Grumpy Old Man:‘Our’ Ethiopians

We get worked up when someone says something bad about Ethiopian Israelis, but what have we ourselves done lately to lend them a hand?

Police Chief Roni Alsheich at the Israel Bar Association Conference at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv (photo credit: NAAMA COHEN FRIEDMAN/ BAR ASSOCIATION SPOKESWOMAN)
Police Chief Roni Alsheich at the Israel Bar Association Conference at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv
I’m not sure how many Jerusalem Post readers have heard of Paul R. LePage. He’s governor of the US state of Maine, which, like other places in New England, has seen a surge in hard-drug use.
Referring to a personal ledger he says he keeps on out-of-state dealers his cops have busted, LePage recently stated: “I will tell you that 90-plus percent of those pictures in my book… are black and Hispanic people.” Earlier this year, he gave some details: “These types of guys... they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home. Incidentally, half the time, they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.”
I bring up LePage’s quasi-deranged rants to give a little perspective to words spoken recently by Roni Alsheich, who heads our police force.
“In all of the criminological studies in the world, without exception, it has been shown that migrants are invariably more involved in crime than others,” Insp.-Gen. Alsheich said last week.
He was speaking in response to a question posed at an Israel Bar Association conference about the dysfunctional and often violent relationship between the police and Ethiopian Israelis.
The commissioner then dived into the mind-set of your average beat cop.
“When there’s a community that’s more involved [in crime]…,” he explained, “it’s natural that when a police officer meets up with a suspicious person, his brain suspects him [of wrongdoing] more than it would if the suspect were someone else.”
Boom! WHEN APPOINTED, Alsheich had a hard act to follow. Yohanan Danino had looks, charm and an authoritative yet soothing way of speaking that could induce, well, if not swoons, then severe memory loss regarding the many scandals rolling through the corridors a floor below his office. He didn’t need damage control. He was damage control. For that you have to give him credit.
Alsheich, on the other hand, has rough edges. He has an odd, ’70s-era mustache. He’s of wide girth. He waddles.
He tripped and broke his leg a few days before he was to be sworn in, so we were treated to the sight of a portly man wobbling on crutches when he first presented himself as police commissioner.
And unlike Danino, he’s not a smooth talker. His words tumble out pell-mell.
He garbles some and swallows others.
When he speaks off the cuff – as he did while addressing the issue of over-policing among Ethiopian Israelis – his choice of words is not always the best.
Just one example: As shown above, he referred to Ethiopian Israelis as “migrants,” in effect lumping them in with what should be an entirely separate cohort of people, mostly fellow blacks from Africa who entered Israel illegally and are now being blamed, rightly or wrongly, for many of the country’s criminal ills.
It should be remembered that Alsheich came to the police from the shadows of the Shin Bet, where he could say something and then hide behind the anonymity of an initial. I’ll bet he’s still not used to the spotlight. He did, however, make sure to say that crime and over-policing have been endemic to every wave of immigration – which includes his own immediate forbears.
In speaking of Ethiopian Israelis, he also referred to statistics, and when properly compiled and translated, statistics don’t lie. Ethiopian olim are involved in crime beyond proportion to their numbers because, as a group, they have yet to extricate themselves from the socioeconomic underclasses where crime and other non-normative behaviors fester and, more often than not, draw the attention of police.
As a reminder, here are some figures compiled by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, a Jerusalem research center focusing on key social issues:
• By 2013, eligibility for general matriculation certificates among 17-yearold Ethiopian Israelis had hit 48 percent, compared to 60% for all Jewish 17-year-olds (including haredim). For university-eligible certificates, it was 27% to 51%.
• By 2013, employment figures for Ethiopian Israelis had closed in on those for all Jewish Israelis. But 19% of the men and 33% of the women worked in unskilled positions, versus just 4% for the total Jewish population.
• In 2011, the hourly wage for Ethiopian Israelis was just two-thirds of that for all Jewish Israelis.
• In 2011, 39% of Ethiopian Israeli families lived below the poverty line, compared to 14% of all Jewish families.
Most were working poor.
• In terms of “social deviance,” Myers- JDC-Brookdale said that “whereas among immigrants from the former Soviet Union there are dramatic improvements from the first to the second generation, the picture is mixed among Ethiopian immigrants. Of particular concern is the increase in a range of indicators of risk behaviors among Ethiopian youth.”
ALSHEICH’S ERROR was to paint an entire cohort with a broad brush, out loud and on a national stage. But I don’t think this would have elicited the same outcry had he been talking about Russian olim. The Ethiopians, after all, are our olim.
We have a soft spot for them, like we do for children. We also like to hold them up as proof that Zionism is not racism. So we go nuts when someone, even one of our own, disparages them.
Yet home sellers and renters still turn them away. So do schools. When it comes to demanding that our government do more to integrate them and bring the last of them here from Ethiopia, we’re too busy.
Alsheich has to start engaging his brain before opening his mouth. But make no mistake, he’s no Paul R. LePage.
Despite great strides and a community of overwhelmingly decent, hardworking and patriotic people, it’s hard to call Ethiopian Israelis as a group anything other than second-class citizens, with all the implications therein. This is partly because it’s far easier for us to get worked up over ill-chosen words by others than over our own silence and inaction.