PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to hear the grievances of Israeli Ethiopians while condemning a violent riot that was sparked by a video showing police brutality against a member of the community.
“There is room to examine all claims, but no place for violence or lawbreakers,” Netanyahu said late on Sunday.
Thousands of people descended on a major Tel Aviv square, holding signs that said “Put an End to Racism,” and “Stop Police Brutality.”
Police officers on horseback tried to disperse the crowd and the sound of stun grenades was heard on footage posted on Ynet news website. Protesters blocked a major throughway for hours. Fifty-six of the injured were police officers and 43 demonstrators were arrested.
About 130,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, brought over in two large airlift operations during the 1980s and 1990s. Community leaders have long argued that they suffer from racist attitudes, in particular from police who often associate them with the country’s illegal African migrant population.
The video clip that sparked the protest was broadcast on local television last week. It showed an Ethiopian Israeli soldier being beaten by two police officers, without apparent provocation.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the demonstrators “exposed an open, bleeding wound in the heart of Israeli society. It is a wound of a community crying out over its feeling of discrimination and racism that are falling on deaf ears. We must face this open wound straight on. We made a mistake. We didn’t see and we didn’t listen well enough.”
Addisu Messele, who was Israel’s first lawmaker of Ethiopian descent, said on Israel Radio that the community has been a victim of discrimination and racism for years. Now, even those born and raised in Israel, who serve in the army and receive academic degrees, “can’t find their place in the Israeli society,” the former member of parliament said.
The community has protested, most recently in 2013, Israel’s refusal to let those born in Ethiopia participate in blood drives due to concerns about possible dangerous pathogens. Israeli guidelines also prohibit donations from people who have lived in the Caribbean or other sub-Saharn nations, as well as those who lived in Britain between 1980 and 1996 because of potential exposure to mad cow disease.
“This is a community which for many years has been complacent and accepting of the condescending attitude of the entire public and now they are fed up,” said Avshalom Elitzur, chairman of an organisation that supports Ethiopian Jewry.
“Why now? Probably the very sight of a young man being brutally beaten is enough to bring the change to the entire community and to begin empowering themselves.”
Officials including the police commissioner and the Ethiopian soldier being beaten in the video, will attend the meeting with Netanyahu, the prime minister’s office said.
“We will allow them to express their grievances, but won’t agree to unlicensed demonstrations of these types,” Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino said Sunday. “We very much understand their anger, but won’t allow public disturbances.”