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Israel Refocused: On racism felt by the Ethiopian community, and the new Israeli government

In this edition of Israel Refocused we bring you some important information about the Ethiopian community’s protests from a couple of weeks ago. With time to absorb its significance we’re able to more fully understand the extent that the community feels discrimination and racism on a daily basis.

Hamutal GouriOf course, Israel’s new government has been sworn in with some controversial characters taking the reins of important ministries, and, as it does most years, the Yom Yerushalayim march has created headlines for all the wrong reasons.

In NIF news, next week we’re excited to bring Israeli feminist activist Hamutal Gouri to Australia, together with Limmud-Oz. You can see her sessions at Limmud here, as well as a number of other great sessions that you might find interesting. (You can buy tickets for Limmud on their website.) Hamutal is also speaking in Melbourne at Shira Hadasha on Saturday June 13th.

B’shalom,

Liam (Executive Director) and Dani (Project Officer)

Ethiopian community demand an end to targeted racism

Ethiopian protests, May 2015

On Sunday May 3, thousands gathered in Tel Aviv to protest police brutality and targeted racism against the Ethiopian community, the catalyst for which was the publication of a video that documented police officers beating an Ethiopian-Israeli, Damas Pakada, who is currently serving in the IDF and was wearing his uniform at the time. Even though that particular instance served to spark the demonstrations, in reality the demonstrations also speak to the wider frustrations of the 135,000 Ethiopian Jews currently living in Israel about the pervasive discrimination and racism they routinely face society.

The protest resulted in the arrest of 43 people, injuries to protesters and police officers, and the use of stun grenades and tear gas by the police. Peter Beinart reflected afterwards on the similarities and differences between the case of Ethiopian-Israelis, Palestinians and African-Americans.

Both President Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu pledged their support for the Ethiopian community; Rivlin commented that the protests “uncovered an open and raw wound at the heart of Israeli society: the pain of a community crying out over a sense of discrimination, racism, and lack of response”.

Some of the social and economic gaps faced by Ethiopian-Israelis are staggering: 39% of Ethiopians live in poverty, compared to 14% of all Jews do you mean Israeli Jews?; 43% of women, and 26% of men in the Ethiopian community have little or no formal schooling, compared to 2% in the rest of the population; and, though it has improved significantly over the past decade, unemployment remains higher than among the overall Jewish population.

Less than two weeks after the protest in Tel Aviv, leaders within the Ethiopian community participated in a Knesset discussion on discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis. There were fourteen Knesset members present, though only three came from the current coalition. After hearing the testimonies, parliamentary inquiries and the establishment of ministerial committees were called for, including by Zionist Camp leader Buji Herzog: “we need to put [the authorities' treatment of Ethiopian Israelis] on the table and talk about it. The entire racist and patronising conversation needs to be taken off the agenda. The recent events are a dramatic wake-up call to the country's citizens.”

For years NIF has funded civil society groups within the Ethiopian-Israeli community. We knew that the gaps between various sectors of Israeli society could never be bridged if marginalised communities did not develop independent leadership to advocate on behalf of their needs. Over the years NIF has helped the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews to develop networks of leaders within the community; helped get Tebeka -- the first legal aid society for Ethiopian Jews in Israel -- off the ground; and  funded programs to address the problems the community was facing, including unique challenges related to healthcare, domestic violence, and housing. The Israel Religious Action Center, led by Anat Hoffman, has also helped provide free legal assistance to more than 10,000 Ethiopians and their families.

Further reading:

An insight into Bibi’s 34th Knesset

Knesset (Photo: Flickr/number10gov)

On Thursday May 14, close to two months after the March election, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s coalition was sworn in by the narrowest possible parliamentary majority: 61-59. Much of Bibi’s time between the election and the May 14 announcement was spent accommodating the right wing parties’ demands for specific ministry positions in return for them joining the coalition - these were reported in Haaretz and Ynetnews. Concerned that there would be insufficient ministerial positions to satisfy them, Bibi also successfully, (though in an amended version) overturned a ruling that limited cabinet positions from 18 and increased the number to 20. Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, and initiator of the original bill that limited ministry positions said that “instead of solving problems, you're selling the country and plan to distribute half a billion shekels so that the MKs in the coalition will stay calm.”

In a cheeky display, in order to try to hold up the passage of key government legislation, the opposition proposed a series of amendments to the law, including motions:

  • to replace the word “cabinet” that appears in the bill with the words “Bibi’s crew”;
  • to turn Netanyahu into the prime minister of everyone, “except for anyone who throngs to polling stations in buses”;
  • to change the seat of government from Jerusalem “to Mt. Olympus”;
  • to replace the words “minister without portfolio” with “an MK who knowingly wastes public funds”;
  • to oblige the deputy prime minister by law to send Netanyahu flowers once a week.

At home, the Jewish News ran an editorial stating that “the Israeli population wants improved international relations and a more affordable life, not a government that is likely to neglect these priorities and advance narrow interests of the right.” Our Executive Director, Liam Getreu, had a letter to the editor published this week commending the AJN on their commentary.

Noam Sheizaf has a very interesting analysis of what to expect from the new government - he believes the coalition, even with its razor-thin margin, could last longer than many pundits are expecting. The Times of Israel carries a good summary of all the members of the new government, while American liberal Zionist organisation J Street created an album featuring quotes from government ministers in their words -- it includes anti-Palestinian and anti-peace comments from many senior members of the government.

Probably the three leading areas of concern with the previous Netanyahu Government -- the continued building of settlements, a stagnating diplomatic process with the Palestinians, and damage to the democratic nature of the state of Israel -- look set to continue. Already, Jewish Home’s Ayelet Shaked has been appointed Justice Minister and appears to be resuming the advance of her ’Jewish Nation State’ Bill

Further reading

The Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) March

NIF grantees Tag Meir and Ir Amim petition the High Court to change the route of the Jerusalem Day march so that it avoids heavily Palestinian areas in a bid to avoid some of the biting racism that has come to define the march. Ultimately, the High Court didn’t accept the petition.


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