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Contestation as claim to integration: the May 2015 public protest movement of Ethiopian Israelis



Ethiopian Israelis demonstrating in Tel Aviv, with Ethiopian and Israeli flags side by side, 3 May 2015

Jan Abbink.  April-May 2015: Ethiopian Israelis come out en masse onto the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, the three largest cities of Israel, following a filmed incident of police abuse of an Ethiopian Israeli man. The short recording goes viral and evokes the anger of recognition among most of the ca. 135,000 Ethiopian Jews in the country. On 30 April, they protest in the thousands and demand ‘an end to discrimination, racist incidents, discrimination and inferior socio-economic position’. Some of the happenings turn into clashes with the police. In Tel Aviv, on 3 May, dozens of people get injured, and many arrested in the second demonstration. These are some of the largest protests of recent years in Israel.

Why this ‘sudden eruption’ of communal anger? Why this for many observers unexpected violent protest, with bottle- and stone-throwing and shop-looting Ethiopians, the police firing tear gas and stun grenades, and arresting dozens? Wasn’t the issue of Ethiopian-Jewish immigration and integration solved after previous crises of the 1990s? Obviously, no. In many respects the discourse of the demos, the slogans, the demands, and the reasons given for the discontent were very similar to those of ten or twenty years ago; it looked like a repetition of moves. There were several huge demonstrations in the past (e.g., one in 1995). The rhetoric of the government also was familiar, in promising an investigation, not only into the filmed police incident with the Ethiopian man, but also into the socio-economic and other problems reported by Ethiopian Israelis.

A lot of predictable clichés on the issue of the ‘structural’ racism and discrimination of Ethiopian Israelis were already offered, but some caution is needed to see the problems in some perspective. Interesting are the words of the abused soldier a few weeks ago: he lamented the indefensible actions of the two police officers treating him so badly, but he also rejected the violence of the protesting crowds in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And many Ethiopians were at pains to stress that despite the police action and violence this was not ‘Baltimore’.


Ethiopian protesters blocking the Tel Aviv Ayalon Freeway, May 3, 2015 (courtesy of HaAretz newspaper, 4 May 2015). The text says: ’We won’t keep silent anymore!’

Who are the Ethiopian Jews? They are one of the newest Jewish immigrant communities in Israel, their arrival dating from the 1980s. Their number rapidly grew during the late 1980s (famine and civil war in Ethiopia) and in the 1990s (a new regime in 1991 allowed most of them to leave for Israel), and in early 2015 almost the entire community of Ethiopian Jews lives in Israel. They were called ‘Beta Israel’ in Ethiopia (self-name), and known previously also as ‘Falashas,’ a label used in Ethiopia that they deeply resent, as it has a denigrating connotation. In Israel, people regularly call them ‘Kushi’, or ‘black’, also resented. The Ethiopian Jews should be distinguished from the Christian Ethiopians in Israel (a couple of thousand) who came as refugees/asylum seekers or, in earlier periods as religious pilgrims living in Jerusalem or Jericho (where the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has some property). The Ethiopian Jews also consciously distance themselves from other African immigrants of recent years, mostly asylum seekers, because they fear being identified with them (and with their low status).

Ethiopian Jews, after some 35 years in Israel, are still disadvantaged in the economic and social sense. They came from poor rural areas in northern Ethiopia to Israel for religious and security reasons. Only a minority lived in cities in Ethiopia or had received higher education. A vanguard of young Beta Israel, however, were part of the Leftist revolutionary movements that opposed the military dictatorship ruling in Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991. After these revolutionaries were defeated, the surviving leaders fled or went abroad. Many of them of Beta Israel background ended up in Israel, having come via Sudan. Forced out of Ethiopia, they developed a new agenda: to bring their relatives and friends – subject to discrimination, famine and other hardships in Ethiopia – to Israel. This was largely successful. The successive Israeli governments inserted the Ethiopian Beta Israel into the Zionist narrative offering sanctuary to Jews under the ‘Law of Return’, and assisted them with air lifts to Israel. The first to do so was the conservative-nationalist Prime Minister Menahem Begin (Likud Party, r. 1977-1983), for a long time a ‘hero’ among the Ethiopian Jews. Ambitious social integration programs were started, with carefully planned preferential treatment in education, language teaching, income assistance, easy access to housing, cheap mortgages, vocational training, etc.

