It would be a mistake to try to draw too many comparisons between Sunday’s protest in Tel Aviv by Ethiopian-Israelis and the upheavals resulting from the line of demonstrations stretching from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore. Indeed, the origins and nature of the demonstrations are markedly different — even if the Israeli protests against the April 26 beating of a uniformed Ethiopian-Israeli soldier by two police officers bears a superficial similarity to the killings of unarmed black men by American police.
Instead, what led to the march in Tel Aviv and an earlier one in Jerusalem more closely resembles societal tensions throughout Israel’s history in welcoming and integrating what might now be called “Jews of color.” The patronizing and sometimes traumatic mistreatment of Jewish emigrants from Arab countries by the Ashkenazi founders of the state, for instance, are well known.
To this latest eruption of frustration by Israelis of color, President Reuven Rivlin, a descendant of the Ashkenazi founding generation, responded with the right words on Monday. While condemning the violence as night fell, he said the protests “revealed an open and raw wound at the heart of Israeli society.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reflected the same conclusion and said after a three-hour meeting with Ethiopian-Israeli leaders: “We will have to change things.”
Some have noted with sorrow how the spirit of idealism that accompanied the secret airlifts of the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel in the 1980s has been dashed. But the problems today’s Ethiopian-Israelis are marching against — including systematic mistreatment and profiling by the police — were a generation in the making. According to Israeli government reports, Ethiopians, who are 2 percent of the country’s population, account for a third of youth in detention. They also have higher rates of poverty, suicide, divorce and domestic violence.
The demonstrators — who largely belong to the generation that was born in Israel — are making their presence and anger known precisely because they are fully Israeli. In singing “Hatikvah,” as they did in Tel Aviv on Sunday, they are seeking the opportunity and dignity owed to every citizen. The process of change will require more than a promise by the prime minister. But there is nothing in Israel’s short history as a state to suggest that such change will not occur. We join our Ethiopian-Israeli brothers and sisters in welcoming it.