The eruption of fury and pain in the recent protests, the unprecedented crying out against 30 years of discrimination and abuse towards the Ethiopian Israeli community, made me realize that even though I’ve been working very closely with the Ethiopian community in the neighborhood of Ramat Eliyahu in Rishon Letzion for the past 8 months, I’m still not fully aware of the extent of the marginalization the community suffers. As a volunteer-based program, most of our work in the neighborhood is facilitated through collaboration with local community organizations, educational and welfare programs and local activists. In other words, through our activity we are predominantly exposed to all the important work that is being done in the community. We have learned at length from many activists and experts about the grave challenges the members of the Ethiopian community in Israel face and the false assumptions that are made by authorities, employers, educators and the general public about their inability to progress and integrate, as early as pre-school! And yet I feel I’ve only started to graze the surface and still have a very limited appreciation of what this really means to the people who live in this reality every single day.
After the protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday and its violent finale, people in Ramat Eliyahu could hardly discuss anything else. One of our program’s partners – Atzmaut (independence) Project – supports 100 families of Ethiopian descent for a 3 year period, providing guidance and assistance in the realms of education, employment and parenting. Ricki Eyov is a former schoolteacher who now works as a coordinator in the project, closely supporting members of 33 families. She tried to explain the pain she felt as an Ethiopian Israeli woman living in what she experiences as a racist society:
“No matter how much work experience I have, how many academic degrees I’ve earned, who I am and what I’ve done, I will always be examined with a magnifying glass. As a schoolteacher my principle would find the tiniest mistakes in my Hebrew to prove I wasn’t completely qualified to be an educator in Israel, while she herself made language mistakes on occasion as well.”
Ricki continued to explain that the racism in Israeli society is sometimes unconscious. People aren’t aware of their negative assumptions regarding Ethiopians or of the dramatic effect it has on the lives of the members of the community:
“The physical scars from the beating of the young soldier last week or the police violence at the protests will heal, but the emotional and mental scars that are instilled in so many people at such a young age will stay forever.”
Later on Ricki spoke about us, the farenjim (whites), who work in the Ethiopian community. I admit, whenever I’m called that name to my face I shudder a little. As a Jewish-ashkenazi-Israeli these are probably the only instances in which I experience being referred to as “the other”. Even being fully aware of that context – I can’t say it feels great. I can (or can’t) only imagine how that might feel when your otherness is black and your Judaism questioned in a Jewish state. Ricki explained that she felt it was because of the small group of farenjim that are committed to helping the Ethiopian community in Israel reach equality, that this outburst of anger and humiliation hadn’t occurred earlier. I asked if there was anything we could do to help with this cause. Ricki’s answer was: you can be our Shofar. Be that person who tells the truth, who helps us let the world know who we really are and how we’ve been treated for so many years.
The Yahel Social Change Program is a 9-month service-learning program in Ramat Eliyahu, a predominately Ethiopian neighborhood in Rishon LeZion. Participants work and live in the community doing hands on social justice work. Below was written by Program Director Tamara Gotlieb, about the current events in the Ethiopian community.