At Thursday's demonstration, protesters threw rocks and glass bottles at police officers trying to prevent them from marching to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence. The crowd was dispersed with tear gas and stun grenades. Thirteen Ethiopian Israeli protesters and three officers were lightly injured.
Many compared the protests in Israel to those that erupted last week in Baltimore and other cities in the United States. As in Baltimore, the anger voiced by Ethiopian Jews was sparked by an incident of alleged police brutality. Although no one died in police custody in Israel, unlike in the Baltimore case, security cameras caught an assault on an Ethiopian Israeli soldier who was in uniform. The footage shows two police officers beating the young man seemingly unprovoked.
Jews from Ethiopia first started arriving in Israel en masse in the mid-1980s and through the early 1990s. Today they continue to immigrate but in smaller numbers. According to figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, about 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel.
Although roughly one-third of the community was born in Israel, speaks fluent Hebrew and serves in the army, community leaders claim that discrimination and a lack of understanding of their cultural values prevents them from progressing in Israeli society.
The protests are “the price of years of neglect and racism. Our young people are desperate, and if the government doesn’t act, this will just be the beginning,” said Gadi Yevarkan, director of the Center for Social Equality for Ethiopian Jews, the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported.
Despite attempts by Netanyahu, who will meet with community representatives on Monday, and police chief Yohanan Danino, who on Thursday established a special commission to investigate cases of police brutality, Ethiopian Jews say the racism they experience is institutionalized and ongoing.
“People see our protest as limited to police violence against the Ethiopian community. The truth is that this is just the tip of the iceberg: the violence and the racism against us are not only from the police,” Ethiopian-born journalist Danny Adino Abebe wrote Sunday in Yedioth Ahronoth.
This is not the first time the community has turned out in large numbers to protest racism. In 2012, the refusal by a tenants association in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi to rent to an Ethiopian family sparked similar protests.
The government has made some efforts in the past decade to improve the integration and economic standing of Ethiopian immigrants, investing millions of dollars to boost the community. However, a 2013 report by the state comptroller found that Ethiopian Israelis were still underrepresented in higher education and in the public-service sector. Additionally, their desertion rate in compulsory military service, mostly due to economic factors, was three times as high as the general population.