Ethiopian Israelis Should Learn From the Gay Community

Gay Israeli men have formed associations, organized parades and above all made themselves heard. Ethiopian-Israeli people should follow their steps.

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A policeman confronts a protester at an Ethiopian-Israeli demonstration in Tel Aviv, June 3, 2015.
A policeman confronts a protester at an Ethiopian-Israeli demonstration in Tel Aviv, June 3, 2015.Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv

Last weekend, the drab Tel Aviv municipality building was decked out with rainbow lights, temporarily transforming itself into the biggest gay-rights flag in the world. But while liberal Tel Aviv celebrates Gay Pride Month and is pleased to be gloriously painted in pink, it’s not in any rush to dress itself up in, say, brown or black.

The Tel Aviv municipality building decked out with the rainbow flag lights.Credit: Judy Maltz

The roofed passage leading to the municipality seemed especially grim on the night of May 3, as it filled with young Ethiopian-Israeli people protesting the discrimination they face in Israeli society, and by riot police on horseback.

A Jewish Ethiopian man is arrested during the protest against racism and police brutality in Tel Aviv, Israel on May 3, 2015Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Nobody was prepared for the stun grenades thrown by police forces at the protesters. To their targets, the grenades could only mean one thing: Get out! You don’t belong here!

Israeli and Rainbow flags in Tel Aviv.Credit: Reuters

It was the categorical opposite of the message of the deafening booms that rang out in that very same square just a week earlier – fireworks marking Independence Day, when many different voices give way to a single Israeli sound.

The stun grenades hit the most sensitive spot of the Ethiopian-Israeli angst: The protest was born of anger at the racism they feel in Israeli society – but even more powerfully, they yearn to belong to that society, and to share its symbols.

It was for good reason that many of the protesters in city hall square cited their combat service, or sang the national anthem, Hatikva, in a chorus hoarsened by their shouts. What they mainly crave is recognition that they, too, are Israelis, who matter as much as any other Israeli.

But the outcry of Israeli Ethiopians is unlikely to gain them entry into the Israeli mainstream, even though it is justified, because as a group, they're weak. A society whose very existence is predicated upon a basic injustice – in this case, the occupation – cannot handle further critique, least of all by a weak party that challenges its concept of itself as moral.

That night, as the grenades flew through the air, the young Ethiopians crowding the city hall square had evidently become "the enemy." That night, and not only that night, there seemed to be no capacity to acknowledge the justification of their protest. This weak group was challenging Israel's perception of itself and was thus relegated to enemy status.

Yet the solution for Ethiopian Israelis might just be found in those flashy lights on the municipality building.

Like Israelis of Ethiopian descent, gay Israelis are a small group subject to discrimination and prejudice (and neither are allowed to donate blood). But much has changed since the 1990s, when police donned rubber gloves before tackling the protest that erupted at the Wigstock celebration for drag queens.

Gay men, and to a certain extent the LGBT community as a whole, fought the plague of homophobia and gained significant strength, after much struggle.

Sexuality and passion are powerful forces, and this pushed them to fight for their place in the military, in the workplace, in the media, in the justice system and the education system. They formed associations, held conferences, organized gay pride parades, started festivals, directed movies, managed bars and nightclubs, developed apps.

Above all – they made themselves heard.

Ethiopian Israelis, however, just keep hoping that Israeli society will find it in its heart to accept them as equal.

For 20 years now, young Ethiopian Israelis have been politely standing in line at the entrance to nightclubs, only to be informed yet again that the racist owner won’t let them in.

Why do they act this way? Maybe the answer has to do with the fact that, unlike the majority of Israelis, their parents didn’t take part in the violent conquest of the land, and their passive aliyah, crammed into airlifts, to some extent keeps them and their descendants in the position of adopted but rejected children, whose only wish is to really belong and be loved.

Will Ethiopian Israelis be able to emulate the model of their gay compatriots? How much power can a small, exploited group without important ties or major purchasing power really attain?

As a first stage on the way to emancipation, Ethiopian Israelis could learn from gay Israelis and first of all come out of the closet, which in their case, means – stand up for themselves. One rowdy demonstration won't do it.

Like LGBT people, who proclaim their identity and fight for it before their family and friends, Ethiopian-Israelis should stand tall. They should shout out against the faux "Israeli unity", which brought them here and then forgot them. Ostensibly "part of the tribe," they find themselves scorned. They need to shake off the neglectful Israeli parenting. Only then can they begin planning their future as a group with power and influence.

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