Black Israelis rise up

Black Israelis rise up
Comment: For decades, Ethiopian Israelis were viewed as second-class citizens, despite being Jewish. Now, tired of discrimination, poverty and police brutality, they are fighting back.
6 min read
17 Jun, 2015
Protests against racism in Israel were dispersed violently by police [AFP]
Anyone with a remote interest in Israeli affairs will already be familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Often people are aware that the Palestinian minority - those who have long been referred to variously as "Israeli Arabs" or "Palestinian citizens of Israel" - is subject to structural discrimination.

In contrast, the divisions and discriminations within the Israeli Jewish population are much less well known.

Of course, a constitutionally "Jewish State" means that the very fact of being Jewish brings a privileged status in comparison with other citizens, regardless of social position or ethnic origin.

This is clearly stated in a limited number of laws, but it is above all anchored in the practice of government institutions, whose priority remains the strengthening of Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state", nearly 70 years after it was established.

Having said this, the privileges granted to Jews by the "Jewish State" are shared out somewhat unevenly.

According to a recent report by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), Israel is rated second among industrialised countries for the largest gap between the rich and the poor.
     The image of Israel as a model social state - even a socialist and egalitarian one - has been left far behind.

The image of Israel as a model social state - even a socialist and egalitarian one - has been left far behind.

The neoliberal offensive led by Binyamin Netanyahu in the 1980s was characterised by a brutality unseen in other industrialised nations. As minister of finance at the time, he made Margaret Thatcher look like Mother Teresa.

The divisions that Israeli Jewish society is experiencing are both social and ethnic, and the two often go hand-in-hand: the richest are of European origin and the poorest are from "Asia-Africa", according to the term used by the Israeli central statistics office. At the very bottom of the ladder are the Jews of Ethiopian origin.

Everyday discrimination

If at the beginning of the 1970s, Golda Meir could still say that "real Jews" spoke Yiddish, the revolt of the Black Panthers and the increased strength of the Jews originating from the Arab world and the Mediterranean basin put an end to such a discourse - even if discrimination was still very much present. But what of black Jews?

In Golda Meir's time, having lightly tanned skin was enough to be disdainfully referred to as "Schwartze" (black) - so imagine what this meant for Ethiopians and Eritreans.

First and foremost, it meant being frequently and severely beaten by police in the southern districts of Tel-Aviv, particularly by the border police and the special unit responsible for hunting down "illegal immigrants".

How could a racist policeman tell the difference between a Jewish Ethiopian citizen and a migrant who had escaped Eritrea or South Sudan?

And so it is perhaps not surprising that the main purpose of these protests led by Ethiopians over recent years has been to denounce police violence.

In his May 2013 report, the state comptroller of Israel, Yosef Shapira, summarised social discrimination as follows:

- 18 percent of Ethiopians in Israel are unemployed, while Israel's national unemployment rate is 5.6 percent.

- 65 percent of young Ethiopians live under the poverty line.

- A majority of Ethiopian high school students do not obtain the baccalaureate, and more than 20 percent do not complete their military service - because of what the army describes as "particularly bad behaviour".

While the state may have put in place a series of mechanisms designed to improve the situation, particularly in high schools, the comptroller's report is unequivocal: such mechanisms are failures.

One of the paradoxes of Israeli society - and also the case in many other countries - is that there are high numbers of Ethiopians in the border police and in the prison service - professions that require no academic qualifications.

Even with a uniform intended to assert their authority, they are often assaulted at checkpoints or in prisons, and many of them are of modest build.

I myself remember detainees in the Maassiyahu prison call their guards in these terms: "Get over here, negro, and jump to it!"
     A new generation has grown up in Israel, finished military service, and have acquired a sense of entitlement and are ready to fight.

The battle for equality

For the past few years, however, we have been witnessing a change: a new generation has been born. They have grown up in Israel, finished their military service, and most importantly have acquired a sense of entitlement and are ready to fight.

Being spoken to as a "good-for-nothing" is no longer as common as it was for their parents' generation. While they remain strongly connected to their traditions, young Ethiopians feel Israeli and want to be perceived and treated as such.

It is not without reason that one of their most repeated slogans at a large protest in Tel Aviv on 3 May 2015 was: "We are Jews!" And some did not hold back in adding "and not Arabs".

In debates, these young Israelis of Ethiopian origin - as they wish to be referred to - highlight their military service or even their "acts of war" in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The beating of an Ethiopian soldier in uniform by policemen was one of the catalysts for the most recent protests. Had they the slightest knowledge of Israel, they might have learned from the Druze and the Bedouins that military service in Israel is by no means a guarantee for escaping discrimination.

Equality, in Israel as elsewhere, is a battle, even if you are Jewish in a "State of Jews".

The Ethiopian-led demonstrations were put down by police using an uncommon level of violence, given these were Jewish protesters.

"We are treated like Arabs," repeated the protesters to anyone who would listen.

It should also be pointed out that they were not themselves on their best behaviour - breaking away from the stereotype of the "kindly" Ethiopian, and not hesitating in attacking policemen in order to free their detained comrades.

While the police reacted by bringing charges against the protesters for assault and violence against law enforcement officers, the government, for its part, launched a commission that is to put forward proposals for improving living conditions for Ethiopians.

Community leaders sit on this commission, including Ethiopian rabbis - although the chief rabbinat of Israel refuses to recognise them.

It is however, unlikely, that the new generation of Ethiopians will identify with these leaders, and there is everything to suggest that their rebellion is set to continue.

Eradicating anti-black racism in Israeli society, first and foremost within its police force, is a long battle that cannot be extricated from Palestinian Israelis' fight for equality.

It is essential that these struggles for equality meet and converge, for in Israel, this is revolutionary.

Michel Warschawski is a veteran Israeli anti-Zionist activist, journalist and co-founder of both Yesh Gvul and the Alternative Information Centre.

A version of this article was previously published by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions stated within this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.