Petach Tikvah, Israel — Recounting how officials in this central-Israel city stonewalled complaints this month about the segregation of four Ethiopian schoolgirls, Daniel Uoria paused to answer his cell phone. It was an adviser to the deputy mayor.
"It’s because the minister of education is coming here to see what happened," explained Uoria, 29, after the call as he sat in an office at the headquarters of the Kadima Party. "Once you make a stink, suddenly everybody wants to help."
The "stink" he referred to is the large protests organized here by young Ethiopian community activists like Uoria, outraged over the fact that four elementary school girls were separated in classes from other students, presumably because they were less religiously observant.
Jewish Theological Seminary
The protestors said the case was but one example of the kind of daily discrimination Ethiopians face in a society that has alternately embraced and marginalized them after memories of the storied airlifts of the early ‘90s have faded.
The public demonstrations captured headlines over the last several weeks and marked the emergence of a new generation of Ethiopians who aren’t shy about asserting their rights.
Unlike their parents, the young generation Ethiopian Israelis like Uoria are fluent in the language and culture in their adoptive society —especially the not-so-subtle codes of bigotry. And while their parents’ generation deferred to social workers, politicians and activists from outside of the community, the young leaders say they are fed up with others talking on their behalf.
"The generation of the parents realized their dream to reach Israel," said Daniel Maharat, chairman of the National Ethiopian students union, which organized efforts all over the country to protest the Petach Tikvah municipality. "The fight today is of the young generation that wants to build a life in Israel, and to fight for equality. We realized that if we don’t fight for our future, no one will fight for us."
That means a departure from the quiescence normally associated with the Ethiopian culture.
"A lot of people are too forgiving. We need to liberate ourselves from the niceties, we need chutzpah," said Daniel Admasso, head of the Israel Association for European Jews. "No more apologizing. I believe in this society. It’s my home. I have a dream of 2,500 years."
The insistence of a religious elementary school on separating out four girls in a classroom "reveals the real face of Israel. As long as people say there isn’t racism and they’re helping Ethiopians, it’s bull," said Uoria, who brought the story to the press after Petach Tikvah officials refused to intervene with the semi-private religious school.
"One the one hand, people say, ‘I love you and you’re Jewish like me,’ but inside they think you’ll never be like them, and they’d never hire or marry you."
The new activists say they have much work to do because the school scandal is endemic of broad institutional segregation in the job market as well as in schools. But the young leaders are undecided about how to proceed in the struggle for equality.
Daniel Abebe, a 33-year-old correspondent for Yediot Achronot, said the Ethiopian community lacks "a vision" and leadership. "We don’t have anyone like a Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, or someone that comes near them," he said. Among the questions that need to be asked, he noted, are "do we want to be African Israelis or just Israelis? Do we want to integrate fully or stay separate?"
Among the handful of activists interviewed this week, integration into the mainstream seemed preferable to self-ghettoization.
Michal Avera Samuel, the deputy director of Fidel, a non-profit that helps Ethiopians integrate into schools, said the organization doubled the number of field advisors in Petach Tikvah in response to the incident. The purpose is to explain to Ethiopian parents how to take control of their children’s education and navigate government bureaucracy.
While Samuel believes that change will come through anti-discrimination laws, Fidel is focusing on cultivating leaders in communities.
"This country is racist, but we are helping parents and kids get along for themselves. And to say, ‘you can succeed despite the cultural and language difficulty.’ We are working hard for the kids to integrate, but when one superintendent does something stupid, it can destroy our work."
While the separation of the four girls in their own classroom was indeed an exception, Ethiopian neighborhood ghettos are common in places like Netanya and Rechovot. Even in cities like Petach Tikvah, where the Ethiopians are dispersed, almost all of the Ethiopian children are sent to one school, which is nearly all Ethiopian.
Some of the young activists, like Samuel, say they have a special stake in Israeli society because they risked their lives to get here. She recalled walking through the desert for six weeks as an 8-year-old child and living in a refugee camp for a year before reaching Israel.
They also dream of serving their country. Daniel Uoria hopes to be elected to the Knesset one day, asserting that progress isn’t possible without more Ethiopian representation in the government. "We need to play the game" of politics, he said.
But his anger melts away when he imagines speaking to a group of African Americans in New York City about Israel. He says that rather than discussing Israeli discrimination, "I would use the color of my skin" to educate them more positively about Israel and Ethiopian Jews.
On a wall in his office there is a picture of him with Prime Minister Olmert, and tacked up to a corkboard is a newspaper clipping about the first street in Israel to be named after an Ethiopian. Nearby, on a bookshelf is a bumper sticker in Amharic.
Uoria recalled that as a young adult, he first encountered discrimination when applying to study at a post-high school yeshiva in Petach Tikvah. Though his high grades were enough for him to be accepted without an interview, when he arrived to meet the instructors he was told there was no room for him. That burst his bubble of Israeli idealism.
"If they don’t accept me, what’s the point of being here? The Holy Land?" he said. "The Ethiopians who came here came for Zionism. They thought they were coming to a Land of Milk and Honey and they got a land that devours its inhabitants. As some one who really loves Israel, I’m really disappointed."
While Uoria considers his success an exception to most of his peers, whom he says are routinely rejected from professional jobs and end up working as security guards or in restaurant kitchens, the Jewish Agency sees a different picture.
Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the Agency, noted that about 3 percent of the Ethiopian community’s 100,000 people are currently in college.
Noting the major cultural gap between Ethiopian and Israeli society, he said the immigration was a particularly difficult and expensive one, but that today "the people have houses, cars, and jobs. In 1979," he said, "no more than 200 Ethiopian Jews were in Israel. You have to look at the glass half-full and be happy."