Ethiopian youth shooting shows Israel imperfect, not rotten to the core - analysis

Israel’s detractors will use killing of Ethiopian Youth to bash ‘racist’ Israel.

The annual memorial ceremony for Jewish immigrants who died on the way to Israel from Ethiopia, June 5, 2016 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The annual memorial ceremony for Jewish immigrants who died on the way to Israel from Ethiopia, June 5, 2016
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It’s only a matter of time before Israel’s detractors, and they are legion, jump on the truly heartrending killing of Ethiopian-born Israeli Solomon Tekah to prove “the rot in Israel’s soul.”
“Israel is a racist country,” they will intone with sanctimonious self-righteousness. “It oppresses the Palestinians and treats the Ethiopians with equal disdain. Look how it kills Ethiopian youth.”
What happened at the playground in Kiryat Haim when an off-duty police officer shot and killed the 19-year-old Tekah is indeed a tragedy that needs to be fully investigated and, if necessary, prosecuted. If indeed the off-duty police officer was trigger-happy and shot Tekah without justification, then the book should be thrown at him.
The incident is first and foremost a tragedy for the Tekah family, who immigrated here from Ethiopia in 2013. It is also a point of great concern for the Ethiopian community, still reeling from a similar incident just six months ago when Yehuda Biadga was killed by another police officer.
The tales of police profiling and harassment of Ethiopian youth are well known. I would not want to trade places with Ethiopian parents who, in addition to all the regular worries they have regarding the upbringing of their children, have to be concerned that their kids will be wrongly treated by police just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The incident is also secondarily a public diplomacy nightmare for Israel, a country that prides itself and presents itself abroad as a land of great diversity; a land where Jews, Muslims, Christians and people from all across the globe enjoy the same rights and opportunities, at least inside the Green Line. And then this happens, and the refrain suddenly becomes, “Look how Israel treats the Ethiopians.” Well, yes, let’s look.
It is difficult to find instances in history where one country spirited Africans out of their native continent not to sell them into slavery, but rather to bring them to freedom. Yet that is precisely what Israel did with the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry via Operation Moses and Operation Solomon in the last century. In the process, Israel has spent hundreds of billions of shekels to house, educate and train the immigrants. The amount of money the social welfare departments in local municipalities spend each year on Ethiopian immigrants is tremendous. And it has had an effect.
According to a Myers-JDC-Brookdale study, there were 144,100 Ethiopian-Israelis in the country at the end of 2016, 59% of whom were born in Ethiopia. In 2000/2001, only 38% of Ethiopian high school students passed the matriculation exam, and that number rose to 55% in 2015/2016. In 2001, there were 747 Ethiopian students in institutions of higher education, and there were 3,194 in 2016. The employment rate for Ethiopian men in 2016 was nearly equivalent to that of all Jewish men at 80% to 81%, and for women it was 74%, compared to 80% for all Jewish women.
This does not mean that the absorption process has been perfect or that there is no racism in the society. It hasn’t, and there is. Every few months there are stories in the press of Ethiopians having trouble renting apartments or getting into a nightclub. More numerous, however, are the tales of kindness directed toward the community – both on an organizational and individual basis – but those stories do not make news. As the old aphorism goes, “dog bites man” is not a story.
Has the absorption of the Ethiopian community into mainstream society been without flaw? Obviously not. Were mistakes made? Myriad. Just as mistakes were made – huge mistakes – in bringing immigrants here in the 1940s and 1950s from North Africa and Yemen, and in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union.
Yet, if you ask those immigrants whether they would have been better off staying in the lands of their birth, or immigrating to Israel – taking into account all the problems that they faced – most would probably say they are better off here. Which also explains why, years after Israel reportedly flew the last Jew out of Ethiopia, every year more and more people line up in Addis Ababa clamoring to come to this country despite all the problems and challenges facing the Ethiopian immigrants.
Israel is an imperfect society. There is discrimination and there is racism, just as there are in every other society. No more, but unfortunately probably not that much less. However, those who will now take this incident – as horrible as it is – to tarnish Israel as an inherently racist society are doing both Israel, and truth, a disservice.
On the whole, the Ethiopian immigration story has been a huge boon for both Israel and the Ethiopian immigrants. That does not mean that tragedies do not occur, and when they do, they should not be swept under the rug, but dealt with face-on. At the same time, they should also not be used to unfairly paint the entire nation – or the government – as being rotten to its core.