Ethiopian Jews Plan To Take Protest To New York

An Ethiopian Jew is knocked down by a mounted police officer during a demonstration in central Jerusalem in 2006
An Ethiopian Jew is knocked down by a mounted police officer during a demonstration in central Jerusalem

AFRICANGLOBE – As Ethiopian activists expressed satisfaction over Wednesday’s demonstration in Tel Aviv, a new battle line has emerged for Ethiopian Jews targeting discrimination in Israel: New York.

Educator and activist Benjamin Aklom is targeting the Big Apple after recognizing the influence of overseas Jewish communities on Israel.

“We [Ethiopians] in Israel are a very weak political force, and significant changes like we’re demanding can only come through two channels,” Aklom explained. One is “mobilization of Israeli society as a whole.” The other is “recruiting Diaspora Jewry” – much of which has been active for years on behalf of Ethiopian Jews – “to influence the decision makers in Israel.”

To this end, he has posted video clips on YouTube, set up a Facebook page, and recruited Ethiopian friends who moved from Israel to New York as his “point men.” The Facebook page already has several hundred fans, of whom about half are fellow Ethiopians and half are American Jews.

All this activity is meant to culminate in a major demonstration in which activists will block the road leading to the Israeli consulate in New York. He is now awaiting final permits from the New York police, and hopes the demonstration will take place early next month.

Aklom said he has no intention of leaving Israel. “I just want my rights, like every other Israeli citizen,” he says. But he has several friends in New York who say they left Israel out of frustration over not being accepted here as equals.

There are currently several hundred Ethiopian Jews from Israel living in New York, and they say the number is on the rise. “We have a sizable number of people here who opened their own business and are advancing very nicely, in a way they couldn’t have advanced in Israel,” said one, Beejhy Barhany.

But she herself has a different interest: She founded New York’s BINA Cultural Foundation, a center for preserving the cultural heritage of Ethiopian Jewry.

Back in Israel, Barhany said, she was often called kushi and other derogatory terms for blacks. “How can it be that in the Jewish state, which experienced so much anti-Semitism and racism, they’re doing this to Jews just because of the color of their skin?” she demanded.

But then she answered her own question: “What’s happening in Israel is simply a lack of awareness of the community: They look at them as people who have nothing to offer. The solution is exposure to the language and culture of Ethiopia.”

Sabay Zaudu, 31, said that after seven years in New York, Israel is still her home. But precisely because New York “will never be home,” it’s easier there: “If they call me ‘kushi’ or ‘black’ here, I don’t get upset like I do in my own country.”

Indeed, all the New York Ethiopians whom Haaretz contacted stressed that they still loved Israel, and came to its defense whenever it was attacked.

“I and all my friends of Ethiopian origin here are very Zionist,” said Shosh Pikado Kremer, one of the organizers of the New York demonstration. “I left with great pain. Coming to Zion was my parents’ only dream, and mine. And it will always be my home.”

Meanwhile, back in Israel, actiivists said yesterday that Wednesday’s demonstration, attended by thousands of people in Tel Aviv, was the first time they’ve not felt alone in their fight to end discrimination against the community.

About half of those attending the protest were non-Ethiopians, and Mezi Tezazu, one of the organizers, said she was “pleasantly surprised.” If every person present starts discussing the discrimination problem with others, that will raise awareness of it, creating “a small step on the road to change,” she said.

Some of the activists are now working on a larger demonstration, featuring many artists, that will take place in Israel next month.