Activists from the Ethiopian Jewish community and others reacted with fury Wednesday over comments by Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver that these olim should be “thankful” for what they have received from the State of Israel.
Speaking at an emergency session of the Knesset Committee for Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, which was called in light of reports of blatant racism among individuals who refuse to sell or rent their homes to Ethiopian Israelis, Landver said the country had done “everything possible to absorb” Ethiopian Jews.
“We all condemn racism, but in 2010 the ministry gave millions of dollars to the Ethiopian community. We promoted Ethiopian issues in general, and in particular their employment,” she said, pointing out that the Ethiopian Jews community is many years behind the rest of Israeli society in terms of its development and general integration.
“The gap is wide but the State of Israel has done everything possible to absorb them as best as it can,” she said.
But MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima), the Knesset’s sole Ethiopian member, said Landver’s response to “this kind of racism” was wrong.
“The minister’s job is to say what she plans to do to tackle this problem,” Molla said.
“If the minister thinks that every Jews should be eternally grateful for what the state has given him, I believe the only option is for her to step down.”
He added that he planned to condemn Landver’s comments in a speech to the Knesset plenum.
On Tuesday, hundreds of members of the Ethiopian- Israeli community gathered in Kiryat Malachi to protest against residents who allegedly signed an agreement not to rent or sell their apartments to Ethiopians.
The story was revealed last week in a news report in the local media.
At the protest, activists expressed their anger that no politicians except Molla had spoken out against such extreme discriminatory attitudes.
Many told journalists that this kind of racism exists in numerous other towns outside of Kiryat Malachi and in many areas of public life.
Ethiopian-born Elias Inbram, one of the organizers of the protest, said on Wednesday that the emergency hearing in the Knesset was more like a “reality TV show.”
“They said it was an emergency, but this problem has existed for 30 years,” said Inbram, who walked out of the hearing in protest over what he said was its failure to truly address the issue of institutionalized racism. “It was just a meeting to try and make us feel better, but we are calling on the government and legislators to take serious steps in tackling racism.”
He added that the only solution was to establish a new law calling for a NIS 1 million fine, and even jail time, for any individual who acted in this poisonous manner.
Lawyer Itzik Dessie, executive director of the Ethiopian legal rights organization Tebeka, said his group had already started lobbying parliamentarians to support such a law.
Dessie, who also attended the Knesset session, said the authorities needed to address three issues: the enforcement of existing laws that deal with discrimination, the creation of a new law that addresses housing problems, and the amendment of a law that deals with libel and slander against entire communities.
“We do not care which MK takes up this issue, but there needs to be a law that deals with racism directly,” he said, adding that Landver should have addressed the need for legislation and not spoken about “what wonderful work she is doing.”
“It is not appropriate for public figures to say that we should thank them for the work they are doing,” dessie said. “They get a salary for it and it is their job to make things better.”
Immediately following the stormy committee session, several MKs issued statements criticizing Landver’s comments.
“Enough with the patronizing and condescending words of this government toward its citizens,” stated opposition leader and Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni.
“It is the right of every citizen in Israel, regardless of his community, skin color or gender, to live with dignity and equal rights, and this should not be based on what is good for the country.”
Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich also called Landver’s comments patronizing and condescending.
“Ethiopian Jews are proud citizens of this country who deserve rights, and what the state gives them is their right,” she said. “It is not charity and they do not need to say thank you to anyone.”
Also responding to racist attacks against the Ethiopian community, right wing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he had instructed his adviser on Ethiopian issues, Alali Admasu, to work toward eradicating the phenomenon of racism against Ethiopian Jews.
“We are full of admiration for Ethiopian Jews,” the prime minister said in a statement. “In the face of obstacles and difficulties, they came here and are becoming integrated into Israeli society, something we are encouraging in every possible way. Racist phenomena are infuriating and have no place in Israeli society. The ingathering of exiles from Ethiopia and everywhere else in the world is an inseparable part of the character of the State of Israel.”