Think About It: Racism, intolerance and ‘over-policing’

We know that a confrontation developed between the policeman and the youths, which resulted in the policeman pulling out his pistol and shooting.

July 7, 2019 21:26
Think About It: Racism, intolerance and ‘over-policing’

Protesters stand opposite police during a protest for the death of 18-year old Solomon Tekah of Ethiopian descent, after he was shot by police, in Tel Aviv, Israel July 2, 2019. (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

What the public knows about the shooting of a youth of Ethiopian origin, Solomon Tekah, by an off-duty policeman at a playground in Kiryat Haim last week is at best incomplete.

We know that the policeman and his family were at the playground, and that a group of youths – whose number is unknown, but at least one of whom (Tekah) was Ethiopian-Israeli and another of Middle Eastern origin (the latter’s father appeared on TV) – were present. We know that a confrontation developed between the policeman and the youths, which resulted in the policeman pulling out his pistol and shooting resulting in Tekah being killed (the Ethiopian community insists that he was murdered).

We (unlike the police) do not know the identity of the policeman. We do not know what the background of the confrontation between him and the youths was. Were the youths just hanging around the playground, or were they loitering? Were the youths being rowdy, having a fight or pestering the other persons present at the playground, or were they just talking calmly among themselves? Did the confrontation begin after the policeman approached the youths, and why did he do so?

The policeman’s attorney stated that his client claims to have acted in self-defense and to have aimed his pistol at the ground, but we also heard the father of one of the non-Ethiopian-Israeli youths who were present say that his son told him that the policeman had aimed at him, but that he had managed to duck – i.e., the policeman did not necessarily aim at an Ethiopian-Israeli.

We do not know what the findings of the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigation Department – which supposedly has access to all the available facts of the case – will be with regards to the background to the policeman’s shooting or its justification, though we know that the Ethiopian community does not trust the department and is unlikely to accept its findings, especially if it doesn’t find the policeman guilty of murder.

Why this story is so explosive – beyond the specific facts of the case – is that it comes against the background of persistent discrimination against Ethiopian-Israelis on racial grounds, and the feeling within the Ethiopian community that not enough has been done to confront this racism and discrimination.

Of course, it is undeniable that progress has been made, as Herb Keinon pointed out in an article in The Jerusalem Post on July 3, but as the violent demonstrations following the killing of Tekah showed, the Ethiopian community is inclined to emphasize the shortcomings, especially since the majority of Ethiopian-Israelis do not benefit directly from the achievements.

With regard to the police, there are substantiated claims that there is what is called “over-policing” when Ethiopian-Israelis are involved – i.e., police intervention that would not occur if the persons involved were not black; or that much harsher means are used against Ethiopian-Israelis than against others in similar circumstances.

It should be noted that over-policing in Israel also occurs in the Israeli-Arab population and Palestinians from the territories, among Jews of Middle East origin with a distinct oriental appearance, and with haredim, though in the case of the latter two groups it is unlikely that the police will open fire.

However, irrespective of the police, where undoubtedly much more must be done to prevent unwarranted discrimination on racial, national or communal grounds, one cannot ignore that the problem does not exist only among police officers but is common to most of Israeli society.

In general, Israeli society has racist inclinations and is intolerant of “others,” be they members of other nations and races, or Jewish Israelis who are different from one’s own social or communal group. That most Israeli Jews take literally the concept of the “chosen people” explains the inclination to take a racist view toward other nations and peoples, and even to outright xenophobia.

As to internal racist, cultural, political and behavioral prejudices within Jewish society in Israel, here the explanations are more complicated. The origins of the phenomena are undoubtedly that Jewish communities in the various dispersions developed different characteristics (including physical appearance), cultures and traditions, and have different perceptions of what a real Jew is, nationally and religiously, so that in practice, many Israeli Jews have difficulty accepting Jews of a different origin or persuasion as being truly part of “us.”

Ashkenazi haredim are probably the most extreme in their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Jews who are not part of their communities, and are most extreme in their intolerance toward divergences within their communities. Those who are most inclined to tolerance on all levels are secular liberals, who profess to reject all forms of racism and intolerance, and to believe in the total equality of human beings, though I do not deny that this social group is not completely free of hypocrisy.

As our society moves progressively to the Right – way beyond conservatism, in the direction of the extreme Right, religious messianism, or in socioeconomic terms to social Darwinism – there is a rise in racism, intolerance and discrimination.

The case of the Ethiopian-Israelis is especially complicated because the prejudices and discrimination are based primarily on color of skin, and color of skin is not something one can change.

HOW EXACTLY does one overcome such prejudice?

In the police and other institutions that provide services to the community, one can introduce and try to implement strict rules of conduct to overcome prejudice, though one cannot necessarily in this way uproot prejudice from the heart. One can introduce rules to prevent open discrimination in the sphere of employment. One can even introduce affirmative action. But it is only by means of education – at home and in the schools – that one can make a change that is not technical.

But how does one do this if a majority of the parents are prejudiced against Ethiopian-Israelis, and if the education system is in the hands of religious politicians who are turning progressively less liberal, and whose communities are the least progressive in terms of integrating Ethiopian-Israelis?

Another question that ought to be addressed is whether there is anything the Ethiopian-Israelis themselves can do to change the reality.

The violence of the demonstrations on the morrow of Tekah’s death was criticized by many, even though no more than a few thousand persons (including non-Ethiopian-Israelis) participated in them. However, since peaceful demonstrations and polite conversations haven’t gotten the Ethiopian-Israelis very far, it is hypocritical to recommend moderation to them, though at the same time it is not clear how far radical means will get them.

I have heard several Ethiopian-Israeli leaders speaking to the media convey the idea that their natural allies in their struggle for equal rights are Jews of Middle East origin, who are actively involved in their own struggle against “Ashkenazi elitism.”

I believe the Ethiopian-Israelis should be careful in choosing their allies. Many Mizrahim, even among those struggling against anti-Mizrahi prejudices, are not free from Ethiopian-Israeli racism. It is only committed liberals – both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi – who can truly appreciate the Ethiopian-Israeli predicament and help overcome it.

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