Violence disrupted an anti-racism demonstration in Tel Aviv this weekend. But comparisons to Baltimore miss the mark.
Thousands of Ethiopian Israelis took to the streets Sunday in Tel Aviv, a seaside city typically less exposed to Israel's cyclical unrest. According to reports, the protests began peacefully but dissolved into violence as night fell. Photographs of the event captured groups of protestors setting public property aflame; in others, bloodied demonstrators received medical attention. Forty-three protestors were ultimately arrested according to the New York Times, and 56 police officers were injured.
Sunday's events began as protests against the economic marginalization of and police brutality against Israel's Ethiopian-Jewish population, a small minority ethnic group that mostly emigrated from east Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Coming on the heels of Baltimore's violent protests against the police killing of Freddie Gray, similarities were quickly drawn between the two episodes—namely, the mobilization of urban, black communities pushing back against aggressive policing.
According to AFP, roughly 30 percent of inmates at Ofek Prison, a detention center for minors near Tel Aviv, are Ethiopian Israelis—despite the fact that this group only constituting about 3 percent of the national population. As of 2012, the unemployment rate for Ethiopian Israelis was nine percent higher than the rest of Israel's Jewish citizens. (There was a 28 percent difference in employment over 2002-2003, which suggests the gap is closing.) Ethiopian Israelis, on average, earn hourly wages of 37 NIS ($9.50) compared to 53 NIS ($13.60) for the broader Jewish community.
"Our parents were humiliated for years. We are not prepared to wait any longer to be recognised as equal citizens," a protester told the Guardian. "I’ve had enough of this behaviour by the police. I just don’t trust them any more," said another.
USA Today interpreted the violence in Tel Aviv as an example of the Baltimore protests going Middle Eastern. "In Tel Aviv, echoes of Baltimore unrest," the paper wrote, citing a sign held by a protester that warned the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to "not let Baltimore reach Israel." But such comparisons leave a lot out of both situations. In fact, Tel Aviv demonstrators explicitly disowned any comparisons to the protests in Baltimore.
"The fact that we’re black doesn't mean that we're Baltimore," an Ethiopian-Israeli protestor told a reporter for Haaretz, a local newspaper.
The stark divide between events in Tel Aviv and in Baltimore can be heard in the response of each government. Early statements by the Israeli government seemed to boldly back the protesters. Here's what Israeli President Reuven Rivlin told the press on Monday:
Protesters in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv revealed an open and bloody wound in the heart of Israeli society. This is a wound of a community sounding the alarm at what they feel is discrimination, racism and disregard of their needs. We must take a good hard look at this wound.
Among those protesting in the streets, there can be found the best of our boys and girls, excellent students and former soldiers. We must give them answers.
Rivlin's comments illuminated racial tensions in ways that President Barack Obama failed to address in the aftermath of Baltimore's protests. While responding to the situation in Baltimore last week, President Obama "struggled for a balance in his remarks," said the New York Times. He condemned America's history of police misconduct, calling it a "slow-rolling crisis." But he directly characterized factions of protesters, calling them "criminals and thugs," the latter term drawing significant—and warranted—criticism.
The unrest in Tel Aviv and Baltimore must be characterized through the lens of history of each city and disaffected group. And both nation's particular responses to the demands of their protestors will determine whether and how a long-term solution manifests.
Right now, the conciliatory response of the Israeli government suggests that the grievances of Tel Aviv's Ethiopian community will be heard and taken seriously. This is yet another way in which the protests there and in Baltimore—and throughout the United States—may differ.