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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ethiopian Jews, Police Clash in Protest


JERUSALEM -- In a fury over perceived discrimination, thousands of Ethiopian Jews clashed with Jerusalem police in a protest that shook the Jewish state and shattered the stereotype of the subservient Ethiopian immigrant.

"Although our skin is black, our blood is as red as yours and we are just as Jewish as you are," one placard at the Sunday demonstration read.

Police fired water cannons, rubber bullets, percussion grenades and tear gas at the protesters who gathered outside the prime minister's office, and several Ethiopians reported being beaten by club-wielding riot police. Army Radio reported that 62 people were injured, 41 of them police officers.

Police spokesman Eric Bar-Chen said police used force only after demonstrators broke through fences and attacked the building where Prime Minister Shimon Peres was holding the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Bar-Chen estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 Ethiopians were confronted by about 500 police officers in the protest.

The demonstrators demanded that Health Minister Ephraim Sneh resign for supporting the policy of routinely destroying donated Ethiopian blood. Sneh has said the policy -- instituted in 1991 by the nation's blood bank -- is necessary because Ethiopians have a higher incidence of HIV infection, the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, than any other ethnic group in Israel. He and other health-care officials insist that the policy is based on statistics alone.

"We had this image for 11 years since our massive immigration. They told us: 'You are nice, quiet and polite,'" Addisu Messele, a leader of the Ethiopian community, said.

About 60,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel. Most arrived in secret airlifts in 1984-85 and 1991, brought to an ancient homeland that is now a hi-tech country which prizes skilled Russian immigrants rather than rural Africans.

Hundreds, mostly the elderly or unemployable, still live in caravan camps set up by the government, relief officials say. Thousands have received state grants and moved into apartments.

Many said Sunday they were showing anger over racism they had felt in schools, work and the army.

Shoshana Ben-Dor, director of the Israel office of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, a group involved in helping black Jews.

Instead, said the ill-will had been sparked by cultural differences and well-intentioned portrayals in the media of the Ethiopian newcomers as "poor and downtrodden."

Ben-Dor said Israelis were fascinated that the black Jews were new to electricity and gas stoves, but then started wondering whether Ethiopians knew how to maintain homes and property values.

"Exactly many of the factors that made Israelis want to run out and help the Ethiopians when they arrived ... bring about the reaction, 'Do I want them as my next-door neighbor and in class with my kids?'" she said.

A veteran Ethiopian immigrant, Matti Elias, who came to Israel 40 years ago at the age of 10, said health officials further stigmatized the community.

"They took all the Ethiopian Jews and defined them as dangerous. That was nonsense," he said, referring to the disposal of their donated blood, which the national blood bank continued to defend Monday.

After Peres met with three leaders of the community, the government issued a statement saying it will form a committee chaired by Peres to examine the blood-donation policy and other Ethiopian issues. ()