This past Tuesday night did not go as planned.
I was sitting on bus 417 to Jerusalem at 5 p.m., on my way to celebrate American Independence Day with US Ambassador David Friedman and other dignitaries, when traffic came to a halt. I looked out the window and saw four youngsters from the Israeli-Ethiopian community blocking access to Highway 38, which would take us toward Highway 1 to Jerusalem. I assumed the police would come quickly and stop this small group from holding up traffic.
Was I ever wrong.
The crowd of demonstrators of Ethiopian descent grew by the minute, and by 5:30 there were at least 100 protesters blocking traffic in all directions. My bus was stuck there for the next five-and-a-half hours, time that I spent talking with the demonstrators, talking with the police, trying to broker a deal between the two sides to end the protest, and helping people who were stuck in the traffic jam. At a certain point we found a bride and groom stuck for almost four hours, and convinced the demonstrators to let them pass through to get to their wedding. We did the same when we discovered cars with passengers who were disabled, or elderly simply needing to drive as quickly as possible to their destinations.
Those five-and-a-half hours were very informative and taught me the following lessons:
• Failure of leadership
The national leadership – first and foremost Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – has not done nearly enough to address the challenges facing the Israeli-Ethiopian community, and the ultimate blame rests with all the leaders. The struggles go way beyond the killing of 18-year-old Solomon Tekah by police, which sparked the demonstrations. This is not the first time we have been confronted with the rage of the Israeli-Ethiopian community, and each time there are loud declarations made and special committees established to address the situation. But not enough real change happens on the ground. This is a community that needs more attention to help its youth reach their full potential and their rightful, equal place in Israeli society. This must, once and for all, become a national priority.
• Lack of preparation
The Israeli police were embarrassingly unprepared for the protests. There were very few officers in the vicinity, and those who were there stood back quietly for hours. I understand that they wanted to give the demonstrators a chance to express their rage over the killing, but after an hour or two, the police must have a mechanism to clear a road. I believe that blocking traffic should never be allowed as a form of protest, and it is time for them to enact this policy and allow people to live their lives. I also learned that the police have clearly failed to establish a relationship and dialogue with the leaders of the Ethiopian community, and that failure added to the hours of chaos and anarchy.
• Troubled justice
The Israeli justice system is flawed. A lot of the anger among the youth comes from the policeman who shot Solomon being released to house arrest. I know people who have been held in jail and accused of crimes far less serious than the manslaughter charge facing this officer, and those protesting know such people as well. The release of the cop to house arrest so soon after the incident was simply inexcusable, and I understand the anger felt by the Ethiopian community.
• Taking it too far
As someone who has spent years working on issues related to the Ethiopian community – even traveling to Ethiopia to learn more about those who have not been allowed to make aliyah – I conclude with great sadness that the Ethiopian community made a big mistake on Tuesday night. Shutting down the country for an hour or even two would have made their voices heard loud and clear – and they can do so for many nights if they feel that is necessary to get their message across.
But once it reached four and five hours, and especially once certain protesters became violent, the people stuck in traffic no longer identified or sympathized with them, and their impatience turned into anger. Even I was furious with them and forgot about my sadness over Tekah’s death. And that is a shame. Some of the elders tried to end the protest after three hours, but they could not control the youth. There is a serious leadership void in their community as well, and that needs to be addressed.
• Non-racist country
Israel is NOT a racist country. Tens of thousands of people sat in traffic – missing weddings, memorial services, army ceremonies, work, etc. – and held in their anger for hours because they identified with the demonstrators. In a racist country, those stuck in traffic would have expressed their racism toward the protesters quite loudly, and would most likely have become violent toward them, especially given the significant inconvenience they were causing.
I saw just the opposite – people expressing solidarity with the demonstrators, and agreeing that the challenges facing the Ethiopian population must be addressed. There certainly is racism in Israel, like anywhere else in the world, and the country must address the issues facing the Ethiopian community. But after I saw the patience, restraint and understanding from thousands of Israelis whose plans for Tuesday night were ruined by the Ethiopian demonstrators, it is clear we are definitely not a racist society.
I hope and pray that everyone involved – the government, police, justice system, and Ethiopian-Israeli leaders – will learn the lessons from these protests, and will work together to improve the situation for Israel’s Ethiopian community, which has waited 2,500 years for their miraculous return to Israel.
The writer served as a member of the 19th Knesset.