Kiryat Malachi, Israel — Covering the shabby concrete storefronts in this small Israeli town are graffiti messages expressing the anger some Ethiopians feel over what they see as racism.
An unemployed Ethiopian immigrant waiting at the bus terminal says he has little hope of finding a job.
In a predominantly Ethiopian neighborhood named for Zionist forefather Theodor Herzl, residents complain that landlords use racist deals to keep them out of apartment blocks where white Israelis live.
Welcome to the epicenter of the growing movement of Ethiopian Israelis fighting what they call omnipresent discrimination and even blatant racism in the Jewish state.
“It’s funny that Herzl was a man who said that Jews should be together but… it’s full of Ethiopians living separately,” said protest leader Rachel Sium-Aaron, 26, pointing to a sign emblazoned with Herzl’s name.
Few Israelis had heard of Kiryat Malachi, much less been to the down-on-its-heels town of 25,000 on the road to Beersheba from Ashdod, until television news reports in early January broke the scandal of apartment leases that supposedly barred Ethiopians from living there.
Ethiopians responded by mounting one of the biggest demonstrations in their community’s short history, drawing about half of the town’s estimated 5,000 Ethiopians into the streets on January 10.
The East African immigrants and their allies staged a similarly sized protest on January 18, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem.
Ethiopian elders say the protests, organized using social media and led by people in their 20s, represent a dramatic new stage in their community’s history.
Many of the protest leaders are second-generation immigrants who grew up in Israel and may feel more confident protesting racism than their parents, who came from Ethiopia in the famed airlifts of so-called Falasha Jews.
“The youngsters didn’t appreciate what was happening until now,” said Yaakov Kabada, a leader of Kiryat Malachi’s Ethiopian community. “But now they have woken up. Now it’s all bursting out.”
Studies reveal that de facto school segregation exists in some places in Israel, with some schools populated entirely by children of Ethiopian origin. In Kiryat Malachi, some neighborhoods appear to be populated almost entirely by African immigrants.
“‘Ethiopian only’ schools are a disgusting and condemnable phenomenon that stain the entire education system,” Alex Miller, chairman of the Knesset Education Committee, said in September.