By Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
Ethiopian activists holding vigil outside the Prime Minister’s Residence are facing a court-ordered eviction that could force the activists to leave in mid-April, after the permit for their protest tent expires.
“The municipality doesn’t want us here because this is a place with a lot of tourism, and we’re putting dirty laundry out to dry, it isn’t good for the holy city,” said Yayauo Tagani.
“It’s 2012, and a state that’s supposed to be equal and presents itself as such isn’t showing it’s true face. Here, we are showing the face of racism and discrimination. [The family and activists for] Gilad Schalit were here for a number of years. We’re not comparing ourselves to him, but there’s a whole community that feels they’re imprisoned by the government,” he said.
A group of six core activists has lived in a tent outside the Prime Minister’s Residence for 37 days, appealing to passersby and politicians to reexamine the issue of racism against Ethiopian immigrants in Israeli society. They set up their tent in the same spot where the Gilad Schalit tent stood for three and a half years, until it was dismantled in October when the kidnapped soldier returned. Last Wednesday, Schalit visited the activists with his father Noam for about ten minutes.
Thirty-year-old Alemitu Ferebe, who lives in Ashkelon with her four-year-old daughter, was the galvanizing force behind the protest tent.
“I want her to have a good future; I want her to have confidence and pride. If I don’t worry about her, I will not have done my responsibility,” she said in reference to her daughter.
Ferebe said the municipality made getting the permit for the tent almost impossible, and then only approved them for three days. But the activists said they won’t budge until concrete steps are made in the fight against racism.
Ferebe broadly outlined the activists’ goals as four-fold: improving education, employment and housing for members of the Ethiopian community, as well as improving rights forkessim, Ethiopian spiritual leaders who don’t have the same recognition as rabbis.
Last week, the activists petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to allow them to stay in their protest tent, and they are currently awaiting the judge’s decision. Their central location seems to be working: The small group of activists has met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the director of his office, and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
The Jerusalem municipality said the mayor supported their struggle and wanted to find a balance “between protecting the area for the needs of the protestors and protecting the area for the needs of public space in the city.”
Many pedestrians passing by the tent have trouble understanding what exactly the activists are demanding.
“My mother came here in 1951 from Iraq, after my father died, with seven children on her own, and we lived on rations and egg powder,” one woman, who declined to give her name, told Tagani.
“We’re also black, I’m lighter than you, but I’m still black,” she told him. “It wasn’t easy but we succeeded; we did it by work and not by charity.”
This attitude, shared by some of the older Jews of North African descent who pass by the tent, is frustrating for Tagani.
“So where are all of you now?” he asked the woman. “Why am I in this struggle alone?” “This is not the private problem of one person; it’s the problem of all of us, as a community,” he said.
Both Ferebe and Tagani placed great importance on their staying in the tent, which is in a visible and high-traffic area, not to mention symbolic location near the Prime Minister’s Residence.
“Until now, we have felt like the backyard of Israeli society,” said Tagani. “We brought the backyard to the front yard. Every day you pass, we’re saying, ‘We’re still here; we need equality; we need to take care of this thing that hasn’t been taken care of in the past 30 years.’”