Only rarely can a protest totally uproot racism and discrimination, but a strong leadership can negotiate for change
The integration process of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel has been especially difficult, given the complexity of their interaction with the host society. A number of factors are at the root of these challenges, even before we bring up the color of their skin and the racism it feeds or inspires.
First of all, Israelis of Ethiopian descent, first and second generations are a relatively small group (around 150,000 people, 1.7% of the entire Israeli population). Hence their ability to exert political pressure via the institutionalized channels, mainly political parties and on Election Day is quite limited. Their bargaining power cannot begin to be compared with that of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union – the million men and women in the latter group constitute a constituency that every party and politician in Israel must take into account. But because of their small number, the Ethiopian Israelis are unfortunately invisible to people with powerful influence in key institutions
Second, the religion factor has played a key role in the framing of the relations between the Israeli establishment, in particular the rabbinical one, and the Ethiopian immigrants since the day of their arrival. The Orthodox establishment questioned the Ethiopians’ Jewishness, and they were required (and still are) to undergo various forms of conversion to their great dismay. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that some of the immigrants are in fact Christians or converts to Christianity with Jewish family members based on which relations they demanded the right to be included in the Law of Return. The religious doubts are being projected on the entire community, by those for whom Jewish identity must be proven “authentic.” Furthermore, as a result, the community’s traditional religious leaders were often denied recognition as rabbis, with all that this implies in terms of their ability to perform as well as their community status.
Third, the fact that these immigrants come from Africa, a continent in which infectious diseases are endemic, led the Israeli medical establishment to treat them with suspicion and even discrimination. We can recall the crisis surrounding the refusal to accept blood donations by Ethiopian Israelis, and, even worse, the trick of automatically throwing out their donated blood in order to avoid a head-on confrontation.
Fourth, the cultural difference between their traditional patriarchal family and community structure and the open and Western pattern of Israeli society sparked a serious internal crisis in the community’s leadership and within families, especially with regard to the status of women. In turn, this led, to the loss of parental authority over the younger generation and to cases of husbands murdering their wives. The community came to be seen as prone to violence, an image that was reinforced when several of its waves of protest were accompanied by violent clashes with the police and serious disruptions of public order.
The protracted delay in moving them out of absorption centers and the concentration of members of the community in a few specific locations and segregated schools created a situation in which their contact with many other groups of the host society is quite limited. . Such a situation breeds stereotypes and impedes social integration.
Nor can we forget the ongoing campaign to bring the members of the community, who have been left behind in Ethiopia, to Israel — a campaign stemming from the different definitions of who is eligible for aliya and who is not, definitions on which there is no consensus, not only among the Israeli establishment but also within the Ethiopian immigrant community itself.
And all of this even without reference to their skin color, which the academic literature on segregation and social discrimination defines as the most difficult obstacle to overcome.
Processes such as the collapse of the traditional family framework and the fact that at times the young immigrants arrived in Israel alone, while their families remained in Ethiopia for years, led many young people to be placed in residential educational frameworks and to a high proportion of school dropouts, many of whom encountered confrontations with the authorities. The strongest tension was with the police, and now Ethiopian Israeli protesters accuse the police as having a light finger on the trigger, especially after the death of Solomon Tekah, the eleventh victim of police fire. In this sense, the current protest was strongly influenced by the African-American struggle “Black Lives Matter”.
So where do we go from here?
A look at protests in general, reveals that in democratic contexts the public at large is willing to accept vehement protests and public order disruptions for only a very brief time. After a number of hours — or, in the “best” case, a few days — the public turns against the protesters even if in principle, it recognizes the validity of their complaints. This is also the case with the Ethiopian Israeli protest, which led to prolonged roads blocs, setting fires to cars, and physical attacks on policemen and even on civilian by-passers. The million-dollar question is whether it is possible to convey this message to the protesters, and how, especially given that they have no clear and unified leadership that can exert its authority. Nor can Israel’s political leadership long continue to accept breaches of public order without sending in the police, given that maintaining public order is the state’s main task.
We must come to terms with the fact that only rarely can a protest, no matter how extensive, totally uproot racism and discrimination. Despite the righteous expressions of sympathy we have been hearing from the media and politicians of various stripes, not one of them has ever made a real effort to help find a fundamental solution to this troubling issue. The situation will improve only if the Ethiopian Israeli community itself can develop a strong leadership, capable of negotiating with the relevant institutions and the general public, trigger processes within the community to fortify solidarity between the generations, and between those who have successfully found their place in Israeli society and those who have not. It is only a long-term national project based on an informed joint process that can generate a fundamental change in the situation of the Ethiopian community in Israel.
The article was published in the Times of Israel.