Decades Of Frustration For Ethiopian Jews


Jerusalem — The Talpiot Industrial Zone in south Jerusalem is home to some of Jerusalem’s poorest people. Housed in run-down buildings built decades ago for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, the crime rate is high, even with a police station located right across the street.

Many Jerusalemites of Ethiopian descent have moved in because they can’t afford to rent or buy anywhere else.

With little to do after school, the neighborhood children, the vast majority of them the Israeli-born children of Ethiopian immigrants, congregate in the local schoolyard to play soccer after doing their homework at the adjoining community center, where a charitable program helps children at risk.

For Moshe (not his real name), who is 12, the schoolyard is where he feels most at home. Surrounded by kids from the same Ethiopian background, he doesn’t have to put up with the racial slurs spewed by a handful of his schoolmates.

“Some of the boys have called me ‘kushi,’ Moshe said, uttering a derogatory Hebrew term equivalent to the N-word in English. “That gets me upset. I’m not kushi, I’m brown,” he asserted.

Moshe’s 13-year-old friend Yosef (also a pseudonym), said some of the boys in his school have called him “kushi” and “black” and “smelly.”

“They stopped after my parents spoke to the principal,” he said. “It’s not easy being Ethiopian. People hit us just because we’re brown,” he said, referring to the recent attack on an Ethiopian soldier by two white policemen. That attack, which was caught on video, and the many other alleged attacks against young Ethiopians perpetrated by white Israelis over the years, sparked two violent protests during the past week by members of Israel’s 120,000-strong Ethiopian Jewish community.

“I used to think Israel was a good country, but now I want to move to America,” Moshe said resolutely as a bunch of friends nodded their heads in agreement.

Many non-Ethiopian Israelis were shocked when a peaceful anti-racism demonstration in Tel Aviv organized by young Ethiopian activists turned violent. After Ethiopian youths — some say egged on by non-Ethiopian anarchists — blocked a major highway and started throwing rocks and stones at the police, the police responded with stun grenades and water cannons.

The events echo the riots in Baltimore following the April 19 death of Freddie Gray, who died of a neck injury while in police custody.

Members of the Ethiopian community say they were shocked, but not surprised, by the violent release of the pent-up anger and frustration felt by their Israeli-born teens and young adults.

“There is a problem, there are discrimination issues, there is racism in Israel,” Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, the director of Tebeka, an advocacy group for Ethiopian Israelis, told journalists Monday, just before meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the educational and socioeconomic gaps, as well as the long-standing discrimination Ethiopian Israelis deal with every day.

Some of these gaps haven’t closed significantly since the 1980s, when Israel first began bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Adults who immigrated — many of them farmers — found it difficult to learn Hebrew and adapt to a more urban way of life. Their children, including those who did not arrive in Israel years before the parents, were sent to Hebrew-only boarding schools. Some forgot Amharic, their parents’ only language. Away from home and exposed to a more modern way of life, many lost respect for their traditional parents.

Dorit Roer-Strier, a professor in Hebrew University’s School of Social Work, linked the community’s frustration to decades of discrimination.

“Ten years ago I did a study of the fathers and saw how immigration, poverty and discrimination was challenging the fathers’ well-being. The fathers felt their first obligation was to be providers for their children and earn a good living. They felt disrespected not only by Israeli society but by their own children,” Roer-Strier said.

Adding insult to injury, many Israeli rabbis have continued to doubt the Ethiopian community’s Jewishness, despite the fact that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late chief Sephardi rabbi, gave it his kosher stamp of approval.

Many Ethiopian Israelis also complain that the government patronizes them.

Until this year, for example, the education of all Ethiopian-Israeli students — including the 70 percent born in Israel — was under the auspices of the Ministry of Education’s Department for the Absorption of Immigrant Students. Many of those students were confined to segregated classes sometimes taught at a slower pace.

Although some of these classes as well as numerous enrichment programs run by the Jewish Agency and various NGOs have helped the youngest generation of Ethiopian Israelis to compete with their white peers and serve side by side with them during their IDF or National Service, many say employers won’t hire them.

“When an Ethiopian applies for a job, as qualified as he might be, as impressive as his CV might be, he is not going to be invited for the interview because he has an Ethiopian name,” Assefa-Dawit said. “When a local Rabbinate office refuses to register a couple who wants to get married because they’re Ethiopian, when you see a school that says we cannot take more children because they have a quota of how many Ethiopians they will enroll, you can imagine what the feeling of young people will be.”

That has made it difficult for the community to emerge from poverty. Ethiopian families earn about 45 percent of the national average, according to the Bureau of Statistics.

Seated outside the beautiful, modern Ethiopian synagogue funded by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews right next door to slim buildings in the Industrial Zone slums, Rabbi Shachar Aylin, the shul’s volunteer rabbi, bemoaned the institutional discrimination he said his community experiences day in and day out.

“My Israeli-born children don’t speak Amharic, yet other school children call them kushim,” said Aylin, who moved to Israel from Ethiopia when he was 16. “Israeli homes don’t teach equality to their children. Security guards and police single out black people, and especially our youth. I can’t tell you the number of times our youth have been beaten.”

Aylin, a soft-spoken man who volunteers at the synagogue because the Ministry of Religious Affairs has refused to pay for a rabbi there, although it funds many other local rabbis, related how security guards and police often “take our children to the police station and open a file against them, often for no reason.”

That is the reason, he said, that 40 percent of the youths held in Ofek Prison, a prison for minors, are of Ethiopian descent, according to the Los Angeles Times. Ethiopians represent less than 2 percent of the Israeli population.

Despite these many challenges, Aylin said, “I’m glad I made aliyah. Israel has many good people, but they are drowned out by the others.”

Assefa-Dawit noted that many of the protesters at the rallies carried Israeli flags and sang Israeli songs.

“Israel is our country — there’s no ‘us’ and ‘them,’” he said. “This is our home. [But] the community is crying out for the government to resolve this.”