"I’m here because I have the right to be here; because this is my country." That narrative is, according to Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, what is driving young Israelis of Ethiopian descent into the streets, demanding an end to racism and what they call excessive police violence toward members of their community.
Unlike their parents’ generation, who immigrated to Israel, these youths don’t feel like they are living here because others are doing them a favor by wanting to help them, Assefa-Dawit said. Rather, they live here because they were born here and grew up here, "and therefore they feel they should fight to take matters into their own hands to make things better for their own future."
Assefa-Dawit is the executive director of Tebeka, an advocacy organization for equality and justice for Ethiopian Israelis. He spoke to Haaretz’s Aimee Amiga in an interview on Tuesday, after peaceful protests led by Israelis of Ethiopian descent turned violent in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Ethiopian Israelis have largely been cut out of government decision-making, Assefa-Dawit said, although, he added, he himself has been on committees that deal with issues concerning the community.
"We as an organization have been alerting about the issue (of) discrimination for the past 15 years, but the system of government and public offices have ignored it," he said. Now that these demonstrations are taking place, he said, both Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are promising to do everything to rectify the situation. "I want to take their word … and believe that this time they mean business. If not, I don’t want to think what will happen in the future."
When asked to what degree the protests in the United States influenced those in Israel, Assefa-Dawit said he believes the timing was "more of a coincidence than influence," reminding that the Ethiopian Israeli community has long suffered discrimination, police violence and socioeconomic challenges, and that the "straw that broke the camel’s back" was the publication of a video of an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent being beaten up by police.
He also refuted the possibility that demonstrators intentionally used violence for the sake of media coverage, despite being fully aware of the power of the press.