Ethiopian Israelis: ‘A community crying out’

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The clashes between Ethiopian-Israeli protesters and police over the weekend have drawn international attention to one of the most disadvantaged groups in Israel.

“The protesters, in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, revealed an open and raw wound at the heart of Israeli society,” said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. “The pain of a community crying out over a sense of discrimination, racism, and of being unanswered.”

But who are the Ethiopian Israelis and what are their grievances?

Most arrived in recent decades

Many Ethiopian Jews came to Israel in two large waves of migration in the 1980s and early 1990s after the Chief Rabbinate of Israel recognized them as Jews in 1975. Their ancestors had lived in Ethiopia for thousands of years.

Some of the Israeli efforts to bring Jews into Ethiopia involved high stakes, like the clandestine Operation Moses in 1984. The arrivals continued into the 21st century, until 2013, when Israel ended the program of mass repatriations from Ethiopia.

They have struggled to integrate

After the sudden transition — often from rural villages in Ethiopia to developed Israeli towns — a lot of Ethiopian Israelis have found it difficult to integrate into society. “Many Ethiopian Israelis knew how to read and write before they arrived, but there were others who had never seen a mirror, never owned a pair of shoes, never ridden in an elevator, etc.,” says Tebeka, a group that provides legal assistance to Ethiopian Israelis.

Language often proved a barrier in their new home. “Many of them are from rural Ethiopia, they speak Amharic and dialect,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The vast majority were very slow to learn Hebrew because they were older. The younger generation does, but even 50% of the younger generation don’t graduate from high school.”

Economically, they’re at a disadvantage

Today, Ethiopian Israelis make up a small, underprivileged portion of society. They’re estimated to number around 135,000, roughly 1.5% to 2% of the overall population. They have the highest poverty rate of any Jewish segment of Israeli society, according to the Ethiopian National Project.

“They’re poor, it’s very hard getting jobs,” Landis said. “They feel like they’re discriminated against in marriage — many Rabbis have refused to marry them unless they go through a symbolic conversion.” According to government statistics, 88% of Ethiopian Israelis are married to other Ethiopian Israelis, highlighting their low level of intermarriage.

Relations with police are strained

Ethiopian Israelis are particularly upset about their treatment by police. Many of them feel they are being racially profiled and that police are heavier handed with them than with other groups, according to Guy Ben-Porat, an associate professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“Ethiopians believe they’re being singled out more than other people,” said Ben-Porat, who is studying relations between minority groups and police. “Non-Ethiopians don’t feel the same way, except Arab citizens.” Young Ethiopian Israelis are reported to have far higher incarceration rates than the rest of the population.

Their anger has boiled over

The resentment of the police, particularly among young male Ethiopian Israelis, has been around for years. The current anger was set off of by a video that went viral showing a uniformed Israel Defense Forces soldier of Ethiopian descent being assaulted by police.

The anti-police demonstrations in Israel have been compared with those in the United States over police treatment of African-Americans. “Both cases are about racial profiling — people feeling they’re being targeted by police because of their skin color,” Ben-Porat said.

But the issues run deeper. “Their frustrations are not just about the police but also the education system, the economic system — they have lots of grudges,” he said. “Police violence is just the trigger, the feelings are about much wider issues.”

Tackling the issues could take generations

After the clashes between protesters and police Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would meet with leaders in the Ethiopian community, as well as the soldier who was assaulted in the video.

Landis said that’s a positive sign, but just the start on a long road. “It’s going to require a dialogue that goes on for years and generations, as we’ve found in the United States,” he said. “There can’t just be a civil rights movement of a few years and it goes away. This is an ongoing problem and it’s very deep-seated. It’s socially ingrained.”

Israeli President Rivlin appeared to agree in his comments about the situation. “We must look directly at this open wound, he said. “We have erred. We did not look, and we did not listen enough.”

By Jethro Mullen

CNN’s Oren Liebermann contributed to this report.