After the number of Ethiopian soldiers incarcerated in military prisons reached a new high in 2012, the IDF realized it had to do something to stop the trend. There was a multi-layered reform plan that included seemingly trivial detail, such as getting officers to realize that Ethiopian-Israelis mostly refuse to look their commanders in the eye.
“The officers thought it was disrespect,” a high-ranking officer in the IDF Manpower Directorate told me at the time, for a story I was writing as this paper’s military correspondent. “After a while, we finally understood that they don’t look into the eyes of any figure of authority, including their own fathers.”
I was reminded of this after an off-duty police officer shot and killed 19-year old Solomon Tekah in Kiryat Haim on Sunday, setting off violent countrywide protests by the Ethiopian-Israeli community. Police are investigating what exactly happened. Sadly, Tekah was not the first Ethiopian-Israeli shot by police, or that community’s first victim of discrimination, racism or mistreatment in this country.
Anyone who has spoken to Ethiopian-Israelis is familiar with stories of hate and discrimination.
These can be as “minor” as a teacher saying to an incoming class that he doesn’t remember any of the students from when he taught them two years ago, except for the girl of Ethiopian descent; or the digital web designer standing outside a Tel Aviv office building waiting for the rain to stop when a policeman pulls up, asks to see his ID, and then doesn’t believe that an Ethiopian-Israeli can work in a Tel Aviv office building. And then there is the midwife at Ichilov Hospital who was recently told by a mother in labor: “I don’t want the black woman to deliver my baby.”
This discrimination happens on a daily basis. Most victims are not shot, beaten or killed; most choose to suffer in silence. They sweep under the rug what happens to them, hoping that if they just put their heads down and carry on with their own business, things will eventually pass.
But sometimes they can’t just sweep it away – all one had to do this week was watch some of the videos from the protests posted on social media to see exactly what happens when it boils over. Even when there were video cameras recording their every step, police did not shy away from using excessive force.
One video showed an especially large policeman grab a young kid whose hands were held up over his head, shove him to the ground, grab him in a choke-hold and then lie down on top of him for a long, long minute. Only when a senior officer came over and spoke to his subordinate did he agree to get up. That was done in front of the media. Now imagine what happens on a quiet street late at night in Kiryat Haim.
Remember Damas Pakedeh? He was the soldier who was riding his bike in Holon in 2015 when he was attacked and severely beaten by two policemen. Why? No particular reason. Then, too, violent protests erupted, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement saying he was shocked by the video of the beating. He later met with Pakedeh. Did anything change? Sadly, not enough.
Tekah was not the only fatality this year. In January, a policeman shot and killed Yehuda Biadga, a mentally unstable man who was wielding a knife in Bat Yam. Police knew he was unstable – they were alerted to the scene by his family – but decided to open fire at his chest instead of at his legs. Why?
Ethiopian-Israelis are correct when they say Ashkenazi or Sephardi Israelis cannot understand what it is like to fear the police as they do. I don’t know. When I walk down the street, I am not judged by the color of my skin. I am not profiled like an Ethiopian-Israeli. Nor am I immediately considered a suspect in a crime or taken aside for questioning.
Ethiopian-Israelis tell a different story.
“I have four children,” wrote Danny Abebo, a former Yediot Aharonot journalist who is now an emissary for the World Zionist Organization in South Africa. “They are Sabras, they are beautiful, and they are black. And I’m scared.”
This should not be tolerated. The police need to undergo serious reforms and purge their culture of the racial profiling and violence that have become daily occurrences across the country.
Israel was established with the raison d’être of giving Jews a home where they can live freely and openly without fear of discrimination, persecution or antisemitism.
The family of almost every Jew in Israel knows what that is like. Most Ashkenazim came here after the Holocaust, while many Sephardim were expelled from Arab countries after Israel’s establishment in 1948. Jews from the former Soviet Union were finally allowed to move to Israel en masse in the late 1980s after decades of not being allowed to openly practice their religion, and hundreds of years of persecution. Ethiopian Jews also yearned to come to Jerusalem – for thousands of years.
This is what makes Israel unique. This is a country that is diverse, and where our people create a special mosaic of Jews from different places, background and colors.
But we must do better.
Semantics, for example, also plays a role in this story. In some media reports, the protesters were referred to as “Ethiopians.” They are not Ethiopians – they are either “Ethiopian-Israelis” or “Israelis of Ethiopian descent.” Simply referring to them as “Ethiopians” is meant to distinguish the protesters from the rest of Israelis. No one, for example, would refer to protesters at a general demonstration in Israel by saying they were Moroccans, Poles, Syrians and Germans. All are Israelis, and that is how they should be seen.
POLICE AND the Justice Ministry will need to determine what exactly happened to Tekah, and why the officer shot and killed him. Whatever the outcome, discrimination needs to be uprooted throughout Israeli society. There are too many stories of Ethiopian-Israelis being barred from nightclubs, rejected from job opportunities, or becoming victims of inexcusable excessive police violence.
For this to really change, a number of urgent steps need to be implemented. First, the government needs to follow through with the recommendations made in the 2015 Palmor Report. As the Jerusalem Post’s Yonah Jeremy Bob revealed this week, out of the report’s 51 recommendations, 34 have been implemented, nine are somewhere along the way, and eight have not even been started.
Two significant recommendations that have been ignored involve the police. These include ensuring there are video recordings of interrogations of Ethiopian-Israelis accused of felonies, and that police issue their own detailed reports regarding problematic cases.
Another urgent step pertains to the racist culture within Israeli society. This must end through education.
When a hospital patient refuses to be treated by a nurse of Ethiopian descent, the patient should be transferred to a different hospital. And when police use excessive force or racial profiling, those officers must be held accountable. After the Biadga shooting in January, the policeman involved was released without charges. The same might happen now after Tekah’s death. Policemen should not be indicted just to be taught a lesson. But even if both shootings were justified, the police cannot pretend that everything is OK.
When I wrote that story referenced above in 2012, 48% of male Ethiopian-Israeli soldiers were at some time during their service sentenced to military prison. They made up one in five of the inmates in army prisons at the time. Almost 10 years later, the IDF has succeeded in bringing these numbers down.
If the IDF can do it, so can civilian society. It must.