Is Israel on the right path when it comes to battling racism?

Two years ago, protests by Israelis of Ethiopian descent swept the country. The government’s response has been robust, but has anything really changed?

Jerusalem protest against discriminatory policies and racism, in April last year (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Jerusalem protest against discriminatory policies and racism, in April last year
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The Israel Police recently presented a new video about their work in the community. It shows police officers aiding a family suffering domestic abuse, dealing with drunk drivers, defending against terrorism and more. “Protecting lives of all of us” and making the public feel secure, the narrator says. One of the officers on the video is shown breaking a car window to rescue a baby. The officer is of Ethiopian descent, a quiet message of diversity in a video meant to help the image of the police.
The 2017 video is a far cry from images in late April 2015 when a video emerged of two policeman assaulting an IDF soldier in Holon. Damas Pakedeh, the soldier, was initially detained, but the police were quick to condemn the behavior of the officers as “not consistent with the values of the Israel Police.” On April 30, hundreds of protesters marched in Jerusalem, decrying police brutality and racism. They closed Route 1 next to the national police headquarters. One woman held a sign saying police were killing “black Jews” just like Jews had been killed in Europe, while another man held one saying “the police beat me because I am black.”
Others highlighted high incarceration rates for Ethiopians in the army, noting that 40% of soldiers of Ethiopian descent end up in IDF prison during their service. “Today it is him, tomorrow you.” After brief clashes with police, the protesters moved on to the Prime Minister’s Residence where they were met by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. The protest seemed defused.
Then came Tel Aviv.
ON MAY 3, 2015, in scenes that took Israel by surprise, hundreds of members of the Ethiopian community blocked roads near the Azrieli Center, the beating heart of Tel Aviv.
Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, and MK Dov Henin, from the same party, came to show support. The protesters converged on iconic Rabin Square and violence broke out with the police. Water cannons were brought in; police and protesters were injured. Education Minister Naftali Bennett turned up at around 11 at night and said, “We all need to do some soul searching.”
The next day newspapers showed police cars turned over.
“Square of rage,” headlined Yediot Aharonot. The May battles were not the end of it; on June 22 a dozen protesters were arrested in Tel Aviv after marching against the decision by police to close the case against the officers on the video.
Asher Elias, an entrepreneur and social activist who was at the Tel Aviv protests, says that the beating of Pakedeh was only a small trigger for what happened. “No one seemed to care about the soldier who was hit by police,” he recalls.
Where was the defense minister, the prime minister? “He wasn’t just a regular citizen but a soldier, and things like this shouldn’t happen to even a regular citizen.”
Avi Yalou, a social activist, wrote on the popular website Haokets in March last year that the protests were a long time coming.
“Whatever hopes and faith the community had in the state have been shattered in recent years by rampant racism and police brutality.” He noted that the Israeli public was surprised by the anger because they are not familiar with the “widespread racism in all forms of government against Ethiopians.”
While the video was a trigger, many activists said that the 2014 case of Yosef Salamsa, a member of the community who activists say was tasered by police and later committed suicide, was also on the minds of protesters. “It is not just the police force, but the entire system that suffers from rampant racism,” wrote Yalou.
THE RESPONSE of the government was quick and symbolic. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, police commissioner Yohanan Danino and MK Avraham Neguise (Likud) met with Pakedeh in May 2015.
“I was shocked by the pictures that I saw. We cannot accept this and the police are dealing with it. We need to change things,” said a press statement from Netanyahu’s office. “The police force will do what must be done to fix itself, but we must also fix Israeli society because we love you. We love the Ethiopian community and all Israelis are in this together.”
Pakadeh said he opposed the violence during the protests that had injured police.
This set the tone for government decisions to come.
In an Israeli political system that is often fractured, groups across the political spectrum from Hadash to Bayit Yehudi united on the issue of opposing racism.
For those on the Left, the racism against Ethiopians is generally seen as part of a wider social problem of racism in Israeli society against Arabs, refugees and others. For those on the Right, racism against Ethiopians tends to be highlighted in reference to the high levels of service Ethiopians give to the country.
According to a 2011 Knesset report, 91% of Ethiopians born in Israel go to the army, significantly higher than the national average.
Studies on Israelis of Ethiopian descent paint a problematic picture. A 2012 Myers-JDC-Brookdale report titled “The Ethiopian Israeli Community” noted that although they make up 2% of the population, Ethiopians are concentrated in some communities, such as Netanya, Kiryat Gat, Afula, Hadera and Rehovot. In Kiryat Malachi, one of the poorer towns in Israel, they are 14%. The report notes that although the scores of Ethiopian Jews on national tests (Meitzav) were worse than those of the general Jewish population, gaps were narrowing on issues such as dropout rates. Matriculation rates meeting university requirements doubled from 12% to 23% since 2000 (compared to 47% for all Jews). Yet incarceration rates in the army were still high, at 14% of the IDF prison population in 2014. This was the background of the protests.
