Thousands of Ethiopian Jews took to the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over the past week in protest of what they said is the “racism and humiliation” they experience daily in Israeli society. The protests were sparked by security camera footage showing two Israeli police officers beating up an Ethiopian IDF soldier.
“The fact that the police beat up an Ethiopian soldier is very painful for us,” said Shmuel Belay, a young leader in the growing Ethiopian Messianic community in Israel. “We are soldiers, we are Israelis and we should be equal. The police would never beat up on a soldier like that if he was white."
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin agrees that there is a problem in Israel society. “The Ethiopian protesters in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv uncovered an open and raw wound at the heart of Israeli society,” he said. “The pain is of a community crying out over a sense of discrimination, racism, and lack of response. We have erred. We did not look, and we did not listen enough. Among the protesters on the streets are some of our finest sons and daughters: outstanding students, soldiers who served in the army. We owe them answers.”
When the protests themselves turned violent, the police turned out in full force and quickly restored order with water cannons, tear gas and dozens of arrests. Many criticized the protests because of the violence and disruptions to public order, but the Messianic Ethiopian leadership in Israel asked for understanding.
“I ask for prayer regarding the current situation among the Ethiopian-Israeli community in the Land in light of the recent incidents of racism and violence that are happening on a daily basis in this Holy Land,” Avishalom Teklehaimanot, a Messianic Ethiopian pastor from Haifa, told Israel Today. “I am concerned that the rift and discrimination is growing towards the Ethiopian-Israeli community. If you should have the opportunity to help and advocate for those on the receiving end and stand against this racism, please do so,” he pleaded.
According to a new survey published in recent days, more than a third (37%) of parents younger than 29-years-old would not allow their children to be in the same school as Ethiopian children.
“I am appalled by the results of this survey concerning racism towards the Ethiopians in Israel. I am ashamed of this nation and of the people who live here,” complained one Messianic leader from Tel Aviv. “I am beginning to understand that they had to use some force during the protests. I am sorry to say that only by force does the Israeli public begin to pay attention.”
Belay says that his people the Ethiopians also need to do more. “During the protests no one was talking about the fact that we are part of this nation. They only talk about racism and inequality. My people must show everyone that we love Israel, we are part of the Jewish nation and we are proud to be here,” he said.
The young Ethiopian believer continued: “Messianic Ethiopians tend to stay together in their own groups and do not integrate with the rest of the country. That’s a problem we need to correct. My sister and I organized a day of Ethiopian culture for Messianic Jews in Jerusalem. We sang our songs in Amharic, showed Ethiopian art, saw a movie about Ethiopian immigration and told stories of our return to Zion. This is something that the Ministry of Education should do to help integrate our children into Israeli society."
More than 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, having immigrated in two waves in 1984 and 1991. But they have struggled to integrate into Israeli society amidst lingering accusations of institutional discrimination.