On Sunday, I heard one of the Knesset members label the area outside the prime minister's house the "Hill of Cries." That is an appropriate name because the small site has historically been associated with people crying out their troubles for assistance from the nation's policy-makers, headed by the prime minister. But it seems that in Israel, the cries of one group are not like the cries of another.
It is more than two months now that Ethiopian youths have been conducting a vigil in a simple tent outside the prime minister's home. These youths have all served in the army and are citizens who carry out their civic duties, yet their plight does not seem to interest the Israeli public and its elected officials. Perhaps the reason is that Israelis think there is no problem, that the Ethiopians have been here for many years and are well-integrated and receive the same treatment as everyone else. Or perhaps the reason for the silence is that people simply prefer to ignore the problem. They prefer to ignore the fact that even those of Ethiopian descent who were born in Israel fall way behind in their educational achievements. Israelis do not want to see that entire cities in Israel refuse to rent apartments to Ethiopians only because their skin color is different; they choose to ignore an entire community that is treated as if they do not exist.
The Ethiopian community immigrated to Israel in order to bring their Zionist aspirations to fruition. Much has been told about their waves of aliya (immigration) and the great suffering they underwent to reach Israel — but little has been told about their absorption in Israel. The immigrant Ethiopian community viewed Israel as a home, the target of their messianic and Zionist yearnings but when they arrived, they discovered that their very religious beliefs and Jewish identities were cast in doubt — the very religion that supported them over thousands of years in exile.
The Land of the Fathers that they had praised and glorified while still in Ethiopia — this land received the newcomers coldly. The holy land, the country they had dreamed about for thousands of years and for which they risked their lives, now gives them no choice. Most Ethiopians live in neighborhoods containing a high percentage of immigrants for the simple reason that when immigrants try to leave their neighborhoods and integrate into Israel's diverse society, they encounter great obstacles. When they try to find alternate residences, they must search high and low to find someone who will agree to rent to them. This is the worst form of discrimination, camouflaged discrimination, which actually happens but is not based on discriminatory legislation or discriminatory directives. On paper, our country mandates equality for all but unfortunately, the reality is very different.
After the difficulties involved in moving out of the old neighborhoods come the difficulties involved in integrating into society, even by way of the educational system. We encounter the phenomenon of "Ethiopian-only classes" in which the scores on the Metzav (Measure of School Effectiveness) achievement tests are among the lowest in the educational system. Thus it is precisely the educational system, on which much hope was pinned for promoting the children of immigrants toward equality, that was not wise enough to exploit its existing resources appropriately. This has created a very deep split.
The problem of the Ethiopian denomination is the problem of all Israeli society and we must understand that we need to deal with it as a society. Whoever suffers racism by the country in which they are raised will turn their backs on that country and its institutions in the near future. We are cultivating a minority that feels disconnected and discriminated against, and this concerns each and every one of us. We must wake up and support their protest to condemn the racism that is eroding the fabric of Israeli society.
Their welfare is our welfare.
MK Shlomo Molla
Shlomo Molla is Deputy Speaker of the Knesset. Born in Ethiopia, he walked to Sudan where he was rescued by Israeli forces and arrived to Israel in 1984. A Kadima party MK since 2008, his parliamentary work focuses on social issues (fighting racism, preventing illegal immigration) and cross-border relations (with Europe and USA) as well as fostering a two-state solution.