The death this week of Solomon Tekah and the protests by the Ethiopian-Israeli community, which in numerous cases turned violent, have brought the status and situation of Ethiopian-Israelis within society into sharp focus.
The burning tires, massive traffic jams and confrontations with the police witnessed this week are not just the result of one incident, awful as it was, but of a reality in which members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, particularly youth, have been the object of intense police attention out of proportion with the size of the population.
But although the concern of the community regarding what is described as “over-policing” has been a key cause of anger, there are other factors regarding the circumstances of the Ethiopian-Israeli community that have generated frustration in the sector.
Figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics show that as of 2016, the average monthly income of an Ethiopian-Israeli household was 50% lower than that of the rest of the Jewish population.
Ethiopian-Israelis are the most likely Jewish population sector to be under the poverty line, with some 23% of all households in the community categorized as poor in the Adva Center’s poverty report published in February this year.
In 2017, there was a gap of 27% in the number of high-school pupils from the Ethiopian-Israeli community obtaining their high-school diploma compared to the general population.
And while the Ethiopian-Israeli population aged 20 to 29 comprises 2.5% of all Israelis of that age, only 1.1% of Ethiopian-Israelis are studying in higher education.
These concerns regarding the socioeconomic standing of the community play into larger worries about its integration into society and the prospect that an ongoing stagnation in its economic status will perpetuate the societal difficulties, including the over-policing, that has caused the intense anger witnessed this week.
Evidence of this was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to convene a special ministerial committee for the integration of Ethiopian-Israelis into society on Wednesday night as part of the government’s effort to bring an end to this week’s protests.
BUT THE picture is not as gloomy as it might seem. Yes, Ethiopian-Israelis continue to rank significantly below the national average on several critical socioeconomic metrics, but progress is being made on several fronts to close these gaps.
Although the number of Ethiopian-Israeli high-school pupils obtaining a high-school diploma remains low at 62%, it has increased from just 35% in 2008.
In 2000 just 0.5% of students in higher education were from the Ethiopian-Israeli community, compared to 1.2% in 2017.
And household income for Ethiopian-Israeli families has also risen strongly, from NIS 7,100 a month in 2016 to NIS 11,245 in 2016, an increase of 58%. The average income of other Jewish households has risen 33% in the same period, by comparison.
And there has even been improvement in some areas in the serious concern of over-policing.
Figures published earlier this year by the Government Unit for the Coordination of the Struggle Against Racism, set up by the Palmor Committee, showed that from 2015 to 2018 there were large decreases in the number of police arrests of Ethiopian minors and adults.
These figures showed decreases in so-called contact offenses, where individuals are arrested only after a policeman initiates an encounter with an individual, such as requesting identification documents or conducting random searches, prime examples of what the Ethiopian-Israeli community has called over-policing.
According to the March 2019 report, arrests of Ethiopian-Israeli minors declined by 50%, arrests for contact offenses declined by 31% and indictments declined by 8%.
For adults from the sector, there was a decline of 15% in general arrests and 2.7% in arrests for contact offenses.
Nevertheless, like the socioeconomic figures, Ethiopian-Israelis are still disproportionately overrepresented in terms of arrests and indictments relative to the 1.7% of the general population they constitute.
Michal Avera Samuel, director of the NGO Fidel, says that following the protests in 2015 against the police beating of Damas Pakada and the subsequent Palmor report, the attitude of various government departments improved.
“We are seeing the first buds of change; of course, there is hope. We are on a trend of improvement in many respects, in terms of the number of pupils obtaining high-school diplomas, the number of students entering higher education, soldiers from the community entering elite units in the IDF, and other measures,” she said.
Avera Samuel added that increasing numbers of the community are taking on roles in the civil service and in government departments – another indicator of progress.
But she said that despite these improvements, there are still fundamental changes necessary in society itself and its attitudes toward the Ethiopian-Israeli community, if the gaps are to be further closed.
These attitudes, she said, include ongoing prejudice of a racial nature toward Ethiopian-Israelis, which needs to change if the community is to progress.
“Many people in Israeli society see Ethiopian-Israelis as black, violent, weak and primitive,” she said.
“But the Ethiopian community is part of Israeli society, and these [socioeconomic] problems are not the problems of the Ethiopian community but of Israeli society in general. Israeli society needs to see the Ethiopian community as an integral part of it; and unless this happens, things won’t change.”
She added that the attitude and behavior of the police need to change swiftly, and that deep improvements need to be made even beyond those already made.
Critically, she and other prominent members of the community, including MKs Pnina Tamano-Shata and Gadi Yevarkan of the Blue and White Party, have called for the establishment of an independent body to investigate police officers suspected of excessive force against Ethiopian-Israeli citizens.
The community has no faith in the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigation Department, which the community believes has swept such allegations under the carpet numerous times in the past, and sees the establishment of an independent body as the only effective way of stopping police violence against Ethiopian-Israelis.
“The killing of Solomon Tekah didn’t happen in a vacuum. When was the last time you interviewed a white Israeli whose child was shot? Children do stupid things. But there are solutions. You can arrest them, punish them, but drawing a pistol is not okay,” she said.
Tekah’s death and the violent unrest witnessed this week demonstrate that the efforts in integrating the Ethiopian-Israeli community are still deeply deficient.
Significant progress has been made, however, in particular following the 2015 riots.
If any good can come from this week’s disturbing events, it is perhaps a new focus on resolving the still significant problems facing the Ethiopian-Israeli community.
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