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.
Ethiopians also suffer employment discrimination. When Ono Academic College scholars surveyed advertising executives, lawyers, bankers and other professionals, some 53% said that people in their profession prefer not to employ Ethiopians.
The new consciousness is on display around Kiryat Malachi, where protesters have spray-painted graffiti proclaiming “Ethiopian price tag,” a reference to the well-publicized “price tag” campaign carried out by right-wing Jewish settlers who oppose compromise with the Palestinians.
Sitting aimlessly at a bus stop in Kiryat Malachi, Ambatio Damete conceded that he had nowhere to go. An unemployed 32-year-old Ethiopian, he has high hopes for the new protests.
“We haven’t studied to the level of other Israelis; we don’t have professions, and even those who have degrees aren’t getting jobs,” he said.
At Beit Tzipora, a Kiryat Malachi youth center, educator Cassao Jacob is under house arrest. Police say he is responsible for the graffiti, a charge he denies. He accuses them of shutting down his Facebook page to slow down the movement, which Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld denied.
“I know it’s because of the demonstrations… they think they can stop us,” Jacob told the Forward.
Jacob, 26, is charismatic and eloquent, with the same engaging youthful quality as Daphne Leef, a leader of last summer’s social justice protests that rocked the country. He describes Ethiopian youngsters as “outsiders from Israeli society because of color and culture.”
A veteran of the Second Lebanon War who did his army service in a combat unit, he says he exemplifies the frustration of many young Ethiopians who serve the country without getting anything back in return.
“After all these things, this country gives me racism and police action,” Jacob said. “It’s very sad for me.”
Sium-Aaron insists that the emerging Ethiopian protest movement aims at uniting all Israelis: blacks and whites, immigrants and those born in Israel.
Sium-Aaron says that it “is not only for us, it’s for the country, too.” She reasoned that Ethiopians are currently seen as a very loyal minority to the state, and more committed than other demographics to army service — but that this enthusiasm could dissipate.
“If people here aren’t respected, they won’t serve the country in the same way,” she said. “There will be chaos.”
The protests have spurred conversation and tension in Kiryat Malachi. In the town center, some non-Ethiopians saw the apartment discrimination as clear-cut racism. Businessman Moshe Lavi said that residents accused of barring Ethiopians should publicly apologize. Otherwise, “it won’t end quietly,” he said. Artist Lilly Ezra says she supports the protesters and that they are “absolutely right 100%.”
Others insisted they are not racists. But they conceded that they understand why some Israelis would not want Ethiopians living in their apartment buildings.
An Israeli-born shopkeeper who declined to give her name because local tensions are running so high said that Ethiopians should become more like Israeli-born people. She said Ethiopians do not cook or act the same as other Israelis.
“Their culture is so different, and they don’t know how to be with us,” she said. “[We] want to teach them a different way, but they don’t want it…. Nobody wants Ethiopians in their building.”
The same split reaction to Ethiopians apparently exists at the highest levels of Israel’s government. When Ethiopian activist Gadi Desta said that there were incidents of “apartheid” in Israel, Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver rebuked him for not appreciating what his new home had given him.
“You need to be grateful for what you have received,” said Landver, an immigrant from Russia.
President Shimon Peres responded by noting the contribution that Ethiopians have made to society.
“We, the State of Israel, should say thank you to immigrants from Ethiopia,” Peres said, “and not vice versa.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org