How Israel's Ethiopians Can Beat Racism (And It Isn't by Demonstrating)

Compared to African-Americans, they are in a far better position to succeed in a white-dominated society. But they should learn from Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas - salvation won't come from politics.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Ethiopians protesting racism in Tel Aviv, March 5, 2015.
Ethiopians protesting racism in Tel Aviv, March 5, 2015.Credit: Nir Keidar
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

For those of us fortunate enough to have been born with a shade of skin color considered “white,” it’s hard to understand how others contend with a world where race counts for so much.

Each time a bus driver closes a door before you can board, or your daughter comes home from school with a poor grade, or a colleague at the office acts standoffish, a black person can’t help but consider the race factor. Jews have to cope with anti-Semitism, but on a day-to-day basis, we have the option of staying anonymous in the great white crowd.

After decades of struggle over the course of the 20th century, the principle of racial equality has been firmly established in the law and, theoretically, in most peoples’ minds. But as Damas Pakada, the Israeli army soldier of Ethiopian origin beaten up by a pair of policemen last month, could attest, not just America and Europe but Israel has a long way to go.

No wiggle room for racists

Coincidentally, just two months before the attack on Pakada, an interesting bit of research was published. Two economists at the University of Queensland in Australia conducted an experiment with a mix of testers of different ethnic groups and sexes who boarded a bus with an empty fare card. In each of the 1,500 times the experiment was performed, the testers told the driver they had no money and asked if they could ride anyhow.

Ethiopians protesting racism block a central Tel Aviv traffic artery, the Ayalon Highway.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Naturally drivers were more willing if it was nighttime or rainy, but they were also far more willing to let white testers ride for free (72% of the time) than black ones (36%).

Interestingly, racial prejudice outweighed any considerations about the tester’s social status. Black testers wearing business suits were turned down more often than white testers and, as Pakada would learn to his misfortune, serving your country in the army doesn’t entirely overcome the race factor either.

White testers in army uniform were allowed to ride for free 97% of the time; blacks in only 77% of the cases.

Race and racism is an issue in Israel, but the nature of our problem isn't like the one America suffers. In America, confrontations between black men and the police are usually in the context of a crime being committed, or suspected, and the sworn officers of the law responding by shooting and killing. The deaths are not commensurate with the alleged crimes and the pattern bespeaks of the social pathology of the African-American underclass and America’s hair-trigger attitude towards guns. (Americans can thank the NRA and Hollywood in equal measures for that.)

Twenty-one years old and an orphan who emigrated from Ethiopia with his four siblings seven years ago, Pakada’s personal story could have easily produced the kind of young black man who populates America’s inner cities. As a soldier, he certainly has access to guns and training.

But, as the video clip of his encounter with the police show, Pakada was doing nothing that could be interpreted as suspicious, much less criminal. He acted with restraint given the abuse he was subjected to, as did the Ethiopian community in the two protests that followed.

The incident makes the police’s actions even more reprehensible, but importantly, Pakada gives racists no wiggle room for excusing the police’s behavior.

An underclass, making great strides

Make no mistake, Israel’s Ethiopians are one of Israel’s underclasses. How frequent is abuse by police and how much petty racism the average Ethiopian suffers is hard to document, but there are enough data to make clear they lag behind Israel’s Jewish population on nearly every socio-economic indicators.

In the schools, a higher percentage of their children are in special education. They perform more poorly on the high school matriculation (bagrut) exam and they account for a smaller share of young people in higher education than their share of the overall population. The average income of an Ethiopian Israeli household is 35% below than the national average.

But the great majority of Ethiopians have only been in Israel for a generation or two, and only a tiny minority of the immigrants had even a basic education to build on when they arrived. Israel’s Ethiopians have entered the social-mobility contest late and with a handicap, but they are moving forward in spite of it. Second-generation Ethiopians are succeeding much better than first-generation ones in high-school matriculation exams, school dropout rates are declining and their labor force participation is higher than among all Israeli Jews. More families are likely to have two breadwinners.

Can Israel’s Ethiopians close the gap? The unpromising message is that nowhere in the world has any society anywhere wholly overcome the race factor and provide a role model. But in Israel, Ethiopians have the somewhat dubious advantage of being in a society where the brunt of prejudice is directed against Israeli Arabs. More positively, Israel also has an economy that is growing relatively quickly and faces a worsening shortage of skilled labor.

Strong as racist attitudes are, they rarely present serious competition to economic imperatives. Indeed, sustained economic growth is worth a lot more to Ethiopians than government social programs.

The answer: Not ethnic politics

In that context, the role of demonstrations, like the ones in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that were organized after Pakada’s abuse became viral, and the role of politics in general is not that important. Accounting for much less than 2% of the population, Ethiopians are never going to have the political weight of Israel’s Russians, Mizrahim or Arabs.

In any case, Ethiopians would do well to learn from the sad history of ethnic politics. The enormous success of Russian immigrants isn’t due to the effective work of Yisrael Beiteinu, which has deteriorated into little more than a cesspool of corruption and right-wing grandstanding. Shas’ policies seem determinedly designed to keep Mizrahi Jews poor and uneducated. The extent that Jews of Middle East and North African origin are slowly catching up to their Ashkenazi peers has nothing to do with the party and its policies.

Where politics conducted adroitly can help is to bring the race issue to Israelis’ attention. The Pakada incident and the demonstrations that followed it are a prime example, winning the solider himself and Ethiopian community leaders, however briefly, attention from none other than Netanyahu himself. “There is a deep problem here that needs to be resolved. This outburst is the result of genuine distress,” he said.

Coming from a prime minister who used his bully pulpit only a few weeks earlier to play on ridiculous and baseless fears of an onslaught of Israeli Arab voters bringing a traitorous Zionist Union government to power, we can only hope his latest message has the same power on public opinion.

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