Angry Young Ethiopian Israelis Are Demanding Basic Dignity

The fury that has erupted on the streets of Tel Aviv is nowhere near the level of Baltimore and Ferguson – for now.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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An Ethiopian-Israeli protester detained by police in Tel Aviv, May 3, 2015.
An Ethiopian-Israeli protester detained by police in Tel Aviv, May 3, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

“For the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought to a country not in chains but in dignity, not as slaves but as citizens.” This moving observation – written by The New York Times' William Safire in January, 1985, following the first large-scale operation to fly thousands of members of the Beta Yisrael community from Ethiopia to Israel – sounded hollow Sunday evening, when thousands of the sons and daughters of those immigrants, who had been flown from secret landing strips in Sudan over three decades ago, poured onto the Ayalon Freeway, demanding their basic dignity as citizens to not be targeted and profiled by police.

Six years ago I walked with a senior Jewish Agency operative through the transit center in Addis Ababa where one of the last groups of Falashmura, cousins of the Beta Israel community, were waiting for a plane, this time a scheduled Ethiopian Airlines flight, which would take them to Israel.

“Most of the grown-ups here will never be really integrated into Israeli society,” the Agency official said bitterly. “It will be too difficult for them to learn the language at their age, and after living most of their lives in a tiny rural village, adapting to life in a modern society will be too much of a dislocation for them.

"The children will adapt quickly but the trauma of suddenly becoming the responsible adult in the family – having to be the ones who go to the bank, sign for a mortgage, take care of the bills and health care for their parents who should still be in their prime – will scar them for life. And then you will have the third generation, born in Israel: They won’t speak a word of Amharic or have any meaningful connection with their grandparents, and the entire structure of the Ethiopian family, based on respect for elders, will crumble. We’re importing a social tragedy and nothing the government or anyone else in Israel can do will change that.”

The leaders of the demonstration in Tel Aviv on Sunday and the previous one last week in Jerusalem are members of that third, Israeli-born generation. It’s hard even to call them leaders because they barely know they are leaders themselves. They're just young men and women, some still in their teens who have organized on social media. Even the route of the march wasn’t planned out in advance, and two separate groups of demonstrators diverged from Ayalon and met again at Rabin Square.

Hopping on the bandwagon

As always happens in these cases, there were a handful of media-savvy Ethiopian-born politicians and celebrities trying to hop on the bandwagon and boost flagging careers. But look beyond them to the real, anonymous leaders. Denied the dignity of a family history they can relate to, their anger isn’t just aimed against the police, it’s also against the small group among the second generation of immigrants, who sought to monopolize the connection between the community and the Israeli authorities. These young people do not see themselves as part of a small community and are they determined not to allow anyone else, least of all the police, to see them as anything else but Israelis.

A few far-left activists tried on their Twitter accounts to tie the demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to the American #Blacklivesmatter trend, which has surfaced in some recent riots in the United States. The comparison is ludicrous on just about every level (even if two or three local protestors used the slogans), and whether it is being made out of ignorance or malice, whoever is making it is doing the protestors in Israel no favors whatsoever.

Actually it’s a borderline racist comparison – claiming the problems of black people around the world are all the same. But those trying to make political capital or just to look cool with their hashtags on social media are serving at least one positive purpose: warning where Israel could be in another generation or two. The anarchy, hatred and violence between Israel's police and the Israeli Ethiopians are nowhere near anything that has erupted on the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson, but if current trends are not reversed, it could be.

And if these protests were taking place in Nazareth, or Umm al-Fahm or East Jerusalem, and if the protestors were Palestinians, or Israeli-Arabs or non-Jewish African migrants, then the situation would probably be as bad as in the U.S. Or worse. And it is much worse than it should be toward Israeli Ethiopians because a police force which is used to serving also as an occupation force against another nation across the Green Line, will by its very nature begin seeing more and more citizens within the Green Line as "Others." And will treat those Others with increasing violence. And deny them their dignity.

Immigration Absorption Minister Sofa Landver knows a lot about respect and dignity. As the demonstrators were gathering in Tel Aviv, she was hosting a group of Red Army veterans, all proudly wearing their Great Patriotic War medals. When the photographs of Russian-born Landver and the veterans hit Facebook there was a backlash of ridicule aimed at her for not even thinking she has a duty to address the Ethiopian issue. But then, why should she? No one was ever under any illusion that her party Yisrael Beiteinu was going to serve any constituency besides its own Russian-speaking voters. It’s probably better she says nothing. Her “you should say thank you for what you received” response to a previous wave of protests of young Ethiopian Israelis in 2012, will not be forgotten for as long as she is in politics.

But Landver is not alone. Many Israelis ask themselves why there seems to be so much ingratitude from a community that was brought over from the most destitute regions of Africa and transplanted into the 21st century. Why all this anger, when hundreds of millions of shekels have been invested in their aliyah and integration?

Well, if you want gratitude you can probably still find members of the first and second generations of Israeli Ethiopians who will express it. But for the third generation, those either born here or with no memory of anywhere else besides Israel, there’s nothing to be grateful for. They want their dignity here and now.

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