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Protesters in Kiryat Malachi on Jan. 10, 2012. Photo by Ilan Assayag
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About 2,000 people gathered yesterday afternoon across from the Kiryat Malakhi municipality, carrying signs reading "Down with Racism," "We Are All Equal," "Down with Discrimination" and "Discrimination Destroys the Foundations of Democracy." Members of the Ethiopian immigrant community in this southern Israeli town say that local homeowners' committees refuse to sell to them.

They were joined by hundreds of people who came from around the country to support them. There were fellow Ethiopian

"I am proud to say that I love the State of Israel with every fiber of my being," community activist Rami Yaakov told the crowd. "Unfortunately, being Ethiopian in Israel is to be 'other,' weakened, ostracized, to be constantly doubted. Some people have forgotten the Holocaust and the Race Laws of Nazi Germany. To all the skeptics, I want to say that we are here and we shall not be moved. To all the racists, I want to say that we are proud of the color of our skin. The state and government of Israel must carry out a moral reckoning over the condition of our community. I ask the prime minister, the president and the Knesset to take a stand and denounce the spread of racism in our country," Yaakov said.

MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz), who came to the protest, said he is promoting a bill that would prohibit housing discrimination. The proposed legislation will be submitted to the Knesset within a few days, he said.

"Israel made many mistakes in absorbing Jews from Ethiopia. We cannot change history, but we must prevent racist acts and bring about the full integration of members of the Ethiopian community," Gilon stated.

The Coalition Against Racism in Israel, which organized transportation to Kiryat Malakhi from a few locations around the country, partnered with local residents who began planning the demonstration last week, along with organizations representing the Ethiopian community.

"Racism harms us all, and it is impossible to separate the discrimination against Ethiopians in Israel from the discrimination against Arabs or Russian-speakers," said Rabia Elsagir of Shfaram, a coordinator for CARI who came to the protest with a small number of Israeli Arabs.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel issued a statement condemning discrimination against the Ethiopian community. The organization said the extraordinary session of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs convening tomorrow to discuss the issue should put forth legislation prohibiting discrimination in housing.

"The authorities must clearly state that they do not accept displays of racism and discrimination, and are taking clear and decisive steps to eradicate them," ACRI said in the statement. The organization is seeking a legal amendment that would give the Real Estate Registrar the authority to suspend or even cancel the license of a real estate agent who discriminates against clients on the basis of their ethnic origin.

The association said that real estate agencies in Kiryat Malakhi that allegedly engaged in discriminatory practices could face fines of up to NIS 150,600 for violating the law prohibiting discrimination in regard to goods and services.

"I'm tired of hearing all the time about such cases. This time it reached our door so we decided to raise our voices, but we're protesting on behalf of the entire society, not just the Ethiopian community," said Shay Wanda, 31, a captain in the army reserves who has lived in Kiryat Malakhi since 1994.

"It's the first time we young people are joining with the older people and going out together to protest against racism in Israeli society," Wanda said. "I was in the standing army for three years, I lost friends in military operations, and I am part of this country. At the end of the day we all have the same blood - skin color isn't what counts," he said.