Tragedy in black and white
The murder of teenager Ma'ayan Sapir has brought to the surface fears of the Ethiopians - while they, in turn, feel like victims of racism and prejudice
Ma'ayan Sapir lived in an attractive, almost pastoral neighborhood in Rehovot - an old-style area that still contains something of the flavor and spirit of the original village that grew into a city. The tall apartment buildings are punctuated by small homes with yards, many of them still sporting the flags put up on Independence Day last month. The nearby mini-market is called "Love Hill." Nothing here suggests a murder scene and a horrific tragedy.
In the apartment sits a shattered family, surrounded by friends and consolers who arrive in a steady flow. A few of them are angry that the horror has already been relegated to the inside pages of the newspapers these past few days because of the big industrial espionage case. The order of priorities is skewed, they say. Sitting at the dining-room table at the entrance, the bereaved father relates anecdotes about his beautiful and intelligent daughter - stories that are now only memories. Most of the listeners are kids, Ma'ayan's friends, a mix of native-born sons and daughters, immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia, students in the local ORT vocational school.
Not everyone succeeds in making it from the entrance to the top floor, where the apartment is located. Many recoil on the way. They are 15- and 16-year-olds who don't know what to do with themselves, gripped by grief and fear. They start to go up and then retrace their steps and leave. That's what happened to Shani, Saguy and Mazi, who are in the same grade as Ma'ayan was: They couldn't work up the courage to enter and ended up sitting next to the entrance. With the insight gained from growing up during the intifada and in an atmosphere of surging violence, they say there is a difference between death in a terrorist act and the senseless murder that claimed Ma'ayan.
"To die young from terror is at least to die in a war," they say. "Terrorism is self-evident, even for us. But to die at the hand of an Israeli, just like that, is something different."
The idea that Ma'ayan died "for no reason" angers them. "What do you mean, `for no reason'?" they protest. "The reason is that a junkie alcoholic kid was released." They are very careful with respect to the boy's ethnic origin, exchanging looks and speaking cautiously. On the school's Internet site are a few comments about the Ethiopians to the effect that they should never have been brought here. "Could it be that we brought murderers to Israel?" one writer asks. In the personal encounter their tone is different. After all, the Ethiopian students are their friends, too, and they have told the teenagers that they should not tarnish an entire community.
The fact that the murder happened so close to home has them almost numb with fear. "I tell myself that I will be more careful, but actually I don't know what that means," says Shani, a childhood friend of Ma'ayan. "And anyhow, how do you guard against something like that? It's not like we will decide not to go to some dangerous place. It happened here, close to home, and it can reach any place."
Their parents are pressing them to stay home. Saguy is outraged. "What kind of attitude is that?" he says. "If they let out that monster who went out and killed, why should they close us in? That's stupid. They should close them in."
`Smart and a good soul'
Rehovot is steeped in mourning and rife with bewilderment. As happens in such cases, people are hesitant to talk out of the fear that part of the guilt will somehow latch on to them or because they will inflict bad luck on themselves. In the kiosks, the fast-food joints and at the taxi stand next to the mall that is close to the scene of the crime, everyone knows the murder suspect. He hung around there a lot. Occasionally he asked the taxi drivers for a cigarette or a light. He bought family-size Cokes in the fast-food place next to the taxi stand.
"He looked like a kid of his age," says Yigal Hazan, who owns the taxi stand. "We never saw any signs of violence in him and he didn't even look spaced out. The truth is that I was very surprised when I heard it was him."
Abai Zavada, the chairman of the neighborhood committee of Kiryat Moshe - where most of the city's Ethiopian residents live - and a member of the Rehovot municipal council, was also surprised. He knows the family and the boy, whom he describes as "smart and a good soul." He, too, cannot understand what went so horrendously wrong.
The 16-year-old boy who is suspected of murdering 15-year-old Ma'ayan Sapir last Friday evening, apparently in the course of a chance encounter while she was on her way to meet a friend, lives with his mother - his parents are divorced - not far from there. On the fateful weekend, when he was given home leave from the facility for criminal youth where he resides, he came to this corner again, which almost abuts the murder site. Again he asked for a smoke, again he bought a Coke. The only change those who have known him for years noticed was that he had dyed his hair blond, which they thought was incongruous, given the color of his skin. That was all. Nothing unusual beyond that. There are a lot of types like him in Rehovot, which like other towns and cities in Israel has absorbed large numbers of immigrants and which, like them, has left many on the margins of society.
At midday a few of the dropouts crowd around Tami's fast-food place. New immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union drink beer and stare enthralled at the slot machine that one of them is playing like an automaton. The sad quiet is interrupted only by the shekels the machine spits out when the right combination of pictures comes up. This is the essence of their lives. There is no work, no money. They have no life. Tami says she doesn't let in youngsters who have been drinking alcohol. It's her own private education project in a place, she says, where the system has failed.
"What kind of system do we have?" she asks angrily. "There is no punishment, no deterrence."
The murder that was perpetrated so close to her kiosk has flooded her with personal fears. The father of her daughter will soon be getting out of jail and she is afraid he will come to hurt her, in the absence of any authority to protect her. "The kids today are worse than all the mob families that make the headlines."
Go to Kiryat Moshe and look at them, suggests Sonya, one of the clients.
The Sapir family's tragedy has become the powerful drama of the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, at the other end of the city. Nearly half of the neighborhood's residents, and 70 percent of the youngsters, are Ethiopians. The headlines that screamed "Young Ethiopian from Rehovot suspected of murder" turned the spotlight on the neighborhood, even if the suspect himself lives elsewhere. People didn't just talk about the suspect; they talked about the Ethiopian community. They enumerated the incidents of violence in the community and noted that for the first time the violence burst the community's boundaries. A ghetto of distress that has now also become an arena of fear.
