Damas Pakada, the Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent who was attacked by a police officer and volunteer last Sunday in Holon, was accused of attacking the officer and arrested, only to be released once a surveillance video of the attack was uploaded to social media. Fentahun Assefa- Dawit, executive director of Tebeka – Advocacy for Equality and Justice for Ethiopian Israelis, says that this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but not an isolated incident.
Assefa-Dawit says the only thing unique about this incident is that it was caught on film, for young Ethiopian Israelis being attacked by police and then falsely accused of crimes is an all-too common scenario.
“He [Pakada] was taken into the police station, he was arrested, detained, and spent overnight in detention,” Assefa- Dawit said, noting that Pakada was due to be brought in the morning before a judge to extend his remand when the video came to light.
“You can imagine, if there were no footage, what would have happened to this soldier?” asks Assefa-Dawit. He answers his own question – Pakada would have been put in jail with a record for assaulting a police officer following him around for the rest of his life.
To further illustrate his point, Assefa-Dawit points to the country’s Ofek Juvenile Prison. While the Ethiopian community in Israel makes up under 2 percent of the population, approximately 40% of the prison’s inmates are of Ethiopian descent.
Tebeka runs a legal department, providing free legal aid to members of the Ethiopian Israeli community.
“There is a huge distrust – a huge distrust – between the Ethiopian community in general, the youth of Ethiopian community in particular, and the police,” says Assefa-Dawit. He says that many Ethiopian Israelis won’t call the police when they need assistance, as they fear being arrested rather than helped.
He tells the story of a family in Kiryat Malachi that asked to see the search warrant when told by police that their apartment was to be searched. The police refused and became violent when the family insisted. After searching the apartment, they revealed the search warrant, which had a different address to the apartment they had just searched.
Dr. Simcha Getahune, director of multiculturalism at Elem – Youth in Distress, says that the Ethiopian Israeli youth she works with feel they aren’t connected to Israeli society. She says that police violence proves to them that the system is against them.
Assefa-Dawit also stated that the problem goes beyond police brutality. He talks about a complex problem that touches many aspects of Ethiopian Israeli lives.
He talks about Ethiopian Israelis being dismissed from work for no reason, encountering problems registering to be married through the rabbinical courts, caps on the number of Ethiopian children admitted into certain schools for fear of bringing down the academic level of the school, and bus drivers disrespecting Ethiopian Israeli passengers, including children.
“Things are getting better, but we are nowhere near the ideal situation,” he says. He spoke of members of his community who sent out their resume and received no responses, who subsequently changed their name to a more “Ashkenazi sounding name” and suddenly started receiving callbacks, only to shock their interviewers when walking into the room.
Hana Elazar Legesse, policy advancement and change coordinator at the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, says that the problem stems from the fact that the Ethiopian Israeli community is separated from the rest of Israeli society. She says that, despite being in Israel for more than 30 years, the community is still treated as new immigrants, and every problem arising in the community is dealt with through the Absorption Ministry rather than the various appropriate ministries.
Tebeka also runs a leadership and empowerment programs for Israelis of Ethiopian descent and Assifa-Dawit says that some challenges can be dealt with from within the community.
At the same time, he strongly emphasized that, first and foremost, the government must take responsibility for the problems that face the Ethiopian community in Israel.
Assifa-Dawit stated that Tebeka continually sends reports to both the inspector-general of the Israel Police and the Interior Ministry, detailing at length the problem of police violence toward members of the community.
He says that a report was sent this past October that, as is always the case, was ignored. He says that the writing on the wall has been there for years and has been consistently ignored by those with the power to change things.
Shortly after the incident with Pakada, Insp.-Gen. Yochanan Danino invited Assifa-Dawit to sit down and form a committee to deal with the issue. The committee includes high-ranking police officers, Likud MK Avraham Naguise, former MKs Pnina Tamano-Shata and Shimon Solomon, and Deputy Mayor of Tel-Aviv-Yafo Mahrata Baruch-Ron, among others.
Elazar Legesse welcomes the forming of the committee, but states unequivocally that it must be made up of professionals, regardless of skin-color.
She says this is a matter of civil rights and must be treated as such, with civil rights experts working with the police to solve the problems in their ranks. She also called on the police force to install cameras on police uniforms to ensure that police brutality stops.
Assifa-Dawit called the demonstrations from last Thursday and this Sunday evening an outcry from the youth of the Ethiopian Israeli community.
He said they are crying out to mend the distrust between them and “the police that is supposed to protect them.”
He pointed out that while the police commissioner has taken the first step toward mending the situation by forming the professional committee to examine the problem and propose a solution, Assifa-Dawit is still waiting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deal with the challenges facing the Ethiopian Israeli community in a comprehensive way.
“I believe Israel can do better,” says Assifa-Dawit, referring to the analogies being made to the rioting in Baltimore. “God forbid we go in that direction.”
He maintains an optimistic attitude and says that he believes that if the situation is taken seriously by the police and the government, things will get better. He does warn, however, that if the problem is not taken seriously, things could get worse.
Elazar Legesse also wants the comparisons to the Baltimore riots to stop. “Their struggle is a worthy struggle. But just because we have the same color skin doesn’t make it the same fight. Our reality is different – we’re talking our Israeli existence,” she says, adding that the comparison is inherently racist, as though every struggle by someone with the same skin color is comparable.
She also said that what worries her is seeing what she says are disproportionate preparations for rioting by the police, which sends the false message that the Ethiopian Israeli community is a violent one.
“I have the hope that Israel will be a light unto the nations.
I have the hope that we’re not going to go down the road toward what we are seeing in Baltimore and other places,” Assifa-Dawit says. He believes that working together to find a long-lasting solution is possible in a place like Israel. “If we start to respect one another,” he said, “then we will see Israel a more tolerant, a more equal, a more just society.”