At violent protests in Israel, new generation of Ethiopian Jews is heard

The police beating of an Ethiopian-Jewish soldier has angered the immigrant community's youth. Compared to their parents they're better equipped to demand an end to discrimination in Israel.

Oded Balilty/AP
Israel's mainly Jewish Ethiopians clash with Israeli riot police during a protest against racism and police brutality in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, May 3, 2015, as several thousand people from Israel's Jewish Ethiopian minority protest, shutting down a major highway and clashing with police on horseback long into the night.

Tensions over Israel’s absorption of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants that have simmered for decades exploded into the open here over the weekend, leading to dozens of injuries and more than 20 arrests.

In the second large protest in days, thousands of 20-something African Israelis clashed with police in Tel Aviv Sunday night. Protesters had gathered to denounce the video-taped beating last week of an Ethiopian soldier by law enforcement officers in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon.

Coming just four days after violence broke out at a similar protest in Jerusalem, the clashes Sunday escalated a national debate among Israelis about the persistent discrimination faced by a dark-skinned immigrant community once welcomed to Israel with national celebrations.

The clashes also marked a new assertiveness among the now-grown children of Ethiopian immigrants who are more integrated into Israeli society, fluent in Hebrew, and more able to press their demands for change.

“We will uproot aggressive violence among us, and fight the phenomena of racism,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in parliament Monday, just hours after meeting with protest leaders and with Pvt. Damas Pakada, the Israeli Defence Force soldier whose video-taped beating went viral. Mr. Pakada was beaten purportedly for refusing a police demand to quickly leave an area they were clearing.

“If we thought that we handled the problem sufficiently, the events of recent days show that there is a deeper problem, we need to devote more resources and more attention,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin acknowledged in a statement the “raw wound” exposed by the Ethiopian immigrant protests. “It’s the pain of a community crying out over a sense of discrimination, racism, and of being unanswered,” he said today. “We must look directly at this open wound.”

Airlift from Africa served as symbol

On Sunday night, Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, a public forum used just last week by Israeli Arabs to raise their own voices against discrimination, echoed repeatedly with the concussion of stun grenades.

Police used water cannons to clear demonstrators who, after peacefully blocking traffic on the city’s main freeway earlier in the day, had grown more violent. Smoke, tear gas, and glass filled the streets, and 50 police officers and demonstrators were injured in the melee while 26 protesters were arrested.

Israeli and Diaspora Jews once celebrated the airlifts of the late 20th  century that brought the Ethiopians to Israel as the realization of the country’s promise to welcome Jews from all backgrounds and reunite with a remnant of the ancient Israelite tribes.

The mass immigration of African Jews and their resettlement in Israel also served as a symbolic rebuttal to pro-Palestinian critics who equated Zionism with racism. Today some 130,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, about 2 percent of the population.

But the challenge of absorption has been difficult. Most of the first generation arrived from Africa without the skills or education to compete in Israel’s increasingly high-tech economy. The Ethiopians were settled in blighted neighborhoods with high concentrations of fellow immigrants.

'This is our country too'

The community has grappled with unofficial segregation in schools, high dropout rates, and difficulty in military service. Decades later, poverty rates are much higher among Ethiopians, and college matriculation is low compared with the general Jewish population in Israel.

The first generation was too overwhelmed with the challenge of adjusting to the new country to complain of the discrimination. But the video of the beating – which occurred last Sunday – resonated deeply among Israeli-raised Ethiopian Jews who expect to have the same opportunities as the rest of Israeli society and are fluent in Western culture and public protest.

“The young people have shown their cry and roar that this is our country too,” said Fentahua Assefa Dawit, the director of the Tabeka advocacy organization, who met with Netanyahu Monday. “Most of these young people have served in the army, in elite units, and are hopeful that they will become equal citizens with rights just like everyone else.”

As they peacefully blocked Tel Aviv’s main highway for two hours late Sunday afternoon – forcing the police to show restraint – the Ethiopian Israelis chanted soccer cheers, sported Ethiopian and Israeli flags, and held crossed fists over their heads like civil rights protesters in the US.

“White, Black, we’re all humans,” they chanted. Hours later in Rabin Square as protesters blocked roads, the confrontation escalated, and clashes broke out.

Community faces 'over-policing'

“Our parents didn’t understand the language. They would come to us for help,” says Taranah Bogaleh, a 22-year-old gas station attendant, adding that he feared the police and had suffered harassment outside his family home. “All of this [discrimination] has been held deep inside of our hearts.”

Among the demonstrators were many Ethiopian youths who have completed successful stints in the military and found work as professionals. They too were complaining about police harassment, poor education, and hiring discrimination.

“In areas where the community is concentrated, there is over-policing. The trend is to stop every minor, perform a search, and in most cases it’s just a pedestrian,” says Netanella Mashasha, a 32-year-old Ethiopian Israeli as she walked with the demonstrators. “A lot of times they use taser guns on these youths. There’s a trigger finger with these youths.”

Exchanging hugs with border policemen from his old unit who were walking alongside the demonstrators, Moshe, a secret service guard from northern Israel, says he feels he has to prove he is better than other Israelis because of the color of his skin. “This [demonstration] is to show that we are not going to be quiet like our parents.”

Though many of the Ethiopians said that they were aware of the riots in Baltimore over police brutality, most rejected a comparison, saying Israel is a different country and the circumstances of the African communities are different.

'Not my problem ... our problem'

Michaal Samuel, an Ethiopian immigrant to Israel who runs a nonprofit focusing on education, says the young generation of Ethiopian Israelis grew up in poor neighborhoods watching their parents struggle, and expected a different future after completing army service and the university. But they return to a reality with little hope for change. 

"They came back to their neighborhoods. When they take off their uniform, they return to the same realities. It doesn't matter they were an officer and fought in a war,'' she said. "If you finish university you should find a nice job, with a good salary so you can live your life. But my friends change their names [from Amharic to Hebrew] to get called back for interviews.''

She did say that the response by the Israeli public to the demonstrations has been positive. "Israeli society is saying, 'You are right.' But I say, it's not about just our community, it's about the Israeli society. It's not my problem, this is our problem."

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