As Ethiopian Protests Continue, Where Do Women Fit In?

On Monday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv to protest police brutality and discrimination against the Ethiopian-Israeli community. Two weeks ago, protests by Israel’s Ethiopian minority against police brutality and discrimination in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv drew international attention.

While the protests were sparked by a video of an Ethiopian soldier in uniform being attacked by police officers, the demonstrations also signify the frustrations of the 135,000-Ethiopian Jews currently living in Israel toward the pervasive discrimination and continuing segregation from Israeli society. Since then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced the formation of a ministerial committee to investigate issues concerning Ethiopian Israelis.

The Sisterhood spoke with Dorit Roer-Strier, a professor at Hebrew University’s School of Social Work, about the current protests and specific barriers Ethiopian women face.

Why are these protests occuring now?

The question isn’t what sparked these protests over the last few days, the question is what prevented the community from erupting over ten years ago. In 2005, we interviewed Ethiopian born fathers and more recently interviewed Ethiopian born mothers and heard almost the same thing - parents spoke of the challenges in cultural transition as well as structural and institutional racism and a lack of cultural sensitivity in the educational, welfare and law system. This includes the religious authorities, who bring a very a high level of frustration. The video may have been the trigger but the frustration has always been there.

What are some of the specific barriers Ethiopians in Israel face?

For American audiences, the arguments seem similar to what African Americans are talking about in America. A lot is institutional racism in all aspects of life, from early on with the number of children sent to special education classes to the number of Ethiopian men sitting in jail. Even for those with education there is a glass ceiling in getting jobs.

What are issues facing Ethiopian women in particular?

One issue being talked about is increase in family violence. Ethiopians are an immigrant group coming to a very Westernized country from a country where women played a more traditional role. Here women receive money through social security, and so the check is in their name. Additionally, women tend to learn the language easier and often go further in education. This creates problems in a culture based on respect of the man and where men are central to family decisions. When interviewing fathers, I often hear that a "good father" is one who provides for the family and now they are not the ones doing so.

Do Ethiopian women encounter less discrimination than men?

We have called these educated women the 1.5 generation — they are women born in Ethiopia and educated in Israel. On the one hand the women we talk to are very positive and determined but on the other they talk about the risks their children encounter regarding discrimination and racism. They also find themselves in the continuous position of needing to find ways to define their identity. They know their education has helped them in terms of moving from poor neighborhoods but also talk about going into interviews where slight-skinned candidates are more obviously preferred.

Is there mistrust of the government by Ethiopian women due to the government's coercion of Ethiopian woman to take long-term birth control injections?

Yes, throughout the years many things were considered by the Ethiopian community as sources of tension. For example, when blood donated by Ethiopians was being rejected due to a fear of AIDS. This was hugely symbolic in that it was regarding by Ethiopians as as Israel "rejecting our blood."

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