Ethiopian Protests Reveal Israeli Racial Divide

Ethiopian-Israelis praying at synagogue

Ethiopian-Israelis praying at synagogue

By Luis Sánchez

Photograph of Ethiopian Jews Courtesy of Mole

Mirroring and possibly influenced by the protests in Baltimore, Tel Aviv saw protests against police harassment this month following a video which caught a police officer beating an Ethiopian-Israeli in uniform in the city of Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, for no apparent reason.

The protests signal dissatisfaction with race relations in Israel by Ethiopian-Israelis and non-Ethiopian Israeli supporters. They began peacefully, but later protesters began hurling stones and had confrontations with police that led them to respond with water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades.

Two officers have been suspended and there is a police investigation into the incident. But the incident was just the trigger that gave international attention to a problem that has plagued Israel for a while.

In the 1980s and 1990s two waves of mass immigration brought around 125,000 Jewish Ethiopians to Israel. Throughout their time in Israel they have complained about being treated as second-class citizens but there has been a lack of response from the government.

While Ethiopians make up roughly 2 percent of the population of Israel, they are incarcerated at a rate of 760% higher than their proportion in society. About twenty years ago it was discovered that Israeli hospitals were discarding blood donations from Ethiopians for fear of HIV contamination. There were also reports that doctors were encouraging Ethiopian women to take long term birth control injections, going against the Israeli norm of greatly valuing childbearing.

Ethiopians in Israel are poorer, receive less education and have lower incomes than the average Israeli. They enlist in the military in higher percentages and also have a higher average discharge rate. When Ethiopian immigrants first immigrated to Israel they were encouraged to attend religious state schools and adopt orthodoxy.

Newer generations of Ethiopian Israelis are less complacent than past generations to the government’s control over them. They attend religious schools at higher rates than the rest of Israelis yet substantially lower than previous Ethiopian generations. If the protests on Sunday are any indication, they have also become tired of the discrimination they have faced and have begun again to demand equality.

In 2012, after a group of homeowners in the town of Kiryat Malachi vowed to not rent or sell rooms to Ethiopians, second generation Ethiopian Israelis marched in demand of acceptance in Israel. While many of the first Ethiopian immigrants were merely thankful to go to Israel, the new generation demands less discrimination and racism and more equality and fair opportunity from what they have come to see as their home country.
Like African Americans in the United States, Ethiopian Israelis have faced apparent and covert discrimination and have begun to once again demand change. Their desire for change has been fermenting and the police brutality caught on video was the push they needed to take their anger and dissatisfaction to the streets.

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