Ethiopians Protest March For Acceptance In Israel

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Ethiopians protest for acceptance & against discrimination
Ethiopians protest for acceptance & against discrimination

Marching towards the prime minister’s residence, Ethiopian-Israelis, some with painted faces, protested what they said was discrimination. Makurya, 35 years, had tears in her eyes saying “when I arrived as a teenager in 1991 on a secret overnight airlift from Ethiopia, Jerusalem and the land of Israel was my dream.”

Yet over the past months Ms. Makurya has spent much of her time with an angry new generation of Ethiopian-Israeli activists on the side walk near the prime minister’s residence in central Jerusalem, protesting against unofficial but hurtful racism and discrimination.

Ms. Makurya, a mother of three, said “everything is determined by the colour of my skin.” For many Israelis, the idea that Jews could be racist toward other Jews is anathema. The 1991 airlift, known as Operation Solomon, brought 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel within 36 hours and was greeted at the time with great celebration.

Natan Sharansky, the human rights activist who spent years in Soviet prisons before arriving in Israel, joined one of the flights. In an interview on the 20th anniversary of the airlift last year, Mr. Sharansky, by then the chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency that deals with immigration, said with pride, “Black or white there is no difference in the in-gathering of exiles.”

 

As most of the new immigrants descended the plane steps, they kissed the tarmac. The Operation Solomon followed an earlier, smaller wave of clandestine immigration in the 1980s, involving a treacherous trek from Ethiopia to camps on the Sudanese border. Thousands perished on their way, Israel recently began honouring them with official memorials.

 

Armies of volunteers and organizations, and a plethora of programs largely financed by American Jews, helped ease the transition of the Ethiopians from the rural life to modern Israeli society. The government has also allocated significant resources to help them. But a second generation of young, educated adults who have grown up in Israel say they are still struggling to be accepted as Israeli, and are distancing themselves from the grateful passivity of their parents.

 

For our parents it was a privilege to come to Israel, so they never complained, said Yamluck Waggow Ichasheman, 31. “Longings for Zion brought them here.”

 

The immigrants first exploded in rage when reports emerged in 1996 that Israel was secretly dumping blood donated by Ethiopians for fear that it was contaminated with H.I.V.

 

Immigration experts here say that the Ethiopian-Israelis do face some racism and prejudice, but that racism is not the main problem blocking their progress. Earlier immigrants from other countries like Morocco and Yemen also had a long, rough entry into Israeli society.

 

“Integration takes a generation,” said Arnon Mantver, the director of JDC Israel, the Israeli branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has worked intensively with the Ethiopian community. Unlike the Russian immigrants of the early 1990s, who came as doctors, engineers and musicians, many of the Ethiopians had never been to school.

 

Tamar Lilay, 31 years, said she did not know how to hold a pencil when she first landed. She now has a degree from Haifa University in special education and runs a program pioneered by JDC-Israel for the empowerment of Ethiopian women in Gedera, a town south of Tel Aviv.

 

The high employment rate of Ethiopian women, more than 60 percent, is considered one of the more successful measures of integration. But the problem is many of the women, and men, are employed in low-grade jobs, often as contract workers with little hope of advancement.

 

Ethiopian Israelis are concentrated in poor areas, they could afford only cheap housing with special mortgages granted by the government. As a consequence, some kindergartens and schools became almost exclusively Ethiopian, leading to accusations of ghetto-colonization and separate systems of education.

 

Is everything really determined by the colour of the skin?

 

FRANCIS TAWIAH (Duisburg – Germany)

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