The Invisible Ethiopian-Israelis

For about two months, a protest tent of young Ethiopian-Israelis has been ignored by the Israeli media. This indifference is troubling, writes Sherry Makover-Balikov. They demand recognition of their Jewish, religious and social identities and an end to the blatant racism they face, but their protest is accused of "disturbing the public order."

al-monitor Jewish descendants of immigrated Ethiopians protest discrimination against Ethiopian Jews in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi January 10, 2012. The printed Hebrew words on the T-shirt read "Made in Ethiopia." Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

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Feb 8, 2013

It’s been over two months that angry youths have been sitting in an improvised protest tent opposite the prime minister’s house in Jerusalem, calling for equal rights for Ethiopian Jews. Seven sleeping bags on the pavement under a meager tent without lighting, without visitors, without media exposure — but with a great deal of resentment, desperation and rage. This is the type of rage that quietly explodes and ignites the next social protest movement.

Their just claims fill us with sorrow. They demand recognition of their Jewish, religious and social identities — in other words, appropriate education and employment opportunities, a compassionate rabbinical establishment and uncompromising struggle against the blatant racism they face. Members of the older generation were forced to undergo conversions, were sent to absorption centers and became unskilled, low-paid workers. Their religious leadership was deprived of their status; today, not even one Ethiopian Kes (religious leader) serves as a religious judge or marriage registrar. Thus nothing remains of their magnificent rabbinical heritage, and the younger generation is left with an inferior, racist educational system.

“Most of the kindergartens and schools frequented by the Ethiopian community in Israel offer separate classes for blacks only. Something like apartheid,” says Almito Parda, the mother of a little girl and one of the initiators of the protest. “The quality of study is also low. Recent [standardized] Meitzav examinations [that test adherence to educational standards] show gaps of about 100 points between Ethiopian education and the regular educational system.”

The list of injustices perpetrated against Ethiopian Jews necessitates incisive self-scrutiny on our parts. But how will that happen, if their tent does not even appear on television? The Ethiopian protest is transparent, does not exist, exactly like the public they represent. Two and a half months in  a tent on the same stretch of pavement as the Shalit family’s tent, and no one has heard or seen them. Well, yes — the prime minister invited them to his chambers twice. And Knesset member Shlomo Molla (Kadima) came and tried in vain to drag members of the press and cameras to their tent. “This protest is being totally ignored,” Molla says bitterly. “Maybe the public thinks that there is no discrimation, that we have a wonderful country and everything is just great.”

The Jerusalem municipality attempted to evict the tent protestors with the argument that it disturbs the public order. The “harassers,” seven youths who all served in elite IDF reconnaissance units, were forced to challenge the municipality in court. The district court demanded they evacuate the tent so as “not to lend a hand to delinquency.” But there are no drugs or alcohol in the tent, no noise or public disturbances. Not even guitars. A kind-hearted attorney appealed to the High Court of Justice on their behalf, and a compromise was brokered this week: The tent will be replaced by a white shed! No one will sleep there at night, and it will be closed down by the end of May. If someone else — let’s say, the family of a captive soldier — asked to conduct their protest on the same site, then the head of the Jerusalem municipality retains the right to allow this, and the Ethiopian protestors must honor his decision. After all, some protestors are more important  than others.

The gloomy tale of Ethiopian Jews in Israel represents the ugly side of Israeli society. It is the silent mouth of the media; it is the lazy unwillingness of you and me to support, visit and hit the streets in protest for a second time. It is the story of a tent that fought for its existence even before fighting for its objectives. An entire country turns a cold shoulder to 130 thousand Ethiopian children and adults who study, work, serve in the army and refuse to be parasites. Their only demand is to be our partners.

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