On the surface, the parallels between the bloody demonstrations in Baltimore and Tel Aviv in recent days are obvious. In both cases, black citizens have angrily claimed that they are discriminated against because of their color, more often targeted by police, and punished more frequently and more harshly. The sense of frustration and anger that boils over, turning violent, applies to African-American residents of Baltimore as well as Ethiopian Jews in Israel, many of whom feel they are subject to racism and police brutality.
But there are major differences as well. As Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev noted, in contrast to African Americans, the Ethiopian Jews “came to Israel voluntarily, not by force; they were embraced upon arrival, not enslaved; they were accorded equal rights immediately, not made to fight for them for centuries on end; they did not suffer from official discrimination, or Jim Crow laws, or malicious deprivation or malignant neglect.”
Indeed, the State of Israel, in dramatic fashion, rescued tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in recent decades for the simple reason that they were Jews who longed to live in Israel. Brotherhood trumped skin color.
No other predominantly white country ever initiated such a historic and inspiring effort to save a population of black people. And Israelis take much pride in that achievement. It’s also true, though, that the majority culture has strong elements of racism and bias, and while there have been great success stories among Ethiopian Jews on an individual level, there is still a pervasive sense among that population that they are not seen or treated as equals in society.
In the U.S., outbreaks of racial unrest have been met largely with calls for calm and patience while the justice system runs its course. In Israel, national leaders have been quick to acknowledge that racism remains a serious problem in society and requires attention. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met this week with leaders of the Ethiopian community in Israel, and President Reuven Rivlin, in his direct style, noted that protesters were “sounding an alarm at what they feel is discrimination, racism and disregard of their needs. We must take a good, hard look at this wound … in the heart of Israeli society.”
The problem in Israel is narrower, more confined, than in the U.S. In both cases, though, rhetoric is not a solution; only a full-scale effort, educational as well as economic, will begin to right the societal wrongs.