Ethiopians in Israel: Separate, but not equal

12 July 2015
In The Media

As a country founded on the idea of being a “safe house” for the Jewish people, Israel has done a pretty unimpressive job ensuring that same safety for the totality of its citizens; more specifically, for its people of color.

In light of the recent Ethiopian Israeli pro-rights rallies it has become clear how utterly discriminatory the State of Israel has become. Since their initial immigration (i.e. operations Moses and Solomon) and those that soon followed, Ethiopians have been treated differently because of their foreign culture and dark skin. Israelis of Ethiopian descent live remarkably dissimilar lives from the rest of their light-skinned counterparts, as they have unequal opportunities for housing, employment and education.

Although 70 percent of the Ethiopian Israelis currently living in Israel were born in the state, the government still treats them all as new immigrants; there are special systems that single them out from the rest of society.

This is not to say that the government has not attempted to fix the problems, but its approaches are questionable.

More specifically, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry is still creating integration policies for all Ethiopians, yet its focus should be on new immigrants only. By grouping all Ethiopians into one category, racial and immigrant discrimination forms much more easily.

“We believe that one of the basic problems with [state run] programs is that they sustain the separation of Ethiopians from the community at large by creating special Ethiopian programs,” says Shula Mola, who chairs the board of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), “and that a deep change in conception is now needed if the Ethiopian community in Israel is to thrive.”

There is a continuous cycle of government disinvestment from the Ethiopian Israeli community. These Jews are, quite bluntly, segregated from the rest of the Israeli population because of their differences in origin, and are stuck there. For example, only nine percent of Ethiopian immigrants have high-paying jobs, as opposed to about 35% of the rest of the immigrant population in Israel.

However, only 12% of Israeli-born Ethiopians fulfill this same statistic, compared to 45% of the rest of the Israeli- born population. While employment rates are generally the same across the board, Ethiopians mostly work lower- level jobs, and many live under the poverty line.

With the recent release of a video displaying the brutal beating of Ethiopian soldier Damas Pakada, there have been multiple anti-racism demonstrations that have only gained publicity due to the minor amounts of violence that occur during the protests, much of which is instigated by the overwhelming number of policemen present. The media, along with law enforcement, love to spin an equal rights and justice rally into a sort of uprising by a ghettoized minority group. It is reminiscent of the way Jews were once pigeonholed into this stereotype, and saddening that Israel is doing the same to its own people.

Considering that the Jewish nation has experienced this type of isolation and has been persecuted and oppressed for thousands of years, it is baffling that in the year 2015 there are still any Jews unfairly treating their own brothers and sisters. All that Ethiopian Jews want is to be integrated with the rest of the Jewish people; they want to simply be considered equals.

At a rally last Tuesday in Tel Aviv, a multicultural human rights youth group, Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed, came to support the Ethiopians in their endeavors for equal rights. One member stated that, “Yes, we have different cultures [in Israel] and come from different backgrounds, but we are all Israeli. We are one – just one – in this country.” Support like this is needed nationwide in order to generate change; advocacy in even the smallest of quantities can bring more attention to the social issues that Ethiopian Israelis face.

The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews aims at creating this specific change through political activism and advocacy in the Knesset, in order to erase the boundaries and improve the overall quality of life for Ethiopian Israelis.

They are one of few NGOs that stress the importance of helping to create a more just society and enable Ethiopian Israelis to close the social gaps that have prevailed for so long.

Many of these pro-Ethiopian rights non-profits believe it is the government’s job to initiate and make change in order for its entire people to live equally and fairly. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, the philosopher draws us to this same conclusion. He asks, “What, then, is government? It is an intermediate body set up between subjects and sovereign to ensure their mutual correspondence, and is entrusted with the execution of laws and with the maintenance of liberty, both social and political.” He continues, “It is always ready to sacrifice the government to the people, and not the people to the government.”

Ethiopian Israelis are constantly sacrificing for the sake of their government by giving up some of their social liberty, but it should really be the sovereign doing this for its people. Ethiopian Israelis need the Knesset to make an effort to erase social norms like racism, in order that they live to their fullest potential as Jews in their homeland.

Incentivizing Ethiopian immigrants to live in segregated neighborhoods and subjecting them to poor school systems will only cause this sequence of events to continue.

Telling children not to go to certain places that are “dangerous” because there are Ethiopians that live in that area is prejudiced.

Police throwing tear gas at demonstrators trying to get justice for many Ethiopians living under the law is inhumane.

Ethiopian Jews are just as equal as Russian Jews, Moroccan Jews, Yemenite Jews, American Jews, Slavic Jews, Canadian Jews and all other types of Jews. Israel’s parliament seriously needs to get its head out of the toilet, trash its bubbling xenophobic mentality and begin treating all of its people right.

Tamara Weg is a third-year student studying public policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She is currently interning for the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews in Jerusalem, and is a passionate equal rights advocate.

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