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Ethiopian Jews demonstrate against police violence and racism, in the third of such protests, on May 4, 2015 in Kiryat Gat, Israel. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

This week, Israel has been rocked by protests against police violence towards its Ethiopian community. Thousands of Ethiopians and their allies have rallied from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem demanding reform–not just of law enforcement, but of a society that has too often left this beleaguered community behind. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, though some late night clashes on Sunday left several dozen police and protesters injured. A number of prominent politicians, including Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, visited the demonstrators and called for societal soul-searching.

The protests were sparked by the viral video of a 21-year-old Ethiopian soldier named Demas Fikadey being beaten by two police officers. Yesterday, in response to the protests, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took time out of his increasingly frantic scramble to assemble a coalition to meet with Fikadey. He also convened a gathering of leaders and representatives from the broader Ethiopian community for several hours to listen to their concerns.

Those conversations, however, did not remain behind closed doors. Hours later, Netanyahu delivered his first speech to the new Knesset in honor of Herzl Day–which marks the Zionist forefather’s birthday–and devoted nearly half the address to the plight of the Ethiopian community. Declaring, “this must not happen in Israel,” the prime minister described painful stories of discrimination that had been relayed to him, and dubbed the protests “a clear warning sign” that Israel had not done enough to assure the rights of its Ethiopian minority.

“If we thought that we were dealing with this problem satisfactorily,” he said, “I think that the events of recent days show us that this problem is much more painful, much deeper, and much more serious.”

Read his full remarks, in English translation, below:

I met earlier with representatives of the Ethiopian community, against the backdrop of the protests in recent days. It was a discussion that went on for three hours, and it was unusually affecting. A mother of five told me how her small children feel trapped, “imprisoned in their lives because of the color of their skin.” Young people who served in the IDF, in battle, said to me: “We are fighting for the country, we shed our blood, only to encounter shocking racism.” This must not happen in Israel. It is our duty to fight racism and discrimination in every way, from every platform.

Many have told me, boys and grown men, that they are afraid to go outside for fear of the police. With this too, we must deal: the Israeli police are determined to change this situation from end to end and directives have been handed down. I have no doubt we will be successful in this, because we all understand the need for it and the morality of it.

I promised the Ethiopian representatives we would deal with the problems that have been weighing on them with immediacy and absolute seriousness: we will uproot from within ourselves arbitrary police violence against members of their community; we will implement plans to close the social gaps–already in the coming budget there is a plan… We will fight with all our strength, and in this I am sure I reflect all members of this parliament — we will fight with all our might any manifestations of racism and discrimination.

…Sometimes there are moments of crisis–it has happened in the economy, it has happened in other areas like security–where we get a clear warning sign, a blaring siren, and we see the problem. Everyone understands that there is a very big problem, and if we thought that we were dealing with this problem satisfactorily, I think that the events of recent days show us that this problem is much more painful, much deeper, and much more serious. It requires more resources, more attention. It also requires the mobilization of all public leaders to make clear that Israelis of Ethiopian origin are Israelis in every respect. Their contribution to Israeli society is expansive. Their contribution to Israel’s security is substantial–and this is no surprise.

In 1862, two decades before Herzl began his Zionist activism, thousands of Ethiopian Jews set out on foot in the direction of Israel. They were overtaken by the ancient dream of the return to Zion. They were ahead of the Zionist movement by many years, and their return demonstrates and reminds us what the purpose of Zionism is. Thus, in the light of Herzl’s vision, we have returned to our ancient birthplace and established in it a modern state. We have established a Jewish and democratic state with an iron principle: equal rights for all citizens regardless of religion, race or sex.

This principle should always be our guiding principle, and the compass for our actions.

At present, Netanyahu is attempting to cobble together a razor-thin government of 61 Knesset seats. Whether the resulting rickety coalition–or any other configuration–will prove up to this formidable task he has set remains to be seen.





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