The Long, Silent Israeli Ethiopian Struggle Is Over

Many of those at Sunday's Tel Aviv protest are familiar with racist behavior and violent police conduct. Said one: No other community has sustained this many blows over the years. Voices from the crowd.

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A wounded demonstrator at Rabin Square.
A wounded demonstrator at Rabin Square. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

The protest by young members of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community began on Sunday at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center mall, and in short order spread to other locations around the city. The demonstrators came from all over the country: Netivot, Dimona, Sderot, Kiryat Gat. They came from

Ashdod and Jerusalem, and from Rishon Letzion, Netanya, Afula, Upper

Nazareth and elsewhere. They came by car, bus and train. Some set out in the middle of the work day; others joined the unfolding protest later on.

The protesters blocked off the city's main Ayalon freeway and adjacent streets and later surged into Rabin Square in the heart of Tel Aviv, moving quickly from one place to another.

The demonstration began quietly, near Tel Aviv's Azrieli Center mall.Credit: AP

Some of the participants say the community's struggle – sparked by the violent attitude of the police toward Israeli Ethiopians, which led to demonstrations in recent days and to a general protest against discrimination in other aspects of their lives – is far from new. It has simply resurfaced, this time on the streets, with new vigor.

The rallies last Thursday evening in Jerusalem and on Sunday in Tel Aviv constitute “a turning point,” said Ohad Varkana, of Herzliya. “We are no longer satisfied to have our problem placed on the public agenda, only to be forgotten tomorrow. We are no longer waiting for the establishment to take us seriously. If no solutions are provided, there are enough people who can roll up their sleeves and fight for them.”

Referring to the dominant language of Ethiopia, Varkana added: “There’s a saying in Amharic. ‘If you push a mouse into a corner, you may discover that it knows how to bite too’ ... [The establishment] has thrown us into the backyard of the State of Israel. It’s gone on now for 30 years. We won’t agree to it any longer.”

The vast majority of those demonstrating seemed to be between the ages of 20 and 30. Some were wearing army uniforms, with their shirts flapping outside their pants. A considerable number of persons who are not of Ethiopian background also participated in Sunday's protest, including some enrolled in pre-army preparatory programs.

Protesters and police clash at Tel Aviv demonstration of Ethiopian Israelis, May 3, 2015.Credit: AFP

There were protesters waving the Israeli flag or wrapping themselves in it; others were carrying signs with slogans such as “I didn’t choose to be born black, but it’s a privilege.” Or, “Since when is color a crime?” And, “No more police violence.”

The attitude of local police toward Israelis of Ethiopian background seems to be the main subject of conversation, with protesters chanting that violent police need to be in jail. Many complained of being singled out, of suffering humiliation and disproportionate violence. Such people are apparently familiar with such conduct from up close, from personal experience or from the experiences of friends or relatives.

Meanwhile, one video clip follows another on the Web. Stories of encounters with law enforcement officials and other authorities have become commonplace among the generation of Ethiopians that was born and raised – and neglected – in this country.

Stun grenades and scarves

At 10 P.M. on Sunday in Tel Aviv, a large police force began dispersing the demonstrators at Rabin Square, at first with stun grenades and then with water cannons and mounted police who spread out along the length and breadth of the streets in the heart of the city. Hundreds of demonstrators sought shelter in the yards of apartment buildings, many covering their faces with scarves or surgical masks. A small number threw empty bottles at the police. A half hour later, the demonstrators were back at the square, blocking traffic.

Some were having trouble believing that the police were really shooting stun grenades at them. “I am not only feeling fear, but also terrible anger. It’s as if they have betrayed us,” said 17-year-old Dalia Kafta of Petah Tikva, as three of her girlfriends stood next to her trembling with fear.

“It’s not true that they welcomed us with open arms,” she said, referring to the reception members of the Ethiopian community received after being airlifted to Israel in two massive operations, one in the 1980s and the other in the 1990s.

Added Kafta, “We wanted to be like everyone else, but I no longer think that’s possible. Each time there is another case of discrimination and racism, everyone says they will deal with it. You also tell yourself maybe the situation isn’t so awful, but that’s not true.”

Her girlfriends are due to be drafted in a few weeks, but they say they have lost all their motivation to serve in the army.

