Anti-racism Protesters Must Compete for Israelis' Attention

Israelis of Ethiopian origin have been protesting racism in Israeli society for three weeks; but they are not the only ones fighting for a cause these days.

Three weeks into the Ethiopian-Israeli protest campaign against racism, its leaders are frustrated by the apathy of the Israeli public and government and are planning to sound their grievances abroad, to the Diaspora and even the United Nations. Meanwhile, they have to contend with a competing social protest.

Last night the campaign held its first protest in Tel Aviv, and that wasn't the only "first." Unlike the previous protests in Kiryat Malachi and Jerusalem, this was the first time in which Ethiopian-Israelis were not the overwhelming majority of protestors – about half were Israelis from other groups. This time, they also turned matters up a notch, when they left Meir Park and began blocking main intersections.

Ethiopians protest - Bar-On - Jan 2012
Daniel Bar-On

The campaign has no formal leadership or spokespeople. The Ethiopian-Israeli community, which numbers some 125,000, is far from being monolithic, and none of the dozens of tiny grassroots organizations can be said to speak for the majority of them. In the absence of a hierarchy, a diverse group of educated professionals in their twenties and thirties have become the movement's unofficial leaders, using social networks to organize the protests. The frustration, though, at their inability to mobilize wider circles of the Israeli public is beginning to become evident.

"Israeli society is still tired out from the social protests of last summer," says an Ethiopian-Israeli journalist who has been helping to organize the protests and asked not to be named. "To be honest though, they don't really care."

Many of the protestors are serving IDF soldiers and officers who arrived without their uniforms and can only speak under conditions of anonymity. "I love my country and am proud to serve," says one officer, "but the truth is that only really violent demonstrations will make Israelis sit up and take notice."

Last summer's social protests were the exception to the norm. Generally, the Israeli public and media have little patience with campaigns that are not connected to politics and security.

In addition to the failure of Ethiopian-Israelis to rally anywhere near the number of protesters who thronged Rothschild Boulevard in the summer, now the movement must compete for attention with another campaign which kicked off this week: the campaign against the extension of the Tal Law, which exempts Haredi yeshiva students from military service. The demonstrations and petitions being held by reservist soldiers and high school seniors with the backing of a friendly media has already been sufficient to pressure Prime Minister Netanyahu into postponing the cabinet vote on the law that was meant to take place on Sunday. The Ethiopian-Israelis have yet to see any real movement from the government.

"We spoke to some of the leaders of the summer's protests," says Elias Inbram, a lawyer and former diplomat who is one of the prominent Ethiopian-Israeli activists "but they don't seem very interested in joining us. The protests were very middle class and they don't want to reach deep down into the lowest layers of society, where the Ethiopians are."

While his colleagues are talking about more violent demonstrations, Inbram wants to change the target audience. "There are other levers of influence besides demonstrations" he says. "We are planning to take our demands for more serious anti-racism laws to the UN and other international forums. We will also be turning to the Jewish Diaspora and asking them to reconsider their funding policy, since in thirty years, Israel has not even begun to break down its narrow-minded social barriers."