By Max Schindler
Thousands of Ethiopian Israelis and their supporters marched through central Jerusalem on Wednesday to call attention to a recent groundswell of racism and discrimination.
Holding picket signs and shouting “a new generation demands change,” the demonstrators joined a wave of protests triggered by a Channel 2 report last week that a group of homeowners in Kiryat Malachi—a Southern town with a large Ethiopian population— signed a pledge to neither rent nor sell to Israelis of Ethiopian origin.
The news sparked outrage in the Ethiopian community and demands by activists for a response from the government.
Mulet Araru, a 26-year-old university student, led the protest after walking for three days from Kiryat Malakhi, some 60 kilometers from Jerusalem. In a hoarse voice, Araru addressed the crowd, declaring, “I have no other land,” infusing his speech with traditional Zionist rhetoric and slogans.
The protestors marched from the Knesset to Independence Park, with a quick stop in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in the neighborhood of Rechavia. At the Knesset, opposition MKs Tzipi Livni (Kadima) and Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) addressed the crowd.
The atmosphere seemed tense at times, with activists sprinting towards Netanyahu’s home. Most demonstrators were students of Ethiopian origin, many of high school age.
With differing and sometimes competing protest signs, the crowd spanned the ideological spectrum. Some demonstrators hoisted Israeli flags while others clutched photos of Nelson Mandela and sharply criticized Israel’s treatment of their community.
One Israeli-Ethiopian man held a sign asking “Is there a future for me in this state?” Others carried posters appropriating phrases and symbols from the American civil rights movement and black American figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Some 120,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin reside in the country, many of them having arrived in three airlift operations in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many continue to face socioeconomic difficulties, racism and other barriers to social integration – including segregation in schools, and challenges stemming from the Rabbinate’s refusal to recognize the community’s religious leaders.
Max Schindler is a student at Cornell University who is spending the year volunteering on a kibbutz and writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.