The violent protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by thousands of Ethiopian Israelis that began April 30 and were repeated for several days led to widespread and dramatic news coverage. It was a video gone viral of police beating an Ethiopian Israeli soldier in uniform, 21-year-old Damas Fikudeh, that opened the floodgates of a reservoir of resentment. This incident is the most recent in a long and well-documented list of injustices Ethiopians have suffered at the hands of the police.
Discrimination towards Jews of Ethiopian origin conjures up charges of racism by Israel’s enemies, and worries about the state’s democratic character among its friends, especially American Jewish communities already distressed by the treatment of Arab citizens and by the outsized influence of ultra-Orthodox religious groups. American Jews are especially sensitive to the status of the Ethiopian Jews because we have been such strong advocates for their immigration. There are 135,000 Ethiopian Israelis today.
Police brutality is only the proximate cause. What motivated thousands to take to the streets is a long history of broken dreams. Ethiopian Israelis suffer high rates of unemployment, more than half live below the poverty line, elementary schools in some cities have set quotas for accepting Ethiopian children and there is a disproportionately high prison population.
The government is quick with mea culpas. President Reuven Rivlin likened the pain in the Ethiopian community to an “open wound” and said that the government needs to be a better listener. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the community “requires more resources, more attention.”
Ironically, Israel has done more to assist this immigrant population than any other country has done for its immigrants. It provides residence and instruction in an absorption center to acclimate new immigrants for a year or more; it subsidizes the purchase of an Ethiopian family’s first apartment up to 80 percent, it provides free university tuition. But the support is not sufficient to remedy the discrimination Ethiopians face in employment, housing and education. And no amount of money changes people’s attitudes.
When things go badly, we tend to look for a villain. The real villain in this story is not the government, nor is there any flaw endemic to the Ethiopian community. Discrimination (and specifically racism – discrimination based on skin color) may look like the problem. But it is the consequence of the problem, not its root cause. So what is the root cause?
The Ethiopian Jews came from an Amharic-speaking, third-world, agrarian society, impoverished and without formal education. They were fast-forwarded (in most cases within hours by plane) into a Hebrew-speaking, high-tech society in which nearly everyone is educated. Some Ethiopians have been in Israel for almost 40 years, and one-third were born there. But tens of thousands have arrived only within the past 10 to 15 years. These groups have different needs. There has not been enough time for an immigrant group so radically different from its host society to adjust and catch up.
Their portrayal in news media ensures that Ethiopian Israelis will be known for their problems rather than for their accomplishments. When potential employers or police on the beat interact with Ethiopian Israelis, this negative and prejudicial stereotype influences their behavior, unless they are well-informed enough to overcome it.
Though it rarely makes the news, the accomplishments of this community are impressive. There are thousands of university graduates, dozens of lawyers, high-ranking Ethiopian military officers, five Ethiopian Israeli members of the Knesset in the past 10 years and countless contributions to popular music (not to overlook the 2013 Miss Israel). Another asset is their instinct for helping each other. Ethiopian Israelis probably have more self-help nonprofits per capita than any other population in the world.
Israel must confront, punish and root out discrimination, especially among police because they are the face of government in the street. But what is missing is the need to comprehend and admit the profundity of the challenge: full integration of the Ethiopian Israelis will take a lot of time. In the meantime, balanced reporting of the community’s accomplishments and contributions, as well as its problems, will speed up the process.
Len Lyons is the author of The Ethiopian Jews of Israel: Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land and also writes about other Jewish groups of African origin.