Locals: Kiryat Malachi discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis overblown

On a JFSA mission in 2006, Deborah Kay visits a Kiryat Malachi program for Ethiopian mothers and children

Thousands of protesters demonstrated in Jerusalem Jan. 18 against racism and discrimination toward Ethiopians in Israel.

Some 5,000 protesters marched in front of the Knesset before proceeding to Zion Square for a rally. They carried signs reading “Blacks and Whites — We’re all Equal,” “Social Justice” and “Stop racism.”

One protest organizer, college student Mulet Araro, 26, began walking Jan. 18 from his southern Israel home in Kiryat Malachi to meet the protesters in Jerusalem.

The protest came a week after hundreds of Israelis of Ethiopian descent and their supporters demonstrated in Kiryat Malachi against housing discrimination. A Kiryat Malachi neighborhood council reportedly signed residents to a contract committing that they would not rent or sell to Ethiopian Israelis.

“No such documents have ever been produced,” says Dina Tanners, a member of the TIPS (Tucson, Israel, Phoenix, Seattle) partnership from Seattle who, along with other committee members, spoke to several Kiryat Malachi residents last week. Dvora Attal, a member of the TIPS steering committee who lives near the buildings in question, reported that two people told the Israeli media they would never sell to Ethiopian Israelis, but no one else has publicly agreed with them.

“In truth, three Ethiopian Israeli families live in those buildings,” Tanners said in an e-mail, adding that former mayor of Kiryat Malachi Moshe “Shimi” Shimon, who lives in one of the buildings and runs a nonprofit program for the handicapped, “would never condone such discrimination.”

“Unfortunately, it looks like the media has shaped the news and has definitely harmed the reputation of Kiryat Malachi,” says Tanners. According to the Kiryat Malachi residents she spoke with, at a recent rally in the city in support of the rights of Ethiopian Israelis attended by “over 500 people of all colors,” media representatives refused to photograph a mixed-race group of teenage girls, saying they just wanted photos of the Ethiopians.

Earlier this month, she added, the city of Kiryat Malachi held a special program honoring its Ethiopian Israeli residents who had arrived via Operation Solomon. “A representative of the Ministry of Absorption spoke and said that Kiryat Malachi could be an example for all the country of how to absorb new immigrants from Ethiopia,” she says.

The focus of the demonstrations “is now widening and people are talking about this as a struggle for justice and a better society for Israel,” says Tanners. “The discussion is definitely good, but the way it began, based on the faulty information of two very biased people, was unfortunate.”

In an e-mail, Ira Kerem, the TIPS representative in Israel, said “while there is much goodwill” between veteran Kiryat Malachi residents and Ethiopian immigrants, prejudice does exist. The partnership, he says, hopes to work with Ethiopian leaders and municipal authorities to “promote mutual respect and understanding.”

“The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona,” he notes, ìhas been the leading federation in funding programs to assist and empower the Ethiopian population in Kiryat Malachi. One simple program that provides the local welfare department with an experienced Ethiopian family and youth counselor has resulted in the saving of marriages and even lives. The Ethiopian community owes a debt of thanks to the Jewish community of Tucson. Together we will investigate how we can continue to improve the situation in Kiryat Malachi.”

AJP Executive Editor Phyllis Braun contributed to this article from JTA.