronted policeman Monday. "I just got out of the [Israeli] army, and I feel disgraced," she said. "I feel like getting out of here."
Community activists complain that Petach Tikvah is not the only municipality where Ethiopian students find themselves in segregated schools. And discrimination is not limited to the school system. A recent survey by Israel's Yediot Ahronot found that Ethiopian candidates were less likely to get invited for a job interview than other Jewish ethnicities.
"There are people who are ignorant. They lack knowledge. They know about us from a colonial aspect," says Daniel Admasso, director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. "They think that blacks are pitiful, and they live somewhere else.... The white Jewish culture has lots of stereotypes, and they have trouble with people who are different."