For Pnina Tamano Shata, a Yesh Atid Knesset member from 2013 to 2015, the struggle against racism has been a centerpoint of her work before, during and after her term in the Knesset. Born in 1981 in Ethiopia, she came to Israel in 1984 and received an LLB from the Israel Bar Association. She was active in the 2015 protests.
“The situation today is very important,” she says.
“For 30 years Jewish Ethiopians were hurt, for instance in education and segregation. That is something the country did and people are saying time has gone by and it’s okay.” This type of refrain has been applied to other groups that came to Israel – that it was tough for Jews from Europe, tough for Moroccans, Yemenites, Russians, and that Ethiopians will integrate eventually, but Tamano Shata rejects that approach.
“It’s not about aliya, it’s about racism and discrimination, it’s not something ‘natural.’” She says that we see racism every day in the education system and that one key issue she raised with Netanyahu was the problem of segregation.
For many years, Ethiopian immigrants ended up concentrated in what is called the “periphery” in Israel, the development towns set up in the 1950s where many immigrants, particularly from Arab countries, ended up. “We see schools that don’t want Ethiopians and put them in segregation, in weaker schools and it makes it so they can’t succeed.”
According to those interviewed, the government seems to understand the problem now. One issue was that for years the government viewed all Ethiopians as “immigrants,” even though every year that goes by the percentage born in Israel increases, nearing 50%. Tamano Shata says that the struggle against segregation is also only part of the story. Ethiopians represent a disproportionate number of suicides in Israel.
“We are such a small percentage [in the general population] and we have a high percentage of welfare and poverty,” she says. The key is to break the cycle of poverty that started in the 1990s. That means increasing the number of Ethiopians working in the civil service, the number of successful families, and fighting stereotypes related to skin color.
“It is a long struggle.”
IN NOVEMBER 2016 the Prime Minister’s Office established a division for implementing a plan for integrating Ethiopian Israelis. The division within the Prime Minister’s Office and would work with numerous ministries tasked with reforming their approach. Talal Dolev, the head of the new division, says that a previous government program initiated to tackle similar issues was heavily criticized by the state comptroller in a 2013 report. Asher Elias described this problem in 2013 as a multi-decade failure.
“Three decades of many programs with substantial funding, mainly from the US, without much coordination, clear objectives or focus on output, have resulted in an outrageous waste of resources.” In a kind of “road to hell paved with good intentions” irony, it had created dependency and intensified negative social images and racism.
“I wasn’t surprised it had happened,” recalls Dolev, who holds an MA in social work and worked for eights years as head of 360 Degrees, the National Program for Children and Youth at Risk. “I think in a way [the 2015 protests] indicate the maturing of the population, saying ‘We have our rights, we want to establish them.
We can act on behalf of ourselves; we don’t want North Americans or other do-gooders to act on our behalf,’ which made a significant change to channel it to positive directions.”
The new reform represents a substantial shift from past decades.
“In general, the main thing that is new about this policy is that Ethiopian Israelis will not be considered immigrants; responsibility for integration will be not through the Immigration and Absorption Ministry but the government as a whole,” says Dolev. Each department will have a policy to better integrate people, viewing them as citizens first, not as if they just got off the aliya flight.
“The second key thing is promoting better integration as citizens and not as a specific group, realizing everyone has their own needs, and we need to close the gaps between Ethiopian Israelis and the rest of society.”
This creates an inevitable dilemma of wanting to measure Ethiopian integration specifically while also wanting to craft programs that don’t segregate them.
One of the main revolutions is that “all government ministries take responsibility for this integration [and that] it will be done as part of the regular policies and programs.” Moving government ministries is a little like moving an oil tanker, and coordinating the efforts of 11 government units that deal with different issues relating to Ethiopian Jews, from education to social services, is an immense task.
Dolev says that another issue they want to focus on is not just closing gaps at the bottom, “it’s about excellence and leadership and helping those at the top become stronger and getting more people to the top.” This is an important distinction in some ways from approaches to other aliyot in Israel because it’s not just about giving the bare minimum, but about longitudinal integration, from the lowest rung to the highest.
“This is probably one of the first times that Israel says it is not just closing gaps of the weaker and making them okay, but also at the top,” she says.
DOLEV HAS four years to see if the oil tanker can be turned. Today she is working with some 70 different programs. The trend is to close special programs that were only for Ethiopians and perpetuated stereotypes and ghettoization, and focus on programs that help individuals within them. For instance, the army is now in the process of closing its special programs for Ethiopians and integrating potential and serving soldiers into regular programs in the army. She points out that in the past we were already on track towards better integration and the question is not always about it being good enough or fast enough.
