Ethiopian Israelis marched by the thousands in Jerusalem Wednesday in the late afternoon from the Knesset Parliament to the city’s center against a blazing setting sun. In one of the largest demonstrations for immigrant equality to date, young Ethiopian Israelis, chanted and held signs that read “I’m black and proud,” “Black and Whites: We’re all Equal,” and “Let’s Stop This Here and Now.”
Jerusalem’s city center streets were closed off for several hours as police stopped and redirected traffic to allow the protestors to walk safely through the streets. Yoni, a married father from Netanya, explained that he had joined the protest for the sake of his children’s future.” Thank God, I have a good job, and I can provide for my family,” said Yoni. I feel I’ve settled in well into Israel but I want to ensure that my children have equal opportunities here in the future,” he explains.
Dan Sandaka, a 24-year old Israeli commander of Ethiopian descent in the Israeli Defense Forces, who is responsible for 120 soldiers, explained that “there are good people and bad people in Israel, like any country. There are many problems and challenges in the absorption of the Ethiopian community in Israel and sometimes it is the fault of the Israeli government, but sometimes due to misunderstandings within our own community,” he said.
“For the first time, my generation is standing up and uniting together, but I hope in the future the Ethiopian community will be able to stand together on other issues as well” he said. “But” emphasizes Sandaka, “As someone who pays taxes and serves the army, I should be able to buy an apartment anywhere I want. What happened [in Kiryat Malachi] is deplorable.”
Ethiopian Jews had a troubling and often difficult experience living in Ethiopia. For centuries the Jewish minority, known as Beta Israel, lacked basic freedoms and independence both throughout Medieval and modern times. In 1974, the Ethiopian government was taken over in a coup and the government was Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, a Marxist-Leninist dictator who instituted a policy where Ethiopian Jews were denied the right to own land and were often times forced off their own land by non-Jewish farmers. In the 1980s, Ethiopia forbade the practice of Judaism and teaching Hebrew.
Over 8,000 Ethiopian Jews made their way to Israel between 1977 and 1984, followed by a top-secret Israeli government operation, known as Operation Moses in 1984, which was not made public due to Ethiopian government immigration restrictions and because Sudan was an Arab bloc nation. Operation Solomon in 1991 brought over 14,000 of Beta Israel and thousands more came in later operations.
By coming to Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community was able to realize their ancient religious traditions which centered around the land of Israel and their return to the holy land. Throughout the long history of the Ethiopian Jewry, Jerusalem remained an important symbol in the community’s identity and religious practices, as symbolized by the Ethiopian holiday, known asSigd, which the Israeli Knesset made a national Israeli holiday in 2008.
Ortal, a 16-year old Ashkelon high school student related that “my family endured horrific treatment in Ethiopia and many lost their lives on their way to Israel through Sudan. We came to this country so we could be free, and we are here today protesting to maintain those freedoms.”
Darasseh, a security guard at a Jerusalem high school agrees but also adds, “we need to appreciate the fact that we are far away from the persecution that our parents and grandparents experienced in Ethiopia… and most importantly, that we have the freedom to protest in Israel, which we didn’t have there.”