The pictures that consumed the attention of Israelis overnight Thursday seemed grimly in tune with those that filled American and international airwaves over the past two weeks: Young men and women, overwhelmingly black and some with their hands raised high to indicate they were unarmed, clashing with heavily armed police.
But instead of happening in places like Ferguson, Baltimore or New York, these confrontations took place in the center of Jerusalem, and the protesters weren’t African-Americans but Ethiopian Israelis.
The images were not the only things that echoed Baltimore: As in the United States, the proximate cause for the protest was police brutality, in this case called for after footage emerged showing an Ethiopian Israel Defense Forces (IDF) conscript brutally beaten by policemen directing traffic away from a suspected bomb package.
That footage was merely the last straw. Of all Israeli Jewish citizens, Israeli Ethiopians suffer the worst mistreatment by police. Although they form merely 1.25 percent of the general population, Ethiopian Israelis comprise over 30 percent of the population in Israeli jails.
While deaths in custody are relatively rare, incidents such as the one that sparked Thursday’s protest are the rule rather than the exception.
One Israeli filmmaker and talk show host, Amnon Levy, reflected on his Facebook page on Thursday that a few months ago, he and his crew reached out to the Ethiopian community to seek out men who have been manhandled by police. They were told to simply approach any male passerby in any Ethiopian neighborhood; almost anyone would have a story to share. Levy confirmed that is exactly what occurred. In a telling reference to Israel’s complex hierarchy of social privilege, in more than one incident, Ethiopians — who already face discrimination — were reportedly abused because police mistook them for members of an even more mistreated underclass: asylum seekers from Eritrea and South Sudan.
But friction with police is only one manifestation of a broader phenomenon. Over half of the Ethiopian families in Israel live below the poverty line. Less than half of Ethiopian students successfully graduate from high school, and less than a quarter of Ethiopian students have good enough grades to attempt a university degree.
Despite few exceptions, Ethiopian culture and the Ethiopian strands of Judaism in Israel are largely ignored or willfully eroded by the Israeli mainstream. Israeli rabbinical institutions have fought tooth and nail against recognizing Ethiopian kahens, or spiritual leaders of the community, as fellow rabbis. Now, the first generation of the kahens is dying out, and most of the new Ethiopian rabbis and religious scholars are products of a standardized state religious education system, which allows for less cultural autonomy.
The Ethiopian community has also suffered a number of abuses not shared by any other Israeli minority. In 2013, state clinics in Israel had been prescribing Ethiopian women with Depo Provera, without telling them it was a contraceptive drug. The result — which alerted social workers to the practice — was the halving of the birthrate in the community in just a decade.
Fifteen years earlier, newspapers revealed that blood donations from Ethiopians to the Israeli blood bank were unceremoniously flushed away immediately on reception, on the untested assumption they were likely to carry HIV. The revelation provoked the largest protests in the community’s history, and Thursday’s protest echoed their cry: “Is our blood good only for you wars?”
The response of the Israeli authorities to mounting discontent, at least regarding police brutality, has been relatively forthcoming. The officer captured in the video was suspended that same day, and much of the leadership of the Ethiopian community is engaged in a long-term consultation process between the top brass of the police and a wide range of community leaders. Also, Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Friday morning showed documents quoting Israeli officials referring to data that indicates “over-enforcement” in the Ethiopian community and admitting most Ethiopian youths see police as the enemy.
More startlingly still, as of Friday evening in Israel, there was virtually zero conservative backlash against the protesters. The wall-to-wall consensus appears to acknowledge Ethiopians are severely discriminated and that something needs to be done.
Much of the reason for the lack of a major backlash to the protests is likely that, despite their excluded position within Israeli society, the gulf between Israelis of African heritage and country’s mainstream is dwarfed by other conflicts in the country, particularly that between Israeli Jews and Palestinians — both with and without Israeli citizenship.
The other divide, almost as fundamental but badly under-reported outside Israel, is that between Ashkenazi Jews, who are of European descent, and Mizrahi Jews, who are of Middle Eastern or North African descent.
Although both institutional and everyday racism against Ethiopian Israelis is frequent, at the end of the day, their numbers are too small to deter even the most entrenched Israeli elites from at least partly acknowledging their plight.
Nevertheless, the rally and clashes on Thursday illustrate cracks in the notion of Israel’s Jewish melting pot, a notion devised and promulgated by the founding secular European leadership of the state. It foresaw all Jewish traditions from all Jewish diasporas melting together to forge a single whole.
For decades, the traditions of Israel’s Ashkenazi elite have proved peculiarly resilient, while the traditions and identities of other groups were shunted aside. Friday’s protest could be the latest suggestion that fewer and fewer Israelis outside the upper class buy into this particular founding myth, and that the Israeli body politic is more divided than most Israelis would care to admit.