It was one of the most glowing chapters in the Jewish state’s history, dating back 3,000 years. The Jewish community in Ethiopia, possibly the “lost tribe of Dan,” was spirited out of the war-torn country of Ethiopia by Mossad agents on a dangerous trek to neighboring Sudan. From there, tens of thousands of men, women, and children boarded Israeli aircraft that flew them to safety in their ancestral home, Israel. Sadly, some of the aged, and even babies and the sick, did not make it but died along the way. Operations “Solomon” and “Moses” were a spectacular success. These Ethiopian Jews were welcomed with open arms by the people of Israel. They arrived with only the clothes on their backs, and a public campaign called on Israeli families to donate clothing. There was a wonderful response. Israel had again proven it was the homeland of the Jews, whatever color, whatever background.
So, what went wrong?
It was the 11th Ethiopian young man to be killed by Israeli police over the past five years.
Why several decades later did thousand of enraged Ethiopian Jews, most of them young first generation, take to the streets in an explosion that shocked the country. The epicenter was Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Freeway – the hub of the country, where hundreds of thousands of vehicles pass every day. The demonstrators brought traffic to a standstill, as they did at the entrance to Jerusalem and several other parts of the country. In the first hours, the Israeli police, who had called up reinforcements, stood back and let the demonstrators blow off steam. Later on that evening they were ordered to intervene as the demonstration turned into a riot, with some vehicles being torched, violent clashes, and dozens of demonstrators and police officers injured. A number on both sides, including some reporters at the scene, required treatment at the hospital. Overnight, Israel entered a state of shock.
The trigger was the recent shooting death of Ethiopian teenager, Solomon Teka. In the Tel Aviv area, an off-duty policeman had seen fit to intervene with a group of Ethiopian young men, who he considered to be causing a public ruckus. The policeman drew his revolver and fired a warning shot at the ground in front of the teenagers. It ricocheted and hit Solomon in the head, killing him. The policeman is now under investigation. It was the 11th Ethiopian young man to be killed by Israeli police over the past five years.
This time it was the spark that lit the subsequent inferno. The angry Ethiopians declared, “enough is enough!” They charged that Israeli police have long singled out Ethiopian Jews for “special treatment” – it was nothing less than police discrimination and brutality toward the Ethiopian community at large. They do have a case and have now made their point. The media backed them up with eye-witness accounts of an engrained discrimination in other sectors of Israeli society. For example, even statements by Ethiopian doctors and nurses who testified that some Israeli patients refuse to be treated by them.
And alas, as always, the case with government officials. Prime Minister Netanyahu, police minister Gilad Hardan have pledged to do more, and not enough was done, to assist Ethiopians’ integration. They pledge to do more after the horse has bolted if reelected in the September ballot.
It has been no easy task for Ethiopian Jews to integrate into Israeli society, and this has absolutely nothing to do with color. It starts with education from the age of toddlers.
But it is also necessary to look more deeply into what has happened. Today, Ethiopian Jews number some 140,000 to the overall Jewish-Arab population of 9 million. Out of the blue, they were swept in from third-world Africa into the “hi-tech nation.” Israel is one of the most electronic states on the planet. There are more smartphones per capita, and anyone without a laptop (including me) is considered to be not-on-the-ball. It has been no easy task for Ethiopian Jews to integrate into Israeli society, and this has absolutely nothing to do with color. It starts with education from the age of toddlers. For example, young Ethiopian children did not attend kindergarten before entering grade one, as does every other Israeli child. And of course, the purpose of kindergarten is to give kids a jump start into their academic careers. (This preschooling also applied to the much larger immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union.) Special kindergartens were set up for the young Ethiopian kids who did not speak Hebrew. But this was interpreted by some Ethiopians as discrimination. In short, it has been no easy task for Ethiopian Jews to integrate into an Israeli society because of their lack of job skills. This, of course, leads to a feeling of overall discrimination.
Consider this, in the 1990s, over a million Russian Jews immigrated to Israel from Russia. Almost overnight, they were integrated into Israeli society because they did have skills required. At the time, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon order that all of the institutions must allocate jobs to these newcomers. For example, Israeli radio and TV, several Russian immigrants got good jobs as radio and TV technicians. This also applied to Russian immigrant doctors and nurses, and throughout the economy. Even then, the Russian professionals had to undergo more training because they were not up to the criterion of Israel’s medical standards. In short, the Russian immigrants hit the ground running because they had job skills and advanced education. And, unfortunately, this is not the case with the Ethiopian newcomers. And so, the process continues. The Russian immigrants with decent jobs and good salaries could finance mortgages for apartments in planned building sites. This has also contributed to the Ethiopians’ feeling of discrimination and having to do menial jobs.
The vicious cycle continues, leading to the justified charges of police profiling of Ethiopians.
The vicious cycle continues, leading to the justified charges of police profiling of Ethiopians. The Israeli police contend that is has given specialized training to police officers on how to cope with the Ethiopian population. Nevertheless, a large number of Ethiopian Jews feel they are discriminated against by Israeli police. This indicated that Israeli society as a whole, not only the police, have not “coped adequately” with the situation. However, the bottom line is that both government agencies and the Israeli public at large, and the Ethiopian community, in particular, must all take a step back and seriously consider how to set right with what went wrong. This, in our mind, will now happen because the vast majority on both sides want this to happen.