Ethiopian Israelis Demand Bigger Budgets, Better Education, Indictment of Violent Police

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Ethiopian Israelis protest against racism and police brutality, Tel Aviv, June 3, 2015. Credit: Ilan Assayag

About 40 activists for Israelis of Ethiopian origin presented a series of demands on Monday, including that the police close cases against Ethiopian minors and that policemen accused of using violence against members of the community be charged.

The group, united under the name “Hamerhav,” is also demanding that the community’s students do better in high school matriculation tests and that more be accepted to university, and the study curriculum about Ethiopian immigration be changed. The community also demands greater representation in government offices and involvement in all government discussions concerning them.

The collection of Ethiopian-Israeli activists began operating in May 2014 and is the largest joint effort to represent the community in its dealings with the government to date. (The various groups purporting to represent Ethiopian immigrants over the years have had substantial differences of opinion.) Hamerhav activists compiled the joint document after meeting with about 600 representatives of the community around Israel.

The group worked on the joint position paper for three years. The document, which contains a list of demands and a vision of the community’s future, was presented to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Ehud Prawer, the head of policy planning at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Speaking at a conference on Monday, Kahlon vowed to increase the budgets for the Ethiopian community in 2017, and criticized government policy toward the community.

“Our purpose was to consolidate a joint vision for former Ethiopians in Israel, in which the community would shape the picture of its future for itself,” Ziva Mekonnen-Degu, executive director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews told Haaretz. “Even now, not everybody in the community agrees with this path.”

“We Israelis originating in Ethiopia, out of concern for our future and the future of Israeli society, choose to take responsibility, to create a new reality,” the vision paper states. It also lists the difficulties the Ethiopian community faces, including dubiety about their Judaism, racism based on the color of their skin, humiliating – and even violent – treatment by “part of the establishment” and outside it, and lower starting points in education and economics, “all of which make it hard for many of the community, to this very day, to feel equal among equals. Too many of our young born and growing up in Israel do not receive a fair opportunity to find their place here,” the paper says.

Kahlon promised to increase the budgets for education for former Ethiopians in 2017 and added that increasing the budgets for members of the community should help narrow the gaps.

“Today I asked the head of the budget department how it could be that in all the Finance Ministry, there’s not one single employee from Ethiopia,” Kahlon said. “We see a trend of somebody thinking that everything is concentrated in certain areas. I believe that if there are no former Ethiopians in corridors of influence, nothing will happen.”

The first step, Kahlon said, is to create equality: “There is no question that a person with less education will earn less and enable less for his children.”

When it comes to matriculation exam results, the gap between children of the Ethiopian community and other Israelis remains wide, according to Education Ministry data. In 2013, about 90 percent of both groups took matriculation exams. But among the children finishing 12th grade in 2013 and taking exams, only 26 percent of students of Ethiopian origin achieved matriculation results enabling acceptance to university, compared with 52 percent of the general population.

“We believe that education is the key to change,” said Rabbi Moshe Solomon, head of the Hineni – Community Groups Network nonprofit association and a member of Hamerhav. “We want to focus on investing in quality education that would enable children to study and develop and acquire professions with decent pay,” Solomon said.

“Children at school run into cleaners and guards of Ethiopian origin, but not teachers,” chimes in David Mihret, director of the Steering Center for Ethiopian Immigrants. “What model for emulation do they have? What will they want to do in the future if that’s the example before them? We demand that the number of Ethiopian teachers in Israel be doubled from 300 to about 600. We also need more children at regular schools, not schools that are community ghettoes. We want more children in the classes for gifted students.”

As for police conduct, although efforts have been made at the Public Security Ministry to improve relations with the community, its representatives demand that police change attitudes toward young Ethiopians. Repairing the strained relations between the community and the police will involve closing dozens of open cases against Ethiopian minors for attacking policemen, say the community’s representatives, and charges against policemen accused of attacking members of the community.

“After the video clip that triggered riots last May, showing a policeman and volunteer beating Damas Pakada [an Ethiopian-born IDF soldier]; and after the police announced that the case against the policemen who tasered Yosef Salamsa, of blessed memory, would be closed, how can we rely on the police?” demands Mihret.

Young Ethiopians suspect police of being a force operating against them: “They have yet to internalize that not every person with dark skin is a criminal,” he says.

The consolidated group also demands unqualified recognition by the rabbinical establishment of the former Ethiopians’ Judaism. Just last month, 30 couples were denied the right to marry in Petah Tikva because of doubt cast on their Judaism.

“The rabbinical establishment still doubts the Judaism of former Ethiopians,” says Kes (Ethiopian rabbi) Samai Elias, head of the Ethiopian rabbinical council. “Although to outsiders they declare that the former Ethiopians are Jews, in practice they cast their Judaism in doubt. This has to end. The discrimination has to end.”

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