Dark-skinned dolls and history lessons: How Israel plans to tackle prejudice
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Netanyahu: 'We heard heart-rending and hair-raising stories' of discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis, and 'we decided to take action against racism'

Dark-skinned dolls and history lessons: How Israel plans to tackle prejudice

Cabinet ministers to consider new report by high-level committee on addressing discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis

Ethiopian-Israelis protest police brutality and mistreatment in Israeli society, Tel Aviv,  June 3, 2015. (Flash90)
Ethiopian-Israelis protest police brutality and mistreatment in Israeli society, Tel Aviv, June 3, 2015. (Flash90)

A major government report on ways to combat racism against Israelis of Ethiopian heritage was formally delivered to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday.

Among its recommendations: integrating dark-skinned dolls into kindergartens and teaching Israel’s teachers about Ethiopian Jewish history.

The report was produced by an interministerial committee chaired by Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor. The committee was established in response to recent public street protests by Ethiopian Israeli activists against what they said was the rampant prejudice they face in Israeli society.

The issue rose to the fore last year amid accusations by Ethiopian Israelis of rampant police brutality and abuse against members of the community. The community staged a series of demonstrations across the country, triggered by video footage showing a seemingly unprovoked police assault on an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in April 2015.

Thousands took to the streets demanding the government address the alleged systematic and institutionalized racism faced by the Ethiopian Israeli community. Activists also expressed their frustration with what they said was the state’s shortcomings in addressing the social and economic needs of their community.

Ethiopian Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against violence and racism directed at Israelis of Ethiopian descent, May 18, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Ethiopian Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against violence and racism directed at Israelis of Ethiopian descent, May 18, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

At a May 2015 protest in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, at least 41 people were injured in what devolved into an hours-long melee that saw protesters hurl rocks at police and officers respond with stun grenades and water cannons.

The latest report marks the conclusion of months of deliberations that resulted from last year’s tensions. It offers 53 detailed recommendations for tackling racism throughout Israeli society, mainly through the education system.

It will be debated Monday by the Netanyahu-chaired committee of cabinet ministers that commissioned it, which bears the unwieldy title: The Ministerial Committee for the Advancement and Integration in Israeli Society of Israelis of Ethiopian Origin.

“In the ministerial committee, we heard heart-rending and hair-raising stories” of discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis, Netanyahu said in a statement Sunday, “and we decided to take action against racism.”

He promised to take “further steps” in the wake of the report. Racism, he said, “is unbecoming of our country, our citizens and our nation.”

According to reports — including Netanyahu’s own Sunday press release — the ministers are expected to approve all 53 recommendations.

Illustrative photo of Ethiopian Israeli spiritual leaders protesting the state's refusal to officially recognize them as religious authorities, Jerusalem, December 4, 2011. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of Ethiopian Israeli spiritual leaders protesting the state’s refusal to officially recognize them as religious authorities, Jerusalem, December 4, 2011. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

According to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, which obtained a copy of the report, the committee interviewed many Ethiopian Jewish leaders and activists and heard from them that their encounters with racism often came from well-meaning welfare and education officials.

According to the report, examples cited by Ethiopian Israelis included the high rates at which black children are channeled into “underachieving” or even special-education classrooms, as well as the relatively larger numbers of black children who are removed from families dealing with domestic conflict.

The experience of bias, meanwhile, reaches across a wide cross-section of daily life. Ethiopian parents say they often encounter white parents who avoid sending their children to extracurricular activities with their kids.

The committee also reviewed figures showing that welfare and law enforcement officials have been unable to meaningfully address the high rates of criminal involvement among Ethiopian Israeli youth.

The committee’s key recommendations center on uprooting prejudice at an early age, especially through kindergartens and elementary schools.

The committee calls on schools to stock books about children from a variety of cultures and with different skin colors, and to ensure that children play with dolls and figurines with dark skin.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives the report of the Palmor Committee to eradicate racism against Ethiopian Israelis, from Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, July 31, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives the report of the Palmor Committee to eradicate racism against Ethiopian Israelis, from Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, July 31, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

And, it adds, schools must work to integrate Ethiopian Israeli educators as teachers and principals.

It also found that the Education Ministry does not currently have any systematic training program for teachers, principals and ministry employees to help them recognize and address racism. It recommends courses for educators on examining their own prejudices, as well as on the history and heritage of Ethiopian Jewry.

Shlomit Brahno, a member of the Palmor Committee and an adviser to opposition chief MK Isaac Herzog, told Yedioth that “the report’s implementation will help heal the crisis of confidence” between the Ethiopian Israeli community and the government, “and will heal the fractures in our society.”

Palmor herself said the “broad support the report enjoys across the government ministries and agencies that took part in drafting it, as well as among leading social activists, increases the chance that it will be able to bring real change.”

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