Ethiopian Israeli Protest Turned Violent - but It's Still Justified

Dealing with discrimination against Israelis of Ethiopian descent must be at top of new government's agenda.

Tomer Appelbaum

Sunday’s protest by Israelis of Ethiopian descent of the police’s attitude toward them spiraled out of control; confrontations between the demonstrators and the police grew violent, leading to injuries and the use of tear gas.

The use of violence is to be condemned. But the grounds for the protest are justified; no group in society need accept discrimination by the authorities. The immediate cause of the latest demonstrations may be police brutality, but the protest is broader, reflecting a lack of hope for any change, particularly among younger people who were born and educated in Israel and have personally experienced the degree to which Israeli society is unwilling to accept them.

Police in the past had rejected claims that Ethiopians are treated differently. The lack of data, other than an estimate that a third of the approximately 200 teens in Ofek juvenile prison are of Ethiopian descent, helped the establishment to obfuscate. But in internal discussions, senior Public Security Ministry officials admit that “There’s a perception of the police as the enemy,” in the Ethiopian community and that there’s “a sense of over-enforcement” against Ethiopians. It’s disturbing that this recognition has not trickled down to the various ranks of the police.

Six months ago the government issued new policy guidelines that were formulated in consultation with academics, Ethiopian-Israeli activists, the heads of relevant nongovernmental organizations and representatives from 12 government ministries. The recommendations dealt with, among other things, changes needed in the education, health and construction and housing ministries. They also addressed necessary changes by the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Police, in order to better evaluate and place new recruits from the Ethiopian community in the former and to better define protocols for arresting and detaining minors by the latter.

The section on education received special attention, with good reason. Education Ministry representatives recommended that responsibility for pupils of Ethiopian descent, including those born in Israel, be shifted from the ministry’s immigrant absorption department to its regular departments. The committee also recommended increasing the number of teachers of Ethiopian origin and reevaluating the efficacy of the ministry’s programs to help children from the community. It is regrettable that this opportunity was not used in order to give the parents of these children the freedom to choose between enrolling their children in state religious schools and nonreligious schools. They are in effect forced to send their children to religious schools, lest their Judaism be doubted.

The recommendations for a new approach are a step in the right direction, but implementation is still a long way off. The recent demonstrations have put the discrimination against Ethiopians in many areas of life on the public agenda, and make it clear that dealing with it must be one the new government’s first missions.