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The Ethiopian Story – by ‘David’

Photo: Harvey Sapir. Photography PikWiki Israel

Damas Pakada is an IDF soldier, the recipient of an award for distinguished military service from former President Shimon Peres, and an Israeli who emigrated from Ethiopia with his four siblings seven years ago. Last April 27, in his IDF uniform, Pakada was viciously beaten in Holon by Israeli police officers in an apparently unprovoked attacked. The beating was caught on video by a witness who posted it online. When the video went viral, members of an enraged Ethiopian community staged demonstrations in cities throughout Israel, with some turning violent—notably an anti-police brutality demonstration in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, in which protesters pelted police with rocks and bottles, while police responded by firing stun grenades and repeatedly charging the crowd on horseback.

In the wake of the demonstrations, riots and public outcry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Pakada to personally apologize, and two officers responsible for the beating were suspended. But later, on June 14, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein acquiesced to recommendations from the state prosecutor and the Police Internal Investigations Department that charges against the police officers be dropped and the investigation ended. Throwing more fuel on the fire, Justice Ministry investigators declared that Pakada had initiated the confrontation with the policemen, whose handling of the situation, they said, was "impeccable".

The effect of this decision was a virtual volcano of rage which exploded on June 21, when Ethiopian Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest racism, police brutality, and a seemingly endless status of social, economic, and political disenfranchisement from the State of Israel.

The protest began peacefully, soon turned violent, and resulted in the arrest of at least 19 people in clashes with police. Even more tellingly perhaps, the street clashes were accompanied by an online campaign by Ethiopian Israeli soldiers calling on other Ethiopian soldiers to "abandon the system that has abandoned you".

It is June 22, one day after the Tel Aviv riots, and I am standing in the center of an Ethiopian neighborhood in a medium-sized Israeli city. Like the Lower East side of New York and London's East End, these streets have been the first stop and first home for generations of immigrants. Built originally to house the first wave of immigrants from North Africa to the new State of Israel, the neighborhood subsequently became home to new arrivals from the Soviet Union. In the early 1980s, the area transformed—almost overnight, some people say—into a neighborhood composed almost totally of immigrants from Ethiopia.

I am standing on a quiet, narrow backstreet with a former ESRA chairperson who tells me how this neighborhood was, until relatively recently, a "no-go area". Rife with violence, drugs, crime and despair, this was a dangerous place where few outsiders dared to tread. Then, around nine years ago, the people of the blighted neighborhood began to organize. They formed a neighborhood committee, or counsel, that began to police the streets, clean up the area and significantly bring down crime to the point where people now feel safe here day and night. ESRA arrived and organized a highly successful educational mentoring initiative called the Students Build a Community Project, and helped a now vibrant neighborhood community center.

We enter the community center, where we are greeted by its founder and director, a young man who came to Israel from the Gondar region of Ethiopia in 2008. He asks me not to write his real name; I'll call him "David". David ushers us into a small room and proffers refreshments of coffee and roasted ears of corn. I ask him about the whys and wherefores of the riots last night, and those that occurred a few weeks before. His reply is direct, heartfelt and genuinely eloquent. I reproduce it here, translated verbatim from Hebrew.

If we are going to ask why the riots have happened, why they erupted with such power now and not before, we have to go down to the root of the problem. This involves the second generation of Ethiopians, who are at this point in their lives students, or a little bit older.

According to what I see and my long experience working with people this age, this generation has reached the point where they want to say, "We are here. We are Israelis. Why are we being treated like this?" They are trying to understand why they, and their parents for the last 30 years, have been treated the way they have been treated.

So in order to understand why these demonstrations happened, we have to look at a much wider set of circumstances and not just at the demonstrations themselves. There is so much below the surface.

We know that the Jewish population of Ethiopia reached Ethiopia around two and a half to three thousand years ago. We were a minority there, surrounded by people of other religions and other nationalities. Through all that, like Jews in the rest of the world, we survived. We survived because of the purity of our religion, our belief in our religion, and our closeness among ourselves.

Even though we were called "Falashas"—strangers—and "pagans" and "non-believers", and treated as such, our belief in our religion and the ideal of someday reaching Jerusalem was what helped us survive and what kept us going. Our awareness, particularly over the last 200 years, that we had brother Jews elsewhere, all over the world, helped us believe that we would eventually reunite in Jerusalem with our Jewish brethren. In Ethiopia, we had the same skin color as everyone else. The difference was that we were Jews.

And then, in the 1980s, we were actually coming to Israel. The journey here was very difficult. Out of Ethiopia, through Sudan. Many of us died. We arrived here hungry, and with many family members dead. We had to put up with violence from others along the way. Many of us were murdered. Women and girls were raped. But this did not stop us from our goal of coming to Israel and reuniting with our brothers.

Despite our grief for the people we had lost, and our exhaustion from all we had been through along the way here, we arrived with a sense of pride. We felt heroic. We expected to beembraced by the community of Israel, embraced by our fellow Jews who would be proud of us for withstanding all we went through to get here.

That did not happen. We arrived here and after all we suffered as Jews to get here, we were told we were not really Jewish. Even our religious leaders, our kesim, were told that they and we had to go through a religious conversion in order to be Jewish. Just imagine that here are these kesim who are told they have to take down their pants and do a brit milah. Those who refused, like my father, just ran away from it.

This caused problems in our community. Some said that those who agreed to be 'converted' were actually admitting that we were not Jews. These people were asked, "How could you do this?" And this caused a split in the community, which you can see here in this neighborhood today. We have the kesim and their followers, and we have someone who became a rabbi here in Israel, with different ways of doing things, and with his own followers. So the community is severely divided.

