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Plight of Jews from Ethiopia

PROTEST: Jewish Ethiopians block a highway during a protest against racism and police brutality in Tel Aviv last Sunday.
PROTEST: Jewish Ethiopians block a highway during a protest against racism and police brutality in Tel Aviv last Sunday. AP

My dentist has an assistant who emigrated from Ethiopia. Always greeting you with a broad smile, she manages to do the impossible: Make you want to go to the dentist!

One day I asked her when she had come to Israel. In 1984, she said. Yes, but when exactly, I insisted. April, she answered. April 27, right? She was stunned. How did you know? So I told her:

On that night, more than 31 years ago, I took off with my comrades in a C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft and headed south. We left Eilat behind us and flew at a very low level over the Red Sea, trying to avoid being detected by Egyptian and Saudi radars. Then, off the coast of Sudan, we turned west and then south again, and in the African darkness dashed forward to our destination.

Then, in our headsets, we heard the voice we were waiting for — the Mossad agent who had prepared a landing strip for us in the desert of Sudan gave us the clearance to land. Hardly seeing anything ahead of us, we nevertheless assaulted the strip and came to a full stop. We turned back and opened the cargo door. Then, what I thought were bushes, started to move towards us. These were people, our brothers and sisters, my dentist’s future assistant among them. They were smuggled by the Mossad out of Ethiopia, and on their painful journey to the rescue spot lost loved ones when attacked by murderous robbers.

In less than three minutes, we were in the air again. When we landed in Ben Gurion Airport four hours later, we watched with awe as these Ethiopian Jews, who against all odds have kept their Judaism, kissed the ground of their Promised Land. There were few dry eyes around, and I don’t think I ever felt prouder in my whole life.

What a far cry from this week’s violent scenes in Tel Aviv, when thousands of Ethiopian Jews took to the streets, protesting police violence. As with Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Michael Brown in Ferguson, it was a short clip showing police brutality against an Israeli of Ethiopian origin, Damas Pakada, that triggered the riot. Except that unlike the American cases, this one had an even more troubling twist: When the Israeli police officers assaulted Pakada, he was dressed in IDF uniform, supposedly the quintessence of being a full Israeli.

Like in the American riots, things in Tel Aviv got out of control, with the Israeli organizers claiming that militant or anarchist elements had disrupted the otherwise peaceful rally. And like their African-American counterparts, the Israelis of Ethiopian origin protested not just against police brutality, but against injustice, racism and discrimination.

Indeed, when we began bringing the Ethiopian Jews to Israel three decades ago, we showered them with warmth and offered assistance. Gradually, however, we lost interest. The results are appalling: There are 135,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel today, roughly 2 percent of the total population. However, they constitute 40 percent of prison inmates.

The average income of Ethiopian males is half of the average income in Israel. Only 16 out of every 1,000 teachers are Ethiopians. Only one percent of the Ethiopians make it to universities. Policemen are quick to arrest Ethiopians, courts are quick to convict them, and so on.

In this bleak picture, the IDF is singled out as a haven for the Ethiopian Jews and as a vehicle of social mobility: 86 percent of them join the ranks, much higher than any other segment of the society. They are treated with equality and respect. Except that many drop out before realizing their potential.

In 1968, following the violent riots which had rocked America, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that [condemn the riots] without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Now the voice of the Ethiopian Jews has been heard all right. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Damas Pakada and vowed that he will work to change the situation. However, few here have any trust in promises of politicians. It’s up to us, Israelis, to do something ourselves, so that we can look in the eyes of people like my dentist’s assistant.

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