The Buried Racism Of Ethiopian Jews In Israel

In a region besot by conflict, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle. This community deserves better and wants to be heard.

While most of the political discourse regarding tension in Israel focuses on Israelis vs. Palestinians, there is another vocal minority that more often than not is pushed to the side.

The second protest rally in as many months in Tel Aviv took place in June. The country’s Ethiopian Jews want to bring their cause to the center stage. Ethiopian Jews have been discriminated against and ignored for nearly as long as they have been in the country and they are ready for an international audience to hear their voices.

In an event that paralleled something similar in the U.S., one of the protests started after a video was released of a policeman hitting an Ethiopian Israeli soldier. In America something like that resulted in demonstrations and dialogued. There, it was a one-night protest and then fell out of discourse until this week when it was announced that the officer who beat the soldier would not be charged.

Many people aren’t aware of the sizable Ethiopian minority population in Israel and how they got there is rather odd. Ethiopian migration to Israel started in 1984 with Operation Moses in which thousands of Jewish Ethiopians were air lifted into Israel seeking better lives.

There was some skepticism among Israelis about these new immigrants. For awhile, an official rabbinical ruling that they were the direct decedents of a the lost biblical tribe of Dan led to some acceptance, but Ethiopian immigrants still lag behind the general population in major, problematic ways.

Ethiopian households earn 35% less than the national average and only half of them receive high school diplomas. Some of the problem comes from the fact that they can’t speak Hebrew well enough to finish school and get better paying jobs. In 1999 the BBC reported that 75% of Ethiopian immigrants living in Israel couldn’t speak Hebrew and they are three times more likely to be unemployed. It’s to be expected when getting a job requires a firm grasp of the majority language.

New immigrants who come to the country are first placed into integration centers. These small, makeshift neighborhoods are designed to teach the new immigrants about life in an industrialized country and include everything from Hebrew lessons, to lessons on how to shop for food in supermarkets. Based on the statistics, these centers aren't doing enough. The eventual hope is for these new citizens to integrate into Israeli society, but Israeli society doesn’t make that very easy.

A survey published by the Jerusalem Post in 2005 found that 43% of Israelis would not marry an Ethiopian and would not want their children to marry a member of the community, even though they are officially Jewish.

What can be done about this? Ethiopian Israelis need a better platform and more people to know about their plight. The problem is, it’s difficult to get notice for a worthy cause when there is already an ongoing battle in the region that the rest of the world is invested in watching.

In the case of many Ethiopian Israelis, they are no longer immigrants. They were born and raised in the country and still feel the stigma of being outsiders. The only thing to do is to keep shouting and hope that at some point the international community will turn its head to look, if only for a moment. 

Read more: In Israel, Treasures For Those Willing To Dig

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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