The massive protests by Tel Aviv’s Ethiopian Jews hold a crucial lesson for Israel

When several thousand Israelis protested in Tel Aviv on Sunday, in response to the brutal and unprovoked police beating of an Ethiopian Jewish solider, many outsiders immediately asked if there were parallels to the American protests in Ferguson or Baltimore. There’s some truth to that comparison. Ethiopian Israelis, like African Americans, are disproportionately harassed by police and broadly marginalized in a majority-white country.

But what’s going on in Israel is actually much more complex than that — and says much more about how issues of race and identity function in the country. One sign of that: Israel’s Ethiopian community is a group that from its very beginning was both subject to discrimination and a source of immense Israeli national pride. Another sign: after the protests, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited the Ethiopian-Israeli soldier to his office for a public meeting, where Netanyahu told him, “We cannot accept this.”

The community’s status tells us some really important things about identity in Israel: who matters most to the country, and why.

Ethiopian Jews are both privileged and disenfranchised in Israel

ethiopian jews arrive Israel

Ethiopian Jews arriving in Israel in the early ’90s. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

There are about 135,000 Ethiopians in Israel, almost all Jews. Many were first brought to Israel from Ethiopia in a series of airlifts, dubbed Operations Moses (1984) and Solomon (1991), designed to bring the Ethiopian Jewish community back to what they saw as their ancestral home.

Mainstream Israeli society greeted these airlifts, a massive operation by the Israeli government, with jubilance.

“It was difficult to tell who was more joyful — the barefoot Ethiopians who cheered, ululated and bent down to kiss the tarmac as they stepped off the planes,” the New York Times reported the day Operation Solomon ended, “or the Israelis who watched them aglow, marveling at this powerful image showing that their state still holds appeal, even with all its problems.”

Yet despite the national celebration, the Ethiopian communities faced discrimination almost immediately upon arrival. After Operation Moses, Israel’s chief rabbinate “insisted that they undergo a symbolic immersion ceremony upon arriving in the country to put to rest any doubts about their Jewishness,” Haaretz‘s Judy Maltz recounts. “Flabbergasted that they were the only community to be singled out for this ritual, many of the new immigrants took to the streets in protest.”

The contrast between the public reception of Ethiopian Jews and this discrimination captures an essential truth about Ethiopian Israelis. As Jews, they enjoy a status and stake in mainstream Israeli society totally unavailable to, say, Arab Muslims — much less Palestinians. But they’re also a small, poor minority group, and are treated as such by the Jewish state’s official institutions.

“Despite the fact that Ethiopians feel that they’re discriminated against and mistreated, they still have strong trust and faith in Israeli institutions,” Guy Ben-Porat, an associate professor at Ben Gurion University and an author of a forthcoming survey on police-minority relations in Israel, told me. “We explain this paradox by the fact that they really want to belong. They really want to be part of the Jewish collective.”

This tension — being both in-group and out-group at the same time — is a defining element of Ethiopian-Israeli identity. It also explains Israeli society’s somewhat surprising reaction to the uprising.

Is anger toward discrimination against Ethiopian Jews boiling over?

ethiopian jews protest

Ethiopian Israelis protest police violence against their community in Tel Aviv. The clashes turned violent, and both officers and protesters were injured. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

While Sunday’s protests were sparked by police violence, the anger in Israel’s Ethiopian community is about more than police behavior.

“It’s not just about police,” Ben-Porat said. “It’s about overall divisions in Israeli society.” That reflects divides over immigration, race, and class.

Israel has a conflicted relationship with migrants, particularly African ones. Though Israelis nominally love immigration, specifically Jewish immigration, in practice they can be hostile to migrants seeking to settle in Israel.

After an Israeli lawmaker called undocumented African immigrants a “cancer” on Israeli society in 2012, the Israel Democracy Institute asked Israelis whether they agreed. Fifty-two percent said yes; 80 percent said they opposed an “open door” policy for refugees persecuted in their home countries.

Some of the harassment and discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis may be driven by this hostility to immigrants, even though about 40,000 of them are Israeli-born. Ethiopians “are often being thought of as illegal migrants,” Ben-Porat says, which “adds to the pressure and persecution” they face.

Circumstances are already difficult for Ethiopian Israelis, who tend to be poor. A 2012 Brookdale Institute report found that 41 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli families lived in poverty, compared with 15 percent among the general Jewish population.

The “Ethiopian Israeli community continues to lag behind in almost all socioeconomic indicators,” Maltz writes. “Ethiopian Israelis are more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to attend university than Jews overall. They are less likely to be employed, and when they do work, they earn considerably less than their peers.”

Ethiopian Israelis’ social marginalization is important context for understanding why police often treat them so poorly.

“There’s a problem in many places in the way police relate to minorities — especially minorities that are visible and are weak,” Ben-Porat says. “You see it in Baltimore, you see it in Ferguson, Missouri, you see it in Paris, France, and you see it in Israel.”

But there’s a difference in how Israel treats this minority. A core part of Israel’s Zionist identity is a mission of ingathering the world’s Jews and serving as a safe haven for them. This Zionist ideology inclines mainstream Israeli society to take the concerns of the Ethiopian community seriously. Harm done to them is harm done to Jews — which shouldn’t be tolerated in the Jewish state.

What will mainstream Israel do?

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Ethiopian-Israeli soldier Damas Pakada, a victim of police violence. (Pool/Israeli Prime Ministry/Haim Zach/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Israeli leaders seem to understand that something fundamental needs to be fixed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the Ethiopian man beaten by police, a soldier named Damas Pakada, and said that “police will do whatever needs to be done to fix its conduct” and “we need to also fix Israeli society.”

And Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party and one of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, visited the protests in Tel Aviv. This may seem surprising to some international observers, as many see Bennett’s view of the Palestinians as outwardly racist.

But Ethiopians are Jews, and that makes all the difference. Right-wing parties, the ones most skeptical of concessions to the Palestinians, have a history of building a support base among Israel’s less-privileged Jews. Netanyahu’s Likud, in particular, long relied on votes from Sephardic Jews, Jews of Arab and North African descent who have long been marginalized relative to the European-descended Ashkenazim. People who may not have much sympathy for Palestinians in the West Bank or Israel’s Arab citizens feel very differently about Jewish minorities.

“Police violence against Arab citizens has been even more problematic than against Ethiopian immigrants, but nobody cares about Arab citizens,” Ben-Porat says. “Ethiopian citizens are part of the Jewish collective. So when they’re being beaten up this brutally, people sympathize with them.”

It’s easy, and politically necessary, for Netanyahu and Bennett to decry the beating of Jews by Israeli police. But Ethiopian Israelis have been marginalized for decades — which Ben-Porat suggests reflects the fact that they only make up about 2 percent of Israel’s population, and a poor 2 percent at that.

“At the end of the day, it’s a very small group,” he says. “They’re insignificant electorally. They have no political power. So [different] parties might have more or less sympathy for Ethiopians, but I don’t think there’s much political need” for any party to stand up for them.

“Talking,” Ben-Porat concludes, “is cheap.”

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