Israel is a complicated country.
At the same time as we have the largest and most advanced medical and rescue services working to save lives and give hope in Nepal, we are seeing civil unrest in the center of Tel Aviv.
At the same time as the first Ethiopian Israeli doctor, Col (Res.) Dr Avi Yitzchak, is creating a Kiddush Hashem in the wake of the earthquake, the soldier Damas Pakada was being beaten up by policemen in Holon.
This is the best of Israel and the worst of Israel. Israel and the Jewish people are obligated to continue efforts to make sure that all Jews feel at home in Israel. We have to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to prosper and make the most of the immense possibilities Israeli society affords.
There is absolutely no reason why this should not be reality. Moreover, the Ethiopian community is not the first community to arrive from a different culture in order to become part of society in Israel.
Fortunately Israeli society no longer outwardly preaches the need to give up historic customs and culture, but is trying (a little) better to appreciate them. Ethnic difference need not be a barrier to full participation in Israeli society, and indeed second generation immigrants (not just from Ethiopia) must be encouraged to take pride in the heritage that they bring.
Sadly, within the media, government and business, there remains a lingering racism. Whilst in most cases this is not an outward and obvious racism, there are too many instances that appear. Occasionally as a well-meaning, but patronizing slip of the tongue. Channel 2 last night included a report from Ronny Daniel, during which he described the scene, “It is mostly Ethiopians, and also some Israelis.” This is totally unacceptable. I also recall the former Mayor of Beit Shemesh announcing to a visiting mission from overseas “We care deeply about our Ethiopians, I intend to build sports facilities as they are great runners.” Shocking stuff, with no place in the public discourse.
The Ethiopian community can make a full contribution to all parts of our national life. During Tzuk Eitan last year, we made some cakes to take around to the families of soldiers in our city. Obviously, we went across the neighborhoods. It was particularly moving to see the number of Ethiopian soldiers, most of them in combat and special units in the army. They have an over 90 percent rate of joining the IDF. There are lawyers, scientist, educators etc and hopefully we will see the community represented in more and more leadership roles, whether in the public or private sector.
As with every other community it is my belief that salvation will come from taking responsibility and not looking to the outside for help. This does not mean that we should not continue to invest where investment is required, but that we should place particular emphasis on helping to encourage a confident generation of leaders, who can on the one hand carry their own heritage proudly, whilst being full and active members of Israeli society.
It is at times like these that maturity and leadership must come to the fore. All sides of the political spectrum must identify the need for consensus on eradicating any latent racism and the police has to face its criticisms and get serious about dealing with them. Only then can a healing process begin. There are many great programs and organisations working in partnership with the community creating a better future, and this work must go on with the longterm in mind.
Of no less importance is the role of the leadership of the Ethiopian community. A cycle of violence and civil unrest can only bring further difficulties, and will surely not solve anything. In spite of the overflowing anger, and 30 years of pent up frustration, the community will not be best served by upping the ante without a clear and rational plan.
Lastly, each one of us has the power to make changes. Those that we ignore and step over, must be treated with respect. Choose educational frameworks that make social integration natural, and not something that needs to be taught, and give your kids the opportunity to learn the beauty of others’ culture through books, theatre and other community activities. If the next generation sees us treating others with respect, there is at least a chance that they will get the hint.
This is Israel — complex, exciting, frustrating and never dull. We certainly have problems with the police knowing the borders of the proper use of force, and there are always extreme elements ready to jump on the bandwagon when there is a social crisis of one sort or another. But the chance of building a country to be proud of must be our driving ambition.
A light unto the nations starts here and starts today!