Racism is on the rise in Israel and it is sometimes directed towards Ethiopian Jews, citizens of the state who face discrimination and rejection on the basis of their skin color.
An Ethiopian Jewish boy at an absorption center in Israel (photo: flickr/Vadim Lavrusik)
1500 Israelis of Ethiopian origin demonstrated recently against Israeli racism and discrimination outside the parliament in Jerusalem. The protest took place after some landlords in Kiryat Malachi, which is home to a large Ethiopian Israeli population, refused to rent to Ethiopian Jews.
âIsraelis donât want to have Ethiopians around,â says Shoko, an Israeli woman who provides counselling to Ethiopian youths in Haifa. âTheir excuse to not rent flats to Ethiopians is that they are noisy...and they eat injera, which is a âstinkyâ bread, and its strong smell spreads all over the neighbouring area. In reality, Israelis donât like Ethiopians because they are black...â
Chava Weiss, fundraiser for the Israeli Association of the Ethiopian Jewish (IAEJ), states that, âthis is a case of pure unfortunate discrimination and stereotyping,..â
There are approximately 130,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. Citizens of the state, they entered the country during two covert Israeli military operations â in 1984 and 1991 â aimed to bring Ethiopians to Israel to bolster the Jewish majority
âBut even if the largest part of Ethiopians living here is Jewish, some rabbis and ordinary Israeli residents discriminate them because their Jewish roots are not alike the ones of the Eastern European Jews,â Muju, a young Ethiopian man who lives in Jerusalem, explains. Ethiopians observe some different holy festivities and donât observe the Talmud. Muju adds that, âsome Jewish people even claim that we Ethiopians made up our Jewry just to enter Israel.â
Many of the Ethiopians who immigrated to Israel came from small and neglected villages and were not equipped for life in Israel. Back in the 1980s, when the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants arrived, the Jewish Agency became responsible for their absorption into the country and it stated that the process of integration would last five years.
In reality, Shoko says that âpeople can stay in the absorption centres â where they learn Hebrew, the âproperâ mainstream Judaism, some tips about the modern world â for two years after their arrival in Israel but than they are left completely on their own...â
He adds that many Ethiopians have a hard time integrating into Israeli society.
The discrimination towards Ethiopians affects all areas of their lives: from housing, to education, to job employment. As the IAEJ says, âtheir collective standard of living continues to fall behind the mainstream Israeli population and the Ethiopian community is at risk of becoming a permanent underclass in Israeli society.â
Many Ethiopian men have difficulties finding work in Israel â in part because they are African â and so they end up staying at home. Some fall into alcoholism. Women have a few more opportunities to enter the job market, especially as housekeepers or cleaners, and, as they do, they become more financially influential than their husbands, hence turning upside down the traditional Ethiopian patriarchal system and creating problems within the family harmony. The children are often disrespectful towards their âuselessâ fathers and rebellious towards their Ethiopian roots.
As an Ethiopian 23-year-old boy who asks to not be named says, âI have so many friends that are trying to cancel their real identity... There are those who want to be more and more like 2Pac [African-American rapper] and those that are absorbing the Iraqi and Moroccan culture...â
Although in the past the Jewish Agency had explicitly opposed the establishment of any formal âEthiopian ghettos,â places like Rehovot, Beer Sheva, Kiryat Malachi and Haifa have neighbourhoods that are âEthiopian only.â
There are programs meant to integrate Ethiopian people into the Israeli society but there is no program to make Israelis more familiar with the Ethiopian culture. âIsraeli people donât care at all about the long Ethiopian tradition,â Shoko states. âThey believe in what Ben Gurion stated a long time ago, which [was something] like âleave your culture behind and build up a new common culture here in Israel.ââ
The past ten years have seen some modest improvements. Ethiopian employment rates have gone up a bit as have the number of teenagers going on for higher education â but these percentages are still much below the Israeli average.
And there is growing awareness of the trouble Ethiopian Jews face in Israel. The international media has started to be dealing with the Ethiopian Jews as âa minority facing big problems of discrimination in Israel,â Shoko says, âand not anymore as a bunch of cute exotic African people.â
More importantly, Weiss says, âEthiopians are not hiding anymore but are coming out to protest against the injustice they face [on a daily basis].â