Do black lives matter in Israel? Ethiopian Jews protest racism and police brutality

DAVID SHEEN | 5/21/2015, 5:43 p.m.

The last time that Ethiopian-Israelis held large protests against anti-Black racism was in January 2012, after it emerged that residents of an entire neighborhood in the Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi signed a secret pact promising that none of them would sell or rent their apartments to Israelis of African origin. “Frequently we have all these incidents connected to racism,” Vanda says. “There are protests, and then it happens all over again.

After the protest, they go to the authorities, they meet with the prime minister. He makes his promises, he takes a selfie with the victims, and then it happens all over again.”

Esther Vorknach, 25, one of the Ethiopian-Israelis who protested in Tel Aviv until the early hours of the morning May 4, describes a despair she says is common among community elders. “Our parents, from the moment they immigrated, they anticipated arriving in a land of milk and honey,” Vorknach told the Amsterdam News. “It’s really difficult to see them disappointed. Their disappointment really frustrates us.”

While renewed protests by Ethiopian Jews have triggered a national conversation about anti-Black racism in Israel, this discourse has omitted another dark-skinned population of East African origin that also claims to be treated unfairly by Israeli authorities. Approximately 65,000 Christians and Muslims, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, entered Israel between 2006 and 2012, seeking refuge, but the state has been loathe to grant them official status. Thus far, Israel has granted refugee rights to just four Eritreans and no Sudanese.

Government officials insist that the vast majority of these Africans migrated to Israel for economic reasons and that no harm would befall them if they were repatriated. To induce the Africans to emigrate, Israel has used both carrot and stick. On the one hand, it has offered the migrants sums of up to $3,500 to board a flight back to Africa; on the other hand, it has rounded up thousands of migrants in Israeli cities and placed them in desert detention centers to pressure them to accept its terms. A January 2014 poll by the Israeli newspaper with the highest circulation showed that the vast majority of Israeli Jews support these policies.

If Ethiopian Jews are disliked by some Israelis because of their race, the African asylum-seekers are despised by even more Israelis, because of both their race and their religion. “People hate the refugees because of their skin color, for the same reason they hate us,” says Vorknach. “But I think that people are often okay with harassing them precisely because they are not Jews. I often hear all kinds of comments like ‘They’re not Jews, so we’re allowed to crack their heads. They’re not Jews, so we’re allowed to crush them.’”

Widespread antipathy toward the asylum-seekers bleeds into anger toward those few Israeli Jews who advocate on their behalf, causing some to keep their sympathies to themselves. “All day on the Internet, whoever support the refugees, the Sudanese and Eritreans, people wish death upon them,” said Vorknach, one of the few Ethiopian-Israelis who openly supports the asylum-seekers. “People want to help others, but just because of their ethnicity, they have to hide it.”