The chain of events that led to the demonstrations was clearly influenced by what is happening in the United States as protests continue to erupt there in response to cases of police brutality, most recently in Baltimore.
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To be sure, events overseas probably weren’t at the forefront of the mind of the quick-minded individual who videotaped the police pummeling a young Ethiopian soldier named Demas Fekadeh for no apparent reason. But if not for the ongoing conversation on race and police brutality in America, the video surely wouldn’t have received such prominent play in the Israeli media, and absolutely wouldn’t have triggered such an overwhelming response.
Inevitably, comparisons are now being made between the rioting that rocked Tel Aviv on Sunday and the ongoing unrest in the U.S. At the same time, there has been deep discomfort expressed while doing so. Portraying it as a “copycat” situation, some say, detracts from the legitimacy of the Ethiopian Israeli protest and the unique set of circumstances on which it is based.
As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between.
The numbers don’t lie. As in the United States, dark-skinned Africans in Israel are statistically far more likely to be stopped by police, accused of wrongdoing, charged and convicted of crimes and serve time in prison disproportionate to their presence in the population. They are over policed and over punished. And in Israel, one can’t even blame history or an ingrained culture of criminal behavior in the Ethiopian-Israeli community that might possibly justify overkill on the part of police - the community simply hasn’t been around long enough to build one.
Racism is just as real and painful in Tel Aviv as it is in Baltimore. At their emotional core, the protests in the two countries are identical. The hurt, the insult, that one hears from the protesters in the US and Israel is the same - and in both countries, the sense of injury crosses lines of class and status. One of the saddest statistics when it comes to the Ethiopian community in Israel are the high rates of suicide - five times the national norm - showing that anger and despair is frequently being turned inward instead of outward. There have been some terrible chapters in the relatively short history following the community's immigration to Israel, involving everything from school segregation, to housing discrimination to the tossing out of blood donations, and revelations that uninformed immigrant Ethiopian women were given long-term birth control measures without them fully understanding the implications.
In both countries, exceptions that prove the rule lulled the public and the media into an unjustified self-satisfaction that it has “moved beyond” racism and led to shock at the force of the protest movement. In Israel, people point to 2013 Miss Israel Titi Aynaw, and the winner of the reality show Big Brother that same year Tahunia Rubel, or Hagit Yaso, the winner of the Israeli equivalent of American Idol a few years earlier. Ethiopian music and culture was embraced through the hugely popular Israeli musician Idan Raichel, for whom they play a central role - go to one of his concerts and watch his performers dance in Benetton-ad ecstasy and harmony.
In truth, of course, these examples didn’t erase the day-to-day trials of Ethiopian Israelis any more than LeBron James or Beyoncé could mitigate racism in the U.S.
Though the conflicts in Israel and the United States are both race-based, they have utterly different historical roots. Israel, in this comparison, has it much easier - they don’t have to cope with the tremendously upsetting legacy of slavery and institutionalized segregation that the races in the United States must wrestle with. The story of the flawed policies, patronizing attitudes and difficult cultural adjustment of Ethiopian immigrants, even at its lowest points, can’t hold a candle to the crimes committed against black people over the years in the United States and the traumatic scars that remain in American society as a result.
In Israel, the ongoing crisis over African asylum seekers from Eritrea, Sudan and other countries has added a complicated twist to the dynamics of race. The controversy over their presence in Israel has exacerbated intolerance and racism - precisely at a point in history when a young generation of Ethiopian Israelis that rightfully expects full and equal treatment is, as a result, being treated with hostility and suspicion.
The Jewish religion plays a central role in the race story playing out in Israel, for better and for worse. A large part of the initial insult to the Ethiopian Israeli community upon their immigration was the questioning of their Jewishness by the religious establishment and has reappeared as recently as last September, when it was revealed that some government rabbis were refusing to register Ethiopians for marriage certificates.
On the other hand, the common ground of Judaism also offers an opportunity to build bridges. One touching moment reported during the Tel Aviv protest was when some ultra-Orthodox men stuck on the highway blocked by the demonstrations got out of their cars and began their evening prayers - and they were joined by Ethiopian protesters, all praying together. It’s a base tribal tie - but the fact that both sides in this particular racial conflict are fellow members of an embattled minority in the region and in the world does have an impact. They are also literally brothers - and sisters - in arms, by virtue of serving together in the Israeli army.
The common Jewish identity offers a feeling of shared destiny that injects the situation - difficult as it may be, with a glimmer of hope that the conflict is somehow resolvable. That glimmer shines particularly bright when contrasted with the far harsher sense of despair that characterizes the relationship between Israelis - of any color - with their Palestinian neighbors.