Colin Powell, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1991 when Israel airlifted 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 24 hours, remarked that this was the only time in world history in which people with black skin were brought from one country to another in order to be citizens and free.
Any analysis of the struggles of the absorption of Ethiopian Jews into Israel, especially suggestions of Israel being a racist society, must keep that quote in mind. Israel made the effort to bring its Ethiopian population because it wanted and still wants them, not to be downtrodden slaves as Africans have historically been treated by the rest of the world, but to thrive as equal citizens.
Nevertheless, the massive protest by the Ethiopian-Israeli community last week in which they blocked Israel’s main highways for five hours – and in certain locations became violent – showed that despite Israel’s best intentions, this population feels very discriminated against. The pain, anguish, and anger that they expressed over the shooting of 18-year-old Solomon Tekah by an Israeli policeman was not just about Solomon’s tragic death, but that 16 young Ethiopian Israelis have been shot and killed by police in the last 25 years.
It came from having to deal with Israeli police routinely approaching Ethiopian-Israelis who are doing nothing wrong and asking to see their state-issued ID cards, and the quickness with which they arrest young Ethiopian-Israel males.
It came from the challenges that young Ethiopian-Israelis have in succeeding and moving up the ranks in the Israel Defense Force, and in pursuing their dreams and “making it” in Israeli society – which they attribute to racism.
The pain came from the few thousand immediate family members still in Ethiopia, waiting for Israeli authorities to arrange for their immigration to Israel.
The rage is understandable. There are certainly racists in the Israeli police force and in the IDF, and there is most definitely racism among those doing the hiring in companies and organizations throughout Israel. And it is inexcusable that Israel has not arranged for the immigration of all immediate family members remaining in Ethiopia.
However, the same Israel that demonstrated how it was not racist by spending the money and resources – and risking Israeli lives – to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel has also invested time and significant budgets to address the current needs of the Ethiopian-Israeli community. And the statistics reveal that great progress has been made over the last 10 years, and especially since 2015, when the Ethiopian-Israelis first blocked the streets to demonstrate against the challenges that they face. A special government committee that was formed then developed a plan that allocates close to NIS 300 million per year to address a wide range of challenges facing the Ethiopian-Jewish community.
In 2007, a mere 20% of the Ethiopian-Israeli community earned a high school matriculation diploma, necessary to enter Israeli universities. By 2015 that number grew to 31%, to 55% in 2017, and to 62% in 2018. The number for the rest of the Jewish population in Israel is 79%, so there still is work to do to improve on those numbers. But the progress cannot be denied.
It should be noted that 91% of the Ethiopian-Israeli community tries to earn a matriculation diploma, very close to the 95% in the rest of the Israeli population. From 2011 to 2016 there was a 6% growth in the number of Ethiopian Jews studying for an undergraduate degree, and today 1.2% of college students are from the Ethiopian-Israeli population. On the one hand this reflects great progress, but no question the numbers should be double, based on the actual percentage of the college-age population that comes from Ethiopian descent.
Another statistic: the average income of Ethiopian males has skyrocketed by 44% in the last 20 years, compared with a 17% rise for the rest of the Jewish population (not counting ultra-Orthodox).
Significant funds have been allocated toward addressing the challenges related to the police and IDF. The percentage of Ethiopian-Israeli youth who have been arrested at some point in their lives has gone down to 5%. In the broader population it’s 3%. Five years ago, 20% of Ethiopian-Israelis in the IDF dropped out of the army, with more than half spending time in army jail during their service. Today, only 10% drop out of the army, and less than 20% spend time in IDF jail.
The police receive special training on multi-culturalism and sensitivity to make sure they don’t target the Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and a series of policy changes were enacted to prevent acts of discrimination and racism.
The fact that there has been great progress cannot be denied, and that Israel, as a society, wants to help the Ethiopian-Israeli community succeed and thrive is also clear. Seeing Ethiopian-Israel Knesset members, professors, and journalists speaking out during last week’s protests is the greatest proof of the significant breakthroughs that have been made. But for a non-racist country like Israel, there must be zero tolerance for racism and discrimination. We must hear the cry of anguish that erupted last week from all segments of this population, work to weed out all racism and racists from our society, and make sure that the police, the IDF, universities, and the workforce treat Ethiopian-Israelis exactly the same way that all Israeli citizens are treated. As Colin Powell pointed out, that’s why we helped them come to Israel from Ethiopia in the first place.