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Israel

Culture Ministry accused of racism in spat over funds for Ethiopian center

The Culture Ministry has been accused of peddling racist stereotypes after chiding an Ethiopian Israeli lawmaker on Wednesday for failing to display the “gratitude, humility and commitment to the truth that has always characterized the Ethiopian community.”

Blue and White MK Gadi Yevarkan had charged that Culture Minister Miri Regev was misusing and redirecting funds allocated for the Ethiopian community to projects linked to her political allies.

In a Knesset speech on Wednesday, Yevarkan said that instead of green-lighting the construction of the Ethiopian Heritage center, Regev has used the budget for Likud-affiliated projects.

“In 2016, the minister used public funds to grease the wheels for members of the Likud party,” he said. “This is something that must be investigated by police in the future.”

Yevarkan said that since 2016, the center has been allocated NIS 3.6 million ($1 million) annually, but most of the money has yet to be dispensed.

Culture Minister Miri Regev at the annual international Municipal Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, on February 28, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

According to Yevarkan, in 2016 the center spent 40% of its annual budget, in 2017 60%, and in 2018 used just 17%.

Yevarkan said that in 2017 Regev used some of the center’s funds to help pay for “an extravagant event at the Jerusalem Convention Center that cost hundreds of thousands of shekels.”

He said that even though the Ethiopian cultural center was approved years ago, the committee in charge of the project only elected a chief executive about three months ago.

“She took over the committee three years ago and has done everything she can to erase it,” he said in his speech. “Around 83% of our budget was returned to the treasury because Miri Regev doesn’t care about our history.”

“The cultural terrorist and sacrificer of Israeli culture, Minister Miri Regev, has found herself a new victim: This time its [Ethiopian Israelis].”

The Culture Ministry responded to Yevarkan’s accusation Wednesday, saying: “There is no connection between Yevarkan’s statements and reality, only a desperate attempt to score political points on the back of his community.”

“It’s a shame that his remarks were not characterized by gratitude, humility and commitment to the truth that has always characterized the Ethiopian community,” the statement said.

The response sparked backlash from Yevarkan and other opposition lawmakers, who said Regev’s ministry had employed condescending and racist language toward the Ethiopian lawmaker.

“The Culture Ministry needs to amend this response and issue an apology immediately. Shameful,” Blue and White chief Benny Gantz tweeted Thursday.

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh linked the incident to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “increasingly racist campaign of incitement he is running against Arab Israelis,” tweeting that “is there anyone in this country that [the Likud] doesn’t hate?”

Meretz  MK Tamar Zandberg said, “There is no limit to the condescension and detachment of Miri Regev who, with typical cowardice and audacity, has issued this racist response in the name of the ‘Ministry of Culture.'”

Ethiopian-Israelis and supporters protest against police violence and discrimination following the death of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah on July 1 in Haifa by an off-duty police officer, in Tel Aviv, on July 8, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Yevarkan, who in the past unsuccessfully ran for a slot on the Likud list, blasted Regev for the statement in an Army Radio interview Wednesday evening, and called for her firing.

“The shame is on all of us, citizens of Israel, that this is the woman who serves as deputy prime minister when he is abroad. The public must hold her to account and then banish her with shame from the public arena.

“Her response is an example of everything that is bad, sick and racist about her personally, this hateful government and the party it represents,” he added.

Tensions between the Ethiopian Israeli community and law enforcement have been high since the June killing of a teenager by an off-duty officer, which sparked several days of nationwide protests. The fatal shooting of Solomon Tekah renewed accusations of police brutality and racism toward Israelis of Ethiopian descent.

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