In one of the streets leading from the square, D., from the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, was taking shelter near the back entrance of an apartment building. A soldier himself, D. said he knows Demas Fekadeh, the soldier seen being attacked by two policeman in the video clip that sparked the recent protests.

“We don’t deserve such treatment from the government,” he said, noting that if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made light of the racial disturbances going on now in Baltimore, “now he has those kinds of riots under his nose. We don’t want more public committees and promises. We demand solutions.”

Several minutes later, retreating as he saw the police come closer, D. added with a smile: "This is a crazy event. The whole community is here today. The police made all of us to come together.”

Said Sivan, a 25-year-old woman from Hadera: ”I no longer think it’s possible to educate the public against racism. It doesn’t interest them anymore. I came here to make a very simple demand. Police violence needs to stop.”

Kasanash Bulcheh escaped to one of the cafes lining Rabin Square. She said she only joined the protest in the evening since she was attending class at Levinsky Teachers College during the day.

“I had heard about what happened in the demonstration in Jerusalem, about the treatment of the police toward the demonstrators, and I couldn’t believe it," said Bulcheh. "Now, after they’ve shot stun grenades at us, I do believe it. It really gives me a feeling of despair, but I don’t want despair to win out. I will continue to fight racism. I want to finish school and be a teacher.”

“When I am on the street with a white friend, usually the police stop me to ask me questions, but let my friend go on his way,” said N., who lives in Jerusalem.

“For them, I am considered ‘problematic.’ They assume that I am guilty and only after they talk to me do they see that everything is okay," N. continued, "but a lot of times they also swear at me. They realize that I am innocent and that they don’t need to deal with me. Until the next time.”

Covering half his face with a large handkerchief, N. said he is sick of the situation and is not afraid of confrontation, even though there is a large number of police around him.

'Sick of police violence'

Among the demonstrators is Yael, who came with a few girlfriends from Sderot, near the border with the Gaza Strip, because, as she put it, “we are sick of the police violence and the racism that we see everywhere.” Her friends nod in agreement.

They quickly join up with the family of Yosef Salamseh of Binyamina, who reportedly committed suicide after being assaulted by police with a Taser gun. The family members are holding a large sign with Salamseh’s picture. One of the girls is wearing a shirt emblazoned with the slogans “We are all Yosef Salamseh” and "No more police violence.”

Ortal, who comes from Kiryat Gat in the south, is wearing a shirt bearing the words, “A country that consumes Ethiopians.”

Na’ama said she had joined the rally in Rabin Square “out of solidarity with my brothers.” The resident of Ramat Gan added: “We are considered a strong family that knows what its rights are. Just a few days ago, there was an incident involving a policeman who didn’t relate to one of us nicely. We made sure very quickly to take a picture of him and his cruiser, and write down all the possible details.

"We are not prepared to be silent, and we know whom to complain to, but that’s considered unusual. Most of the Ethiopian community lives in outlying areas rather than the center of the country. It’s much weaker. It’s easy for the police to take advantage of this situation.”

Young people are blocking roads and moving about. Looking on from the sidelines was R., who is older than many of the other demonstrators and unwilling even to provide her first name. She recounted how she left her job in Ashdod to get to the initial demonstration, which began a little after 3 P.M.

“It’s very hard for me. The children go out at night and we don’t know how they will be when they come home; maybe they will have been hit or maybe they will call from the police station asking to be picked up. I am afraid for them. They are just kids. Even if they have done something that wasn’t right, they don’t need to be beaten and sworn at,” said R., beginning to cry.

Two non-Ethiopian women stand by listening. They say they have come from one of Tel Aviv’s poor southern neighborhoods to express their solidarity. "Today, it’s the Ethiopian children," they said, but tomorrow "it’s all of our children.”

Ziva Mekonnen is the director of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews, one of the most veteran and persistent groups participating in the struggle being waged by the community, vis-a-vis issues including education, social welfare, housing and employment.

“There is no other community that has sustained so many blows and that has remained silent, taking it and doing everything in its power to survive. It’s very good that this silence has come to an end,” she said.

The protests over the past several days have made Israeli Jewish society confront this situation, exposing the hollow rhetoric concerning the desire for immigrant absorption but also a much broader social context involving hatred of "the other." From that standpoint, the struggle cannot be undertaken solely by persons of Ethiopian background.

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