Israelis of Ethiopian descent take part in a protest.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Thousands of Israelis, mostly Ethiopians, protested on Wednesday, nearly two weeks after 24-year-old Yehuda Biadga was shot by police in Bat Yam. Biadga’s is the latest controversial death at the hands of police in Israel, and comes amid anger and fear among Ethiopian Jews that the police use disproportionate force against their community.
The thousands who came to the protest in Tel Aviv have been waiting for answers and seeking support from the wider Israeli society. They expect politicians, in the midst of the election cycle, to address their concerns. They also feel that without a large protest, these kinds of incidents come and go without being addressed – by either the police or the government.
Biadga was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, his family says, when he ran into the street with the knife. A police officer shot him, claiming that he feared for his life. The incident comes four years after a series of protests in 2015 that were sparked after police beat an Ethiopian soldier who was walking with his bicycle. Those protests came after years of accusations of police brutality that black Israelis say disproportionately targets them.
At the time, Ethiopians made up a disproportionate number of youth offenders who were charged with crimes, as well as of IDF soldiers incarcerated for minor infractions during their service. In 2016, the Prime Minister’s Office established a division for implementing a comprehensive plan for integrating Ethiopian Israelis into Israeli society.
The police also invested resources in trying to come to grips with perceptions of racism and misunderstandings with the community. Messages of multiculturalism were part of a 2017 police video campaign highlighting an Ethiopian police officer to showcase the new police effort.
Demonstrators on Wednesday did not think enough work has been done. “Erdan go home,” they shouted, a reference to the Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. Signs called for an end to violence and racism. Yesh Atid’s Pnina Tamnu-Shata, the first female Ethiopian MK, called the protest “a just struggle for equality against racism and discrimination.”
The struggle to end racism and address accusations of police brutality is not a simple one. It is multi-layered and involves not only difficult relations with the police, but also anger over lack of integration in other sectors, poverty and past cases of abuses. On one level, the protesters asserted that reforming Israel is necessary to make the country better for all of its citizens – and that the Biadga case needs to be addressed to get the police to stop using disproportionate force against other sectors of society as well.
Young, black Israelis say they are they afraid of police and of going out at night because of past incidents of racial profiling. Mothers say that after the Biadga case, they are afraid to phone the police because Biadga’s family had called hoping they would help, only to have their son shot dead by a police officer. There are feelings that no one is listening.
After the protest on Wednesday, there were clashes between some youth and the police; eleven were arrested. “We will not show any tolerance to those who seek to harm public safety,” a police spokesperson said. Protest leaders had called for a peaceful demonstration, but the scenes of violence at the end marred its importance.
Similar scenes took place in 2015 when protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv briefly deteriorated into clashes. At the time, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat came out to the streets and spoke with the demonstrators.
It is important for all of Israeli society to listen to the protesters. Racism doesn’t only affect one community; it affects everyone in different ways. It is important for the police to take the investigation into Biadga’s death seriously.
The wider issue is that the Ethiopian community needs to feel that the government cares about them. For instance, Avera Mengistu is still being held in Gaza after he wandered into the Hamas-held enclave from the Zikim Beach in 2014. Community members wonder why he was not prevented from crossing over and argue that if he was not black then there would be more national concern.
The government has made impressive strides towards integrating the Ethiopian community. The protests on Wednesday show that there is still more work that needs to be done.
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