News analysis: Ethiopian protest reveals simmering anger

JERUSALEM — Israelis and many in the Ethiopian community were shocked by the enormity of Sunday's violent confrontations between Ethiopian Jews and Jerusalem police, but perhaps they should not be shocked.

Israel airlifted tens of thousands of Jews from famine-ridden Ethiopia between 1984 and 1985 and again in 1991. In the years since then, Ethiopian community leaders have been complaining about inferior housing, jobs and education.

"If Israelis don't know about our problems, they haven't been listening," Adiso Masala, one of the community's most vocal activists, said during Sunday's rally outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem.

Those problems — which include what Ethiopian community leaders consider a longstanding pattern of discrimination by Israeli government authorities — have been simmering for years.

But revelations last week regarding how Ethiopian blood donations were routinely discarded brought emotions to the boiling point.

Leaders of Israel's Ethiopian community organized the demonstration after the Israeli daily Ma'ariv revealed that Magen David Adom, which operates the country's nationwide blood bank, regularly discards blood donated by Ethiopian immigrants, fearing that the blood is contaminated with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Amid the storm over the discarded blood, Israeli Health Minister Ephraim Sneh — after initially defending the policy — ordered all blood donations from citizens of Ethiopian descent to be frozen and not discarded until the donation policy gets reviewed.

The decision Monday followed the disclosure earlier in the day by the director of the Central Blood Bank that he had not been instructed to stop discarding the blood. The Knesset Absorption Committee also demanded that the government change its "policy of discrimination" against citizens of Ethiopian origin.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shimon Peres said he would widen the mandate of a commission of inquiry into blood donations by Ethiopian immigrants to include all problems with the immigrants' absorption.

At a Knesset meeting with Ethiopian representatives, Peres said the incident was "painful" and had caused "indescribable damage."

"It's not a political subject," Peres said. "It touches on the very roots of Jewish history."

At the prolonged and emotional session, Magen David head Dr. Amnon Ben-David apologized for racist remarks attributed to him.

"I did not take the decision [to dispose of donated blood], but I accepted it, only to prevent pain in the community. I apologize to you from the bottom of my heart," Ben-David said.

Community representatives were persuaded not to leave the chamber in protest when he spoke.

Absorption minister Meir Tzaban described the news of the discarded blood as a "burn on our national flesh."

According to the ministry, Ethiopians are 50 times more likely than other Israelis to test HIV-positive. Of the 60,000 immigrants from a country in which AIDS is widespread, 520 have been identified as HIV positive, the ministry reports.

The decision not to use the Ethiopian immigrants' blood was apparently made in late 1991. Sneh said he had met with Magen David Adom officials and ordered the establishment of a supervisory body to which the blood bank would be answerable in the future.

But the insult to the community provoked pent-up anger that turned to rage, experts said.

During Sunday's demonstration, which lasted most of the day, some of the 10,000 demonstrators clashed with scores of Israeli police armed with riot gear.

At least 50 Ethiopian Jews and police were injured in the demonstrations. Two police officers were severely injured — one lost an eye — when stones and other objects were thrown at them.

Although rally organizers and police blamed each other for the violence, many eyewitnesses were critical of the police department's decision to bring in water cannons and tear gas.

Several demonstrators, many of them elderly, and dozens of police officers became ill when the wind changed direction and blew clouds of tear gas directly over them.

"These actions were taken as a last resort to prevent the mob from actually entering the Prime Minister's Office," a police spokesman said.

During Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting, Peres invited Ethiopian community leaders into his office to discuss their grievances.

Peres, Sneh and Absorption Minister Tzaban also promised to form a committee to examine the Ethiopians' grievances.

According to Micha Odenheimer, director of the Israeli Association of Ethiopian Jews, this week's demonstration "was years in the making."

"It was an expression of the Ethiopians' outrage that, over the years, they have not really been absorbed into Israeli society."

The community "feels pushed into the margin of Israeli society. Despite some efforts by the government, many Ethiopian children still learn in largely segregated classrooms. Unemployment is high, and Ethiopians are the poorest ethnic group in Israel today."

Unless something is done quickly to reverse these trends, he added, "Ethiopian Jews will become a permanent black underclass."

In any discussion with Ethiopian activists, their first concern tends to be education. For many years, at least two-thirds of Ethiopians in primary school attended segregated "absorption classes."

An even larger percentage of teenagers was — and still is — sent to religious boarding schools, where many of the other students come from "problem homes."

Odenheimer said both the boarding schools and segregated classes actually hurt the very children they are supposed to help.

"Segregating kids prevents them from integrating, and the level of education tends to be lower," he said. "Sending teenagers away from home hurts the fabric of the family, and the parents eventually lose their authority over their children."

After numerous demonstrations by Masala and other Ethiopian activists, the government changed the education policy about three years ago and began mainstreaming Ethiopian children.

Amnon Be'eri, spokesman for the Ministry of Absorption, said, "I wouldn't say there haven't been problems or mistakes, but we are doing the best we can."

As proof, Be'eri points to the government's housing plan for Ethiopian immigrants.

Unlike other immigrant groups, which receive discounts on home mortgages, Ethiopian families are entitled to grants that cover 85 percent of the cost of an apartment, up to $110,000. This scheme has allowed the vast majority of Ethiopians to move out of caravan parks and into permanent housing.

Ethiopian activists acknowledge these efforts, but regard them as too little, too late. Masala said the government created an education task force about a year ago, but it received only $5 million of the $18 million needed to institute its recommendations.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian immigrants deeply feel that they are victims of discrimination.

"Israelis make us feel as if we're not Jewish," said Shira Eilen, an 18-year-old Jerusalemite. "The blood thing was just the breaking point."

Estie Hananya, a 15-year-old from Rishon Lezion, said: "Today they don't want my blood because I am black. Tomorrow they may not want my brain. People have called me a kushit, a nigger."