Racism in Israel?

Violent protests have stopped, but the anger the Ethiopian community feels has not

July 16, 2019 22:16
3 minute read.
Racism in Israel?

A protester confronts a policeman during a demonstration in Tel Aviv on July 2 over the shooting death of 19-year-old Ethiopian- Israeli Solomon Tekah. (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

Two weeks after 19-year-old Solomon Tekah was shot dead by an off-duty policeman in Kiryat Haim, the repercussions continue to be felt.

The violent protests that broke out in the days after the incident have waned, but the anger in the Ethiopian-Israeli community hasn’t.

To its credit, the Israel Police seem to have conducted a thorough investigation of the circumstances that unfolded on the night of June 30, when the off-duty officer injected himself into a low-key dispute among a group of Ethiopian-Israeli teenagers and escalated it by shooting his gun when he felt in danger.

According to various versions of event, Tekah or another person in the group allegedly threw rocks at the policeman. According to leaks of the police investigation, the officer fired at the ground, but the bullet ricocheted, killing Tekah.

Members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community have accused the Police Investigations Department of whitewashing the investigation and leaking favorable material to help the policeman’s image. On Monday, The Jerusalem Post’s Yonah Jeremy Bob reported that the accused was released from house arrest by the Haifa Magistrate’s Court, and is apparently now hiding somewhere in the center of the country – under police protection – to avoid being attacked by angry Ethiopian-Israelis. The police have recommended that the officer be charged with involuntary manslaughter – a sentence that carries a maximum prison sentence of 12 years, though courts usually ignore the maximum sentence in such crimes, meaning an actual sentence could be as little as one to two years.

The case dominated the Knesset on Monday, with a special session inside about the challenges facing the Ethiopian-Israeli community, and a protest outside by some 60 Ethiopian-Israelis and their supporters.

One of the protesters, Shula Mola, expressed what many people feel – that the shooting was not an isolated incident, but one that reflected a discrimination against minorities that is deeply embedded in Israeli society. Racism, she claimed to the Post, is in the “DNA of the state – the DNA brought from Europe, the DNA of white people. They don’t really like black people.”

Inside the Knesset session, Blue and White MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian-born woman to hold a Knesset seat, decried the disproportionately high numbers of Ethiopian-Israeli children kept in juvenile detention centers, and the disproportionate number of Ethiopian-Israeli IDF soldiers sentenced to military prison. She cited these as examples of how Israel has not done enough to fully absorb the Ethiopian community into Israeli society.

She also expressed the dilemma that many Ethiopian-Israelis face when they let their older children stay out late at night, fearful they will be mistakenly identified by police as trouble-makers.

Benny Gantz, Tamano-Shata’s party leader, called for “cracking the social fabric of the neighborhoods” by establishing youth villages and urban kibbutzim in Ethiopian neighborhoods. And Immigrant Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant (Likud) recommended that more youth enrichment programs be instituted to engage children from an early age. He laid out a multi-pronged plan that included improvements in Ethiopian healthcare and housing, and said he hopes to introduce measures to increase the number of medical professionals who are equipped to take care of Ethiopian and immigrant patients.

Those are all positive measures that could have a meaningful impact on future generations of Ethiopian-Israeli youth. But for these measures to be actualized, Israelis first need to look in the mirror and answer the accusations that Shula Mola made. Are we racist? Do we discriminate based on people’s skin color?

Unfortunately, the answers might make us uncomfortable. We may think, “Of course not, there’s equal opportunity for all – as long as you’re Jewish.” Some of us might even think that there is equal opportunity for Israel’s Arab citizens. But in reality they, like Ethiopian-Israelis, are facing an uphill battle in achieving equal status in Israel and face discrimination on a daily basis.
The street demonstrations over Solomon Tekah’s death may end as summer bears down and the short attention span in Israel turns elsewhere. But the issue continues to fester. The solution, however, cannot come from the government or the Knesset. It’s a challenge for every Israeli. It starts by recognizing that there’s problem and then doing something about it.

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