February 17, 2020

Don’t Americanize Israel’s Ethiopian Riots

Photo by Corinna Kern/Reeuters

Ethiopian Israelis, first, second and third generation, stormed the streets in protest for almost two weeks. Some of the protests often included the blocking of roads; and violence and destruction of property. A clear date for ending the protest, or a clear objective that could end the protest, was not set by anyone. So, we must assume this will only end when the protesting public gets tired of it. 

The immediate cause of the protest was the killing of a young Ethiopian, Solomon Tekah, by an off-duty police officer. The broader cause is what Ethiopians describe as systemic discrimination against their community, which includes police brutality. The facts are not always on the side of the protesters, but beating feelings and emotions with facts is not easy. 

The tendency of an observer in the United States to Americanize this Israeli issue is natural. To identify them, look for headlines with the automatic catchphrase “Black Lives Matter.” Indeed, comparing black protests is tempting: Black Israelis are raising a flag of racism and discrimination. Black Israelis argue that white Israelis are not sensitive to their daily struggle. Black Israelis take to the streets to protest against police brutality. Is this not exactly like America?

The reason this is not like America begins with two very different histories of two black communities.

It is not. And the reason why begins with two very different histories of two black communities. Africans were shipped to America as slaves. Ethiopian Israelis were brought by their own country to play their part in the great Zionist saga of gathering Israel’s tribes. Moreover, African Americans had to fight for equality. Ethiopian equality, at least the principle of it, was a given. And yes, mistakes were made. And yes, there are clearly some issues that are not yet resolved. And yet, Israel invested resources in helping the newcomers more than in any other community. There are social workers and educators, there are government branches and non-governmental organizations, there are programs and subsidies. There are also successes. Many successes. Ethiopian Jews came to Israel with very little property. They came to Israel unprepared for modern life. As a group, they made a giant leap in a relatively short period of time.

Alas, what they see is not yesterday’s achievements. What they see is today’s failures. The community, on average, is still poor. It still has a high rate of crime, suicide and domestic violence. It still has an image problem. 

The majority of Israeli Jews want Ethiopian Jews to integrate and succeed. The majority of Israeli Jews say that Ethiopian Jews contribute to the prosperity and well-being of the country. But it’s hard to deny that there is a problem connected to the fact that Ethiopians are easily identified because of skin color. 

The media was sympathetic to the unrest. The government will be quick to respond, by throwing more money at the situation and looking more seriously into making improvements that have the potential to tame the anger. The police have been working to amend relations with the community in the last few years. Every incident disrupts this process, but the growing number of Ethiopian policemen is a sign of progress. 

The most worrying aspect of the violent protests that we’ve seen in recent days (and also a few months ago) is the prospect of the Ethiopian integration issue being Americanized. That is, of it becoming not a short-term difficulty in need of a quick and efficient response, but rather a long-term problem, maybe permanent, with all the associated baggage of cultural fissures, intrinsic anger and fear, and a great sense of alienation.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israel and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.