For True Equality, Israel's Disparate Protest Movements Must Unite

The real story about the recent Ethiopian-Israeli protest in Tel Aviv was not the violence. It was the infuriating decision by the vast majority of the 2011 social justice demonstrators to stay home, in front of the TV.

Avi Shilon
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Ethiopian-Israeli protesters in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, May 3, 2015.Credit: Dudu Bachar
Avi Shilon

Many participants in Israel’s social protest in the summer of 2011 offered a similar viewpoint in the wake of the recent demonstrations by Israel’s Ethiopian community: If the earlier protest had been conducted in the same way, with violence and an eruption of genuine fury – it would not have evaporated or been channeled into the twisted decision to vote for Yair Lapid.

A view of Kaplan Street during mass protests demanding 'social justice' in Tel Aviv, August 6, 2011.Credit: Tal Cohen

But the story here is not the violence. The story is the infuriating decision by the vast majority of the 2011 demonstrators to stay home, in front of the television, when Ethiopian Israelis made their way to Rabin Square.

This division between members of the middle class and the disadvantaged groups in our society is what prevented the realization of the aspirations of the summer of 2011, and it will also prevent the possibility of creating a genuine change in the country’s attitude toward Ethiopian Israelis.

Moreover, like participants at many protest events, Ethiopian-Israeli protesters did not formulate clear demands – the leading slogan at their demonstrations was “A violent policeman should be inside [prison].” But the attitude toward Ethiopian Israelis on the part of some policemen – a good number of whom are in the same boat as Israelis of Ethiopian descent in terms of social class – is only the symptom.

What Ethiopian Israelis really want is to become integrated. To be part of the mainstream. Meanwhile, they are supported only by other outcasts. Joint Arab List leader MK Ayman Odeh did well to join their protest. By so doing, he is continuing to carve out his unique path: He maintains that Israeli Arabs are part of the struggle of all weaker elements in society, without making distinctions on the basis of religion.

But in the present instance Odeh’s support won’t help, since the revolution for which he hopes is still a utopian dream. On the contrary: The fact that support for Ethiopian Israelis was offered by Odeh of all people – rather than by the broad base of summer 2011 protesters – only illustrates the severity of the Ethiopians’ predicament.

But Ethiopian Israelis will not be the only losers as a result of the alienation toward them. Following the election last month, the left and center complained about the massive support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and wondered how to explain the disconnect from the so-called “ordinary people” of Israel. And now, when such people are reaching out and arriving in the very heart of Tel Aviv – very few are reaching out in return.

The vacuum that was created was filled by extremist organizations, including members of Lehava (a racist, anti-assimilation group) and anarchists. It’s impossible to deny some of them their desire to help the disadvantaged. However, the connection between extremist left- and right-wing organizations and the present protest is liable to cause Ethiopian Israelis damage similar to that caused decades ago by the Black Panthers to the plight of Mizrahim (Jews originating in North Africa and the Middle East).

The Panthers had justified reasons for fighting on behalf of the Mizrahim. But their battle failed, and even contributed to rejection of that community’s struggle in general, because the critical mass of Mizrahim didn’t want a revolution against the establishment – they wanted integration. Because of the activities of the Panthers, the Mizrahi struggle acquired an extremist image, and in retrospect their ideas contributed more to the theoretical discussion of the issue than to practical solutions.

The story of Ethiopian Israelis is complicated. Basically, it embodies the enlightened aspects of Zionism and Judaism, because bringing these people to Israel reflects the ability of Zionism to ignore – at least when it comes to Jews – differences of race and color. While most European countries often prefer to open their gates to “strong” populations, the moral dimension embedded in the Law of Return turns Israel into a country of refuge for Jews, without making distinctions between them.

But the immigrant-absorption process has once again proved the extent to which human beings are not as good as the ideas they support. Many groups can be blamed for the distress of Ethiopian Israelis, but true equality will not be brought about by the establishment alone. In order to achieve it the tens of thousands who demanded social justice must join Ethiopian Israelis in the next demonstration. Otherwise the only change in Israeli society will be in the degree of violence in the coming protests.

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