A fact was that the Ethiopians started life in Israel from a disadvantaged background. They had a lack of exposure to literacy and education, to modern skills or to an urban technological society, lived in a small-scale kinship universe, and had no experience with any open democratic culture (utterly lacking in Ethiopia). And obviously they were black, which few if any of the Jewish communities in the world were (Another one was the Bené Israel community from India, which came to Israel since the late 1950s), and their descent from old Jewish communities had long been doubted. These historic doubts were ‘resolved’ in 1973 under a Rabbinic decree by one of Israel’s Chief Rabbis (who are responsible for civic status issues and marriage law in Israel) that “they were Jews in all respects” and should be welcomed back to the fold despite centuries of isolation. This is not the place to discuss the complexities of the issue, but suffice it to say that a kind of historic stigma, not primarily on the basis of skin colour but on that of Jewish religious law as to descent (‘Who is a Jew’), had initially set the community apart. In practice, though, skin colour became the signifier for stigma. While Ethiopian Jews had shown great determination and sacrifice to move to Israel[1] and were sincere in their commitment to the Jewish state, they could not escape serious adaptation problems.

The well-meaning and well-endowed state integration and ‘resocialization’ programs were paternalistic and stifling; they did not all work out to well. At present among the Ethiopians, unemployment is high (notably among older people), educational levels are below average, their youths are over-represented in jails, one-third of families are single-parent families, knowledge of the national language Hebrew is sub-standard, residential concentration is sometimes akin to ghettoization, and they meet regular social and cultural prejudice from other Israelis. An important socio-psychological reason was the feeling of not being seen as ‘Jews like any others’: in the 1980s and 1990s they had to undergo a ‘symbolic conversion’ to Judaism, to remove doubt on uncertain descent due to non-Jewish marriage laws. And in the course of years, the Ethiopian also came to feel that they were abandoned, and that society saw them more as ‘foreign implants’ rather than full, equal citizens. This picture of disadvantaged status does not affect the entire community, because there are many success stories, e.g., among the young generation. And at least three Ethiopian Israelis were elected into Parliament. But the overall statistics reveal serious problems. One indication of this is the existence of Ethiopian Jews’ male youth gangs.

So problems are deep and must still be addressed. State policies have largely failed, as also Israeli (ceremonial ) President R. Rivlin stated in a somewhat dramatic speech on 17 May, after the violent mass demonstrations. Many Israelis agree. In a 2014 survey among the general Israeli population, around 80% agreed that the Ethiopian Jews suffered racism. After the recent demonstrations, again a new round of policy evaluations and adjusting of assistance programs will start, and perhaps educational efforts will be reinvigorated.

A combination of familiar socio-economic factors and cultural issues such as prestige ranking and lingering collective stigma have combined to make life difficult for the Ethiopian Israelis. The problems are persistent and will not go away. But none of the Ethiopian Israelis return to Ethiopia. They make forceful claims for equality and inclusion into Israeli society as Jews with equal rights. One of the demonstration slogans was: “We don’t want favors, we want to be like everyone else.” Contestation serves as a means of emphatically claiming equality and integration, and the demands are skillfully presented by Ethiopians in an ideological, and not only legal, discourse that the Israeli state cannot refuse. Whether the state will be able solve the issues is, however, another matter. Appointing another committee of investigation will not help.

Jan Abbink did his doctoral research in anthropology on the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants that came to Israel in the 1980s.

[1] Many thousands trekked through the Sudan deserts to reach camps from where they could be brought to Israel (in the 1980s-1990s). More than 4,000 of them died during this long escape over land to Sudan. Others were arrested and died in Ethiopia.


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