The Yahel Social Change Program is a 9-month service-learning program in Ramat Eliyahu, a predominately Ethiopian neighborhood in Rishon LeZion. Participants work and live in the community doing hands on social justice work. Below was written by a program participant, Molly Cram, and program staff, Tadela Tadanka, an Ethiopian Israeli, about the current events in the Ethiopian community.
There are approximately 140,000 Ethiopian immigrants who came to Israel in two main waves of immigration, the first being Operation Moses in 1984 and the second, Operation Solomon, in 1991. After the two major waves, there were other Ethiopians who immigrated as well.
When Ethiopians first arrived in Israel, the Israeli government struggled to absorb the new Olim (immigrants). Many were placed in primarily poor neighborhoods and from there the problems started. As one local puts it, “In the poor neighborhoods, you need to work very hard to move up in society. It takes a great amount of strength, both individually and from the family, to move.” Additionally, there were problems integrating into Israeli society. Ethiopians had to “convert” to Judaism, even though they had been practicing Judaism in Ethiopia for generations.
Ethiopian Israelis organized major protests in 1994 after it came to light that Israeli hospitals would not accept Ethiopian Israeli blood donations because of fear of AIDS. Many times the discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis is less visible but still harmful.
Starting in kindergarten, many schools will not accept Ethiopian Israeli children for fear that the overall performance in the classroom will be lowered because of the Ethiopian Israeli students. This perception continues into middle and high school, resulting in many Ethiopian Israeli students failing to complete their studies. Even in the army, there is often a clear separation. Ethiopian Israelis usually serve in low-level positions and not positions that result in career work later on. In the work place, it is the same. An employer can tell by the name that one is Ethiopian and will often put aside a resume and wait for a different applicant.
Police discrimination is a reality facing many Ethiopian Israelis. In Ramat Eliyahu, police frequent the neighborhood on Friday nights and will stop Ethiopian Israeli youth to ask for identification, even if there is no apparent reason. As one local says, “It happens every Friday night. If it happened once a month, it would be their job, but this is excessive.”
The protests on Thursday and Sunday of this week were spurred by a video of an Ethiopian Israeli soldier being beaten by an Israeli police officer. Events like this are not unheard of in the community but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It is important to note that the protests are not a reaction of just this particular incident but rather an accumulation of the systematic discrimination in the country.
The news has portrayed the protesters as violent but a protester described the situation differently. “In the beginning, it was quiet, but in the end, the police began to use water [cannons]. We didn’t start the fight. The point is not to fight the police.” Ethiopian Israelis are advocating for recognition of the problem and a commitment by the government to make changes that will improve the lives of Ethiopian Israelis.