The humiliation that we had to go through, after our terrible journey to get here, the destruction of our dreams of what would happen when we would finally return to Jerusalem was like a blow to the head. These dreams had sustained us for hundreds of years, and they were instantlydestroyed when we arrived.

Imagine how we felt as this terrible journey we had taken to return to the home of our religion turned into a situation of "Africans coming to Israel from a land of poverty and strife in order to enjoy the fruits of a land of milk and honey." That's how people here saw us. Israeli society was of the opinion that they had done a wonderful thing by "saving these poor and miserable people, these Africans, by bringing them to Eretz Yisrael." What they should have seen were people, Jews, who had survived all these years, through all their hardships, to fulfil their dream of getting to Eretz Yisrael. Our terrible journey here through Sudan was something heroic. But instead it has turned into a story where the heroes are the IDF, the Mossad and Israeli society who all say they brought us here. What we did has not been acknowledged.

When we arrived here, our names were changed and our ages were decided upon according to our size. If you were small, you were a child. If you were big, you were an adult. We had to change our clothing, because what we were wearing was not acceptable to Israeli society. We were told that our language, Amharic, would be of no use here in Israel, and that we would have to learn to speak Hebrew. This caused a break between children and their parents. The parents had difficulty learning Hebrew, and the children were discouraged from speaking Amharic. They were not allowed to speak it in school. Our cultural differences were seen as burdens.

So in this way, they took away our journey to Israel, our Jewishness, our culture and our traditions. Our dreams to be a part of Israeli society were taken away from us. We were put into ghettos. The schools for our children were in those ghettos, and we became a small homogenous community, with no relation to the rest of Israeli society. Our children have grown up in the periphery of society. Even when we're in the middle of town, we're still in the periphery of society. A generation that grows up like this is going to have very low self-esteem. But the problem is not our inability to integrate into Israeli society. It's Israeli society's inability to integrate us.

Yet through all this the older generation, the parents did not give up hope. The parents resigned themselves to having to change their children's names. The parents accepted that their children would be sent to special boarding schools all over the country, away from the parents. The parents even accepted that their children would stop speaking Amharic, which meant that their children would stop speaking to them. They accepted everything that was happening, with the hope and belief that in the future their children would be fully accepted and integrated into Israeli society.

But now we have come to the point where we understand that Israeli society has actually abandoned the Ethiopian community. There are schools, like those in Petah Tikva, that won't even accept Ethiopian children. Even in the army, where conscription of Ethiopians is the highest percentage in all of Israel's population, many Ethiopians don't get through the army because of discrimination and the jobs they are given. And even students who have graduated college and gotten degrees are working as waiters and waitresses, as security guards, and all kinds of low-pay temporary jobs, because better opportunities are not open to them. The difference in salary levels that Ethiopians get and what the rest of Israeli society is getting is between 30 and 40 percent, and that's when they manage to get jobs at all. So how is the second generation going to empower themselves and close the gap between them and the rest of Israel? How are they going to do this?

When we go out of our areas, into town, into Tel Aviv or Netanya and we want to go to a nightclub or something like that, the doorman tells us, "Sorry, this is a private party. You can't come in." This is even though we see everyone else going in, but we cannot. Police stop us on the street because of our color. So the second generation that has grown up here feels that they have lost their identity, that they are allowed no individual identity, and that they're all seen simply as Ethiopians. Something different, something strange and something frightening.

We know now that we will never be "sabras". We will never be Israelis. And this has brought us to a point where we feel this is no longer acceptable. When that soldier was attacked by the police in his IDF uniform, it showed me that the very uniform that I'm wearing to protect the citizens of Israel cannot protect me. We have no greater ideal than to be a soldier in the IDF. This is the very symbol of being Israeli. But that attack by the police showed young people of Ethiopian origin who had been through the army and done everything they were supposed to do that regardless of what they do, they will never be full citizens of Israel.

The older generation accepted their position here and are living in this position as the lowest level of Israel society. But the second generation has had enough of being stopped and blocked wherever they go. They don't want pity. They don't want hand-outs. They want equality. They want to be treated as part of Israeli society. And if they can't be, they have nowhere to go. The demonstrations have not been done in order to isolate themselves from Israeli society. They have been demonstrating to integrate themselves with the rest of Israel.

I know that millions of shekels have been poured into the Ethiopian community to aid the Ethiopian aliyah. The rest of Israel knows this as well and complains about the amount of money spent. But what they don't know is that the amount of money that actually gets to the people on the ground is only 30 percent of the total. And on that 30 percent, nothing can really be built.

There are many good people working day and night for the good of the Ethiopian community and for the integration of the community. But they are a small minority in a country where the majority is silent and does nothing. Unless there is some sort of systemized program by the government to do something serious for the Ethiopian community, things will not get better and are likely to become much worse.

So here is what we want.

One: Don't send us to jail because we're black.

Two: Give us the same quality education that you give to the rest of Israeli society, while accepting our culture and our differences.

Three: We have a history behind us and a narrative to tell. Get our stories from our parents, from us, and not from outsiders with political agendas. Listen to what we have to say. We are here, and we suffered to get here. Let us be proud of ourselves and you will finally be proud of us too.

Four: Let us work—on an equal basis and for equal pay, so we can leave our ghettos and become part of Israel.

And finally, stop seeing us as people whose identity is based only on the color of our skin. We cannot let the next generation of Jews from Ethiopia grow up in that kind of environment.

There really isn't much to say after David finishes speaking. His remarks will no doubt spark a great deal of heated debate in some quarters, but no one is much in the mood for debate at this moment.

We thank David for the coffee, the roast corn, and for a perspective on the Ethiopian aliyah that most Israelis probably never get to hear. 



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