“What’s important is to see how this progress is achieved and what we are being tested on is whether we will be able to do this and provide support and see equal treatment.” In the IDF that means seeing more officers in higher positions than today, for instance.
“Each and every ministry has set goals about where they want to see Ethiopian Israelis in four years,” Dolev says. Sometimes this means starting at the basics like getting the data. In the Education Ministry, she says, the number of Ethiopian Israelis that have gotten into exceptional programs has quadrupled. The process is slow and it has to trickle down to local authorities.
“So over the next year people on the ground will begin to feel the local authority is looking at them differently and providing them different services.”
For the 28 local authorities where there are concentrations of Ethiopians, the challenge is to get them to move from segregated programs to integrating people in things such as youth clubs.
“It’s a deep cultural change among policymakers and professionals,” says Dolev. For the local people it can also be confusing because they will find that what they are used to, such as a youth club for Ethiopians, is closed and the kids are expected to integrate to something new.
Elias says that the country is moving in the right direction, but that it is important to help people move out of the ghettos they live in.
“We need to get young people out and one thing is related to mortgages and young couples.” He says that on the ground many of the issues have not been resolved, but that the time since the protests has seen recognition of the need to realize the power of the voice of young people.
“I said back then and today, we need to create a new social movement among young people, organized and professional.”
Today there is a lot more social activism online and on the social media. This includes raising issues of racism and debating them. For instance, a police officer was recently accused of insulting one of his subordinates by mocking her dark skin and saying “she spent too much time in the sun.” Ubiquitous smartphones make such comments go viral.
ZIVA MEKONEN-DEGU, executive director of the Association of Ethiopian Jews, says that many problems have not changed in places like the police force. In September 2016 police commissioner and inspector-general Roni Alsheich said at the Israel Bar Association Conference that “when a policeman meets a suspect, naturally he is more suspicious than with others,” a comment that was interpreted as saying it was acceptable to be suspicious of Ethiopian Israelis. “They made it seem like the problem is the community,” says Mekonen-Degu.
She is pleased that the Prime Minister’s Office has taken on the challenge of reform. But she says it is important to remember that it has taken almost 40 years to get to this point.
“It’s not logical. We have lived here 40 years – that’s more than half of the country’s history – and during that time we aren’t seen as part of the welfare or economy of the country? Why do we have to fight against the Education Ministry to be treated equally, for instance?” In places like the IDF and the police force, she says, there have been improvements. That means police are stopping fewer people on the street and harassing the youth less. In the army it means fewer reports of prison sentences for Ethiopians.
The institution on the front line of ensuring an end to some of the discrimination is the Justice Ministry.
Emi Palmor, director general of the ministry, says they have appointed an Ethiopian Jewish lawyer as head of the unit that is supposed to look at issues in the struggle against racism and implementation of the guidelines. For instance, Palmor says, this might involve a case of someone who goes to a clinic to see a doctor and is told they have to be last in line because they are Ethiopian.
“So we need a place they can complain about these things, not for prosecution in criminal courts but internal prosecution in the civil service,” which employs more than 70,000 people.
That also relates to other areas of racism, such as separating women of different ethnicities in hospitals. In a case in Ashkelon, a member of the civil service dealing with hiring security was found to be discriminating against Ethiopian security guards.
“There is an internal way to set a new standard of behavior within the public service.”
Moreover, “in the next year they will be dealing with policies in the police that were found due to the protests,” she says. That involves detailed assessments, such as the use of tasers. It also involves much larger subconscious areas of discrimination and making people aware that they may be racist against someone who has darker skin.
“When you learn and talk about it and understand the background, all of that is part of this great change we are hoping to see within five years. It’s a process, not a revolution.”
Dolev says that the government decisions today are unique in focusing on dealing with racism against a small group and that it can teach us how to address the needs of other groups in society. Looking back at police brutality, which was central to the protests, new initiatives are already in place.
“They completed a pilot [program] with body cameras and that will help other populations as well. It will be introduced at the national level. So they are aware that they can be seen and this will bring about significant changes in policing in Israel.”
They are also hoping to see a significant drop in police opening cases against Ethiopian youth. This is working in communities “so that people can come to the police for support rather than be in conflict.”
Like most things, there is no easy answer. Some say community police work stigmatizes Ethiopians, but others say it can lead to fewer arrests and reduce police harassment.
THROUGHOUT THE Ethiopian community there is a desire for change. A recent program to provide aid to young couples with mortgages saw thousands respond.
But while there is an unprecedented degree of interest in reform, including numerous meetings at the Knesset on issues as disparate as dealing with funding for Ethiopian traditional rabbis to examining data on youth at risk, activists, community leaders and government officials seem to agree that the road ahead is long.
As Tamano-Shata says, it is an issue “we cannot give up on.”