Ethiopian Israelis marched by the thousands in Jerusalem on Wednesday, January 18 in the late afternoon from the Knesset Parliament to the city’s center against a blazing setting sun. In one of the largest demonstrations for immigrant equality to date, young Ethiopian Israelis, chanted and held signs that read “I’m Black and Proud,” “Black and Whites: We’re all Equal,” and “Let’s Stop This Here and Now.”
While much of the media in Israel has been quick to label Israeli society as racist and discriminatory in light of the situation, it seems that the story is slightly more complex and that not all Ethiopian Israelis are so quick to write off their absorption into Israel as a failure.
Yoni, a married father from Netanya, explained that he had joined the protest for the sake of his children’s future. “Thank G-d, I have a good job, and I can provide for my family,” said Yoni. “I feel I’ve settled in well into Israel but I want to ensure that my children have equal opportunities here in the future,” he explains.
Dan Sandaka, a 24-year old Israeli commander of Ethiopian descent in the Israeli Defense Forces, who is responsible for 120 soldiers, also echoes the complexities of the Ethiopian absorption.
“There are good people and bad people in Israel, like any country. There are many problems and challenges in the absorption of the Ethiopian community in Israel and sometimes it is the fault of the Israeli government, but sometimes it’s due to misunderstandings within our own community,” he said. “To get integrated into Israeli society is a long process.”
“For the first time, my generation is standing up and uniting together, but I hope in the future the Ethiopian community will be able to stand together on other issues as well” Sandaka said.
“But” he emphasizes, “As someone who pays taxes and serves the army, I should be able to buy an apartment anywhere I want. What happened [in Kiryat Malachi] is deplorable.”
The massive protests were recently sparked when an Israeli news broadcast last week showed how a young Ethiopian family, who tried to purchase an apartment in a certain block in the city of Kiryat Malachi was prevented from doing so, when tenants had reportedly signed an agreement declaring they wouldn’t sell or rent their apartments to Israelis of Ethiopian descent. Mulet Araro, a 26-year-old student from Kiryat Malachi began the protest against discrimination in his home city and was able to mobilize thousands more across the country through Facebook.
There are over 119,000 Ethiopians living in Israel today, of which 38,000 are Israeli-born. Throughout the 30 years of immigration to Israel, approximately 4,000 Ethiopian Jews perished on their way to Israel walking on foot through Sudan en route refugee camps in the 1980s.
Ethiopian Jews had a troubling and often difficult experience living in Ethiopia. For centuries the Jewish minority, known as Beta Israel, lacked basic freedoms and independence both throughout Medieval and modern times. In the mid to late 1950s, the Ethiopian government under Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, a Marxist-Leninist dictator, instituted a policy where Ethiopian Jews were denied the right to own land and were often times forced off their own land by non-Jewish farmers. In the 1980s, Ethiopia forbade the practice of Judaism and teaching Hebrew.
Over 8,000 Ethiopian Jews made their way to Israel between 1977 and 1984, followed by a top secret Israeli government operation, known as Operation Moses in 1984, which was not made public due to Ethiopian government immigration restrictions and because Sudan was an Arab bloc nation. Operation Solomon in 1991 brought over 14,000 of Beta Israel and thousands more in later operations.
By coming to Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community was able to realize their ancient religious traditions which centered around the land of Israel and their return to the holy land. Throughout the long history of the Ethiopian Jewry, Jerusalem remained an important symbol in the community’s identity and religious practices, as symbolized by the Ethiopian holiday, known as Sigd, which the Israeli Knesset made a national Israeli holiday in 2008.
Ortal, a 16-year old Ashkelon high school student related that “my family endured horrific treatment in Ethiopia and many lost their lives on their way to Israel through Sudan. “We came to this country so we could be free, and we are here today protesting to maintain those freedoms,” she said during the protest.
Darasseh, a security guard at a Jerusalem high school agrees but also adds, “we need to appreciate the fact that we are far away from the persecution that our parents and grandparents experienced in Ethiopia…and most importantly, that we have the freedom to protest in Israel, which we didn’t have there.”