Sinai says: Netanya soccer player Amaya Taga takes stand on perceived racism

He may be no more than a soccer player at Maccabi Netanya, but this was an injustice he couldn’t and wouldn’t silently ignore.

Maccabi Netanya midfielder Amaya Taga (photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Maccabi Netanya midfielder Amaya Taga
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Amaya Taga had to do something.
He may be no more than a soccer player at Maccabi Netanya, but this was an injustice he couldn’t and wouldn’t silently ignore.
In a day and age where most sports stars do their utmost to avoid addressing any subject of social or political significance out of fear that it could hurt their egotistical interests, Taga decided that he had to take a stand.
The 31-year-old didn’t embark on a mission to save the world. He just wanted to make a small symbolic gesture. He never thought that wearing a T-shirt in the warm-up to his team’s matches with the names of fellow Ethiopian-Israelis Avraham Mengistu and Yosef Salamsa would cause such a stir.
Taga was simply looking to raise awareness of Mengistu’s captivity at the hands of the Hamas in Gaza and of the question marks surrounding the reasons behind Salamsa’s suicide.
Several thousand fans may have noticed his T-shirt ahead of the matches, but it was the Israel Football Association’s disciplinary court’s ruling last week to fine Taga NIS 750 for inappropriate behavior that ensured his actions would go noticed by so many more and give the stories of Mengistu and Salamsa a little more media coverage.
The IFA judge said he believed Taga had good intentions, but that according to IFA regulations players aren’t allowed to wear homemade T-shirts and therefore he will fine him the minimum sum.
“Those are the most important NIS 750 I have paid in my life,” said Taga.
“I didn’t mean to hurt anyone and I don’t think that I was making a political statement of any sort. I had to try and raise a little more awareness to their stories.
“We have an Israeli citizen in Gaza and I feel that Mengistu’s case should be treated the same as Gilad Shalit’s or Elhanan Tannenbaum’s, when the State of Israel did all that it could to bring them home. I can’t escape the feeling that the fact that Mengistu is Ethiopian is what causes the media and public opinion to not be that interested in his case. I’m certain that 70 percent of the Israeli public hasn’t even heard of him.”
Mengistu wandered into Gaza in 2014 and has not been seen since.
He was 29 when he disappeared and was suffering from severe depression.
Israel’s Defense Ministry believes that Mengistu was held by Hamas after illegally crossing the border, but the Islamist movement governing Gaza has provided no information about his whereabouts or condition.
Mengistu’s case, who was hospitalized several times for psychiatric problems, was not widely reported in the media until last August, when the family rallied on his behalf outside the Hadarim Detention Center, where relatives of Palestinian prisoners were visiting. His disappearance was not made public until last July, when a court-imposed gag order was lifted.
The incident involving Salamsa took place in March 2014, when he was arrested in Zichron Ya’acov during an altercation with police, who tasered him in the stomach and arm and took him to the Zichron Ya’acov police station. His father found him hours later outside the station in handcuffs and anklechains.
According to Salamsa’s relatives, after the incident he fell into a downward psychological spiral, and in July 2014 he took his own life.
The family filed a complaint with the Justice Ministry in April 2014, but after Salamsa failed to heed their calls to come and give testimony to investigators, they closed the case, saying that they were unable to get his version of events.
After his suicide, the family again contacted investigators, who reopened the case.
While the ministry said it did not find evidence of criminal wrongdoing, it found a number of instances of misconduct by police, including that they did not warn Salamsa before using the taser and lied about doing so in their report.
The case of Salamsa was a highly emotional one for many in the Ethiopian- Israeli community, and at protests held last May against police brutality he was the subject of chants and his face was printed on T-shirts and signs seen throughout the crowds.
Taga took part in many of those protests, which peaked almost exactly one year ago. On May 3, 2015, Tel Aviv deteriorated into a level of mayhem that had not been seen at a protest in the city.
Rioters at Rabin Square threw bottles and rocks at police, who fired stun grenades and deployed water cannons, while sending officers charging into the crowd on horseback.
By the end of the night dozens had been arrested and at least 40 people were lightly wounded, more than half of them police.
Earlier this week, Taga sent a letter to Premier League officials requesting that the final weekend of action be dedicated to helping raise awareness regarding Mengistu’s captivity.
Taga wrote in his letter that the IFA should promote this cause, just as it did with Gilad Shalit. As of now, his request has gone unheeded.
Taga, who has played in the Premier League for almost his entire career and was called up to the Israel national team on August 2010 (although he never actually made an appearance), was not deterred by the IFA’s punishment. If anything, it only encouraged him to continue and fight for justice for the Israeli- Ethiopian community.
“I did what I did because the Mengistu and Salamsa’s families don’t have any influence on the Israeli public,” he explained.
“As an Israeli, I expected the entire country to cry for Mengistu’s release and an inquiry regarding Salamsa’s case. People shouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin.
“It isn’t easy being a Jew around the world, but it is even more difficult being a dark-skinned Jew, in Israel and abroad. That is sad because you would expect people who have experienced racism themselves to understand this.”