Progress evident in battle to eliminate racism in Israel

The struggle against racism is a vital mission, not only for a unit within the Justice Ministry said Rivlin, but within every government ministry.

May 29, 2019 01:36
3 minute read.
ISRAEL POLICE detain a protester during a 2015 anti-racism demonstration in Tel Aviv.

ISRAEL POLICE detain a protester during a 2015 anti-racism demonstration in Tel Aviv.. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

There has been some progress in the battle to eliminate racism in Israel, Emi Palmor, the director-general of the Justice Ministry told President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday.

Palmor had accompanied members of the Government Unit for Coordinating the Struggle against Racism to the President’s Residence, where attorney Aweke Zeha, who heads the unit, presented Rivlin with the unit’s report for 2018.

Aweke, who was born in Ethiopia, previously worked with an interministerial committee for the elimination of racism against Israelis of Ethiopian descent.

Following harrowing incidents of members of the Ethiopian community being profiled and beaten by police for no reason other than the color of their skin, the committee recommended the formation of a special unit dedicated to fighting racism and all forms of discrimination.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his full support to the recommendation that was adopted by the government in August, 2016, and established within the Justice Ministry in February 2017, said Palmor.

After two years of work she said, “we can feel the change.”

Recalling television scenes in April 2015 of police beating an Ethiopian soldier, Rivlin said that the sight was shocking to behold, especially because the victim had done nothing wrong.

During Passover that year, young Israeli Ethiopians, testifying to daily incidents of racism, mounted a protest which evolved into a national challenge.

The struggle against racism is a vital mission, not only for a unit within the Justice Ministry said Rivlin, but within every government ministry.

He was heartened by positive signs in the report that indicate that there are people in every government office who are determined to bring about change to ensure that no one is judged on the basis of their ethnic origins or the color of their skin.

A few months ago, Rivlin continued, he and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked reached a decision to pardon Ethiopian youths who had been arrested during the protest demonstrations, so as to give them a clean slate on which to build their futures.

“We must cut racism and other manifestations of discrimination at the root,” Rivlin declared.

Rivlin who had actually perused the report before it was presented to him, and who had been updated by his legal adviser Udit Corinaldi, turned to Zeha and said, “You’re doing good work.”

Plans are often made, but nothing comes of them, Rivlin observed, but on this issue plans are not only being made but are being executed.

Both Rivlin and Palmor made the point that Ethiopians are not the only victims of racial bias and discrimination. Complaints are also received from Arabs, Russian immigrants, people of North African background and haredim (ultra-Orthodox).

Speaking later to The Jerusalem Post, Zeha who earned his law degree in Israel, refused to say whether he had personally experienced racism, but drew a parallel to the Passover injunction in which all Jews are exhorted to remember that their forefathers were slaves in Egypt.

When any Ethiopian reports on being a victim of racism he said, “I feel as if it happened to me. Their struggle is my struggle.”

Unlike Jews in Europe who can hide their identities if they don’t have strongly Jewish features, he said, Ethiopians can’t do anything to hide the color of their skin.

Because there was no proper infrastructure for fighting racism before the creation of the unit that he heads, much of Zeha’s time and that of his team was devoted to creating infrastructure and tools for initiating change. This included the training of anti-racism officers in every government ministry and in ministerial subdivisions.

“There’s a lot less profiling now,” he said.

One of the unit’s most important activities in regard to individual victims of racism is the provision of free legal aid.

Among the complaints it has received – and not just from Ethiopians – are the barring of entry to restaurants, country clubs and even public transport, refusal of enrollment in haredi schools, humiliating body searches at the airport, insults at the supermarket and job dismissal on grounds of ethnic or religious background.

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