Young people relate that since the murder they have been afraid to go downtown, fearful of the looks of guilt that are hurled at them, worried about being taunted. "It is a disgrace to the community," say residents. "We grieve for the girl who was murdered, but we also grieve for the boy who was locked up in an institution and driven crazy. The situation drove him mad. The boy is also a victim."
Twenty-nine year-old Argau Tamasa speaks of a "civil war" that is in the offing. "The end can only be a civil war, which we have no chance of winning," he says. "This murder is a disgrace to us but even more to the State of Israel, which abandoned us. Even after the murder we waited for someone to come and talk to us, to reassure us. Instead, only the police showed up, to see if the suspect has any friends in the neighborhood. I understand that parents of children in Rehovot are frightened, but the parents here are also frightened. They are also afraid to let their children leave the house, in case they are attacked. Even I, an adult, have not left the neighborhood since Friday.
Sitting behind the small grocery store that sells mostly Ethiopian drinks and spices this week was a small group of Ethiopian men. This is how they spend the day, sitting on overturned cans, drinking beer and smoking. The plight of each of them could be the subject of a wide-ranging drama or could be summed up in a few words: Life ended with immigration to Israel. The son of one of them committed suicide two months ago. For years he was harassed by the police and the judicial system, and on the day the ruling was to be handed down - he hanged himself near his home. On the 30th day after his death (the end of the mourning period), the other son, just 13, was placed under house arrest. The father, unemployed and anguished, is helpless in the face of the situation. Like most of the parents who have immigrated from Ethiopia, he has long since lost control of his family.
Argau Tamasa also feels lost. An intelligent, impressively articulate young man, his whole future is behind him. Years ago he got into trouble with the police when he got into a fight with a white pimp who entered the neighborhood in search of Ethiopian girls aged 10 to 20 for prostitution. Since then he has had a police record and has been unable to find work.
"I am not only sorry I came here - I think all the time about how I can leave," he says. "Where to? To the place I came from. There, at least, I will be free of racism and be swallowed up in the masses."
The yearning to be "swallowed up" recurs in almost every conversation. In a country where it is fashionable to stand out, the Ethiopians crave assimilation, anything but to always be exposed to wisecracks about their skin color. Especially now. On the day after the murder they were already bombarded with racist jibes after defeating Ashdod in a soccer game. They say that they too are targeted by the law enforcement agencies, which are quick to arrest Ethiopians indiscriminately. After all, they are all black and all suspects. So rife is this viewpoint that some in the neighborhood even doubt whether the boy who was caught actually committed the murder.
These "social" explanations for violence infuriate the criminologist Dr. Danny Gimshi, a former senior police officer. "Political correctness will kill us," he says. "All the explanations at the social-cultural level create an atmosphere in which it is permissible and possible to be violent." Gimshi does not ignore the distress and the crisis of immigration as elements in heightening the violence, but demands that the paradigm be changed, from an approach of rehabilitation and welfare to one of prevention and enforcement.
"We have to cut the Gordian knot between distress and violent behavior by inculcating personal responsibility," he says. "Neither distress nor the destruction of families can legitimize violence. As a society, we have lost the basic instinct of self-defense in the face of a threat from within. The Israel Police are perceived as the weak brother of the army, which is in charge of existential security. That is a mistake. I know that people will not like what I am saying, but we have to stop being politically correct and sweeping the problem of violence among immigrants under the carpet. They are not to blame, but they are responsible."
Paradoxically, it is precisely the young Ethiopians who work at the information center for at-risk youth in Tel Aviv, who agree completely with that analysis. In a conversation at the facility, which is located in a nondescript corner of the new Central Bus Station, they say that only here, in Israel, where the authority of the family and the teachers has disintegrated, have the Ethiopians begun to blame "society."
Over time, members of the Ethiopian community have become familiar with this center and have learned to avail themselves of the help of its skilled staff, all of whom are Ethiopians. They deal with drug addicts who are sent to be detoxified, with boys and girls who drop out of school and leave boarding schools, and with youngsters who simply want a warm reception and an attentive ear. Between 20 and 30 youngsters come to the center every day. Others call its hotline. After the murder new fears have surfaced.
"Now they will single us out for sure," the young people have said, but the staff of the center explained that it wasn't them, that they would be all right.
Yet the fear has affected the staff, too. Elias Baruch, 37, who has worked at the center for a year and a half, routinely helps women find the elevator and carries heavy bags to the bus. In the past few days he has not done that. He is afraid that people are afraid of him. The same feeling is shared by Avi Talala, a university-educated youth counselor of 27. "The color labels us and makes people feel afraid."
The conversation with them suggests that it is harder to be an Ethiopian man than an Ethiopian woman in Israel. "Without a doubt," Talala agrees. "Our women are beautiful and the white men like to add a gorgeous Ethiopian woman to their resume. I, an Ethiopian man, am not a `competitor' for the resume of a white woman. A white female friend at the university told me so explicitly. Ethiopian men are very frustrated. They have no option within the integrating population, and the girls of the community are also being lost to whites. Now, after the story of the murder, we will be labeled even more. A white girl will not agree to go out with an Ethiopian."
It was a sad conversation with young people who belong to the 20 percent of the community who are success stories. The other 80 percent are lost. Argau Tamasa says that the elderly ones are fortunate not to have a clue about what is going on. The young people, though, do understand, and their pain is great. And now the fear is, too.