5/3/15 Ethiopian Israeli Protest turn Violent

by Marc Schulman

Nearly 25 years ago, I stood in a room in New York City, as $30 million dollars was being transferred into an account of one of the leaders of Ethiopia, thereby opening the way for an airlift that brought 11,000 Jews out of Ethiopia a mere 24 hours later. Tonight, I stood in Rabin Square next to one of the children of that immigration, as he threw a bottle at police.

By the time I got to Rabin Square at least 5,000 protesters had streamed into the square.
Today’s protest began calmly at 4PM, tying up various parts of Tel Aviv. This protest was aimed primarily at the police, and was precipitated by the attack perpetrated by police officers on an Ethiopian soldier – for no apparent reason. The officers involved were immediately fired. However, to the Ethiopian community (especially the young) that attack symbolized the discrimination many feel in the country – as well as the violence they believe they have encountered at the hands of the police.

Statistics certainly point to a severe problem – with an exceptionally high percentage of the youth in prison being Ethiopian (40% when they make up 2% of the population) and the very serious and lingering challenges with their integration into the country. Speaking to several Ethiopian protesters tonight in the square (which was filled mainly with young people between the ages of 15 and 30), they all verbalized anger, which they directed almost entirely at the police.

For most of the late afternoon and evening the police allowed the protesters rather free rein, even as they tied up major thoroughfares in the city. For five hours the protest maintained a calm and completely non-violent tone from all sides. Tonight, however, when numerous protestors started throwing stones and bottles at police (something I saw with my own eyes) and tried to break into Tel Aviv’s City Hall, the police responded with stun grenades to begin to break up the crowd.

After a few minutes, when it looked like the police were going to allow the demonstration to peter out, a group of demonstrators started attacking again. Then the decision was made to clear the square. Smoke grenades were being used on Ibn G’virol Street in downtown Tel Aviv. It’s clear that some of the demonstrators where hoping for this outcome. While many came to demonstrate respectfully, others where clearly looking for trouble – and trouble is what they found (creating scenes that have never been seen before in Tel Aviv.)

The events of tonight, combined with events in Jerusalem last Thursday night have certainly brought a problem that has been ignored to the forefront of the Israeli consciousness. I am not an expert on the difficulties facing the Ethiopian community in Israel. However, I even observed the problem in my local park, next to a religious High School, that has a large number of Ethiopian students. Whenever I see a group of students from that high school, the Ethiopians are always in one group, and the other students congregate in different groups.

Listening to the interviews with the leaders of the Ethiopian community, it is clear they feel that little has been done over the years to hear their concerns and improve their situation. Some complain that there is an industry of organizations (e.g. the Joint and others) who have a large infrastructure to help the Ethiopian Israelis, but they really do not change the basic situation.

This is a very complicated country. Sometimes it feels like while we pay particular attention to one issue, another issue quietly burns, and while many issues smolder, none really seem to be dealt with to find and solve its underlying issues. As I post these story at 11:30 I can still hear the stun grenades going off in Rabin Square.