Israel's Long History of Racism: What Exactly Are Ethiopian Israelis Protesting?

Ever since they began immigrating in 1984, Ethiopian Jews feel they have been discriminated against because of the color of their skin.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Ethiopian Israelis clash with police officers in a protest in Tel Aviv, May 4, 2015.
Ethiopian Israelis clash with police officers in a protest in Tel Aviv, May 4, 2015. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The catalyst for the violent protests that brought thousands of Ethiopian Israelis out to the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv this week was a video that went viral — by now, around the world. The clip showed two policemen beating a young Ethiopian Israeli soldier who did not promptly obey their order to move away from an area they were clearing.

It was not an isolated incident, though. Israelis of Ethiopian descent have been complaining for years about “excess policing” — a term they use to define law-enforcement officials’ tendency to harass them, detain them and put them behind bars simply because they don’t have white skin.

It’s hardly coincidental, they say, that young Ethiopian men are overrepresented in Israeli prisons — an estimated one-third of the 200 or so teens in Israel’s juvenile prison are of Ethiopian descent.

But it doesn’t account for all the pent-up anger that is suddenly boiling over. Rather, it should be seen as the latest in a string of indignities that Ethiopian Jews say they have been forced to suffer since arriving in the country three decades ago.

The initial slap in the face came soon after Operation Moses, the first major wave of immigration, which brought roughly 7,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984 and 1985. Although the Chief Rabbinate recognized them as Jews, it insisted that they undergo a symbolic immersion ceremony upon arriving in the country to put to rest any doubts about their Jewishness. Flabbergasted that they were the only community to be singled out for this ritual, many of the new immigrants took to the streets in protest.

Ethiopian Israelis have often complained that they are made to feel like second-class Jews. The Falashmura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity and began arriving in Israel about 20 years ago, have been required to undergo actual conversion in Israel — not only the immersion ritual — to be eligible for citizenship.

Questions have been raised not only about their Jewish credentials. About 20 years ago, it was revealed that Israeli hospitals were secretly discarding blood donations from Ethiopian immigrants out of fear they were HIV carriers. The disclosures sparked a public outcry, with community leaders reading this as yet another sign of racial discrimination.

Adding to their grievances were reports several years ago that Israeli health officials had for many years actively encouraged Ethiopian woman to take long-term birth control injections. This happened in a country that values few things more than childbearing. Interviewed on Israeli television, several women testified in 2013 that they had been coerced into taking the injections while still in transit camps in Ethiopia.

Socioeconomic gaps

An estimated 126,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent live in Israel today, accounting for 2 percent of the population. After Operation Moses, the next big immigration wave came in 1991, when Israel airlifted more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to the country in a covert 36-hour operation that came to be known as Operation Solomon. This second operation overlapped with the huge immigration wave just getting under way from what was still the Soviet Union.

The Soviet immigrants came in much larger numbers and from a very different culture. But that was not all that set them apart. Unlike the Ethiopian immigrants, the Russian-speakers integrated remarkably well into Israeli society, advancing quickly to leadership positions in all spheres of life.

The latest Joint Distribution Committee report, published in 2012 by the Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem, shows that the Ethiopian Israeli community continues to lag behind in almost all socioeconomic indicators, although gaps have been narrowing in certain areas.

The data show that Ethiopian Israelis are more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to attend university than Jews overall. They are less likely to be employed, and when they do work, they earn considerably less than their peers. Poverty rates are also dramatically higher among the Ethiopians. Although they enlist in the army in higher percentage than other Israelis, their early discharge rate is also considerably above average.

When the Ethiopians first began arriving in Israel, they were overwhelmingly pushed into state religious schools and encouraged to embrace strict Orthodoxy.

But if the Brookdale report is any indication, the new generation is showing signs of rebellion. Among Israeli-born Ethiopians, the report shows, just over 40 percent attend state religious schools. This is much higher than the 24 percent for the Jewish population overall, but well below the 76 percent for the previous generation of Ethiopians born in Africa.

“In contrast to the past, many Ethiopian Israelis understand that they can choose where they want to go to school, and they are not afraid anymore to choose nonreligious schools,” says Shula Mola, chairwoman of the board of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.

This new generation of nonconformist Ethiopians was heavily represented at Sunday’s demonstration in Tel Aviv. Plainly defying the religious laws of modesty that are widely accepted in the community, many of the young women sported snug-fitting jeans and very short skirts.

And there were also many bareheaded young men among the protesters, more than a few sporting dreadlocks. They seemed to characterize a new generation of outspoken hipster Ethiopians no longer wanting to be told what to wear and how to behave.

“These are kids who were born here, who have been trying their entire lives to fit in,” says Mola, who spent most of the night with them at the demonstration. “But they now understand that they’re not the same. They feel they are Israeli, but Israelis with a big problem.”

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