Ethiopian-Israelis Change Their Tactics, but Maintain Their Goals - and Anger

'This is a marathon and we have to get organized. We have all we need to bring about change,' says an education counselor from the Ethiopian community

Demonstrators gathered at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square after the police shooting of Ethiopian-Israeli teen Solomon Teka, July 8, 2019.
\ Moti Milrod

It’s a mistake to think that Ethiopian-Israelis are over their anger. The protest has not ended, it’s just become more organized, more focused and a lot more sophisticated. Instead of blocking roads, people are protesting outside the homes of ministers. Instead of clashing with police, they’re collecting testimony about police conduct to be able to file complaints. They have no intention of giving up.

The small-scale protest in which Ethiopian-Israeli activists tried to block the way of Justice Minister Amir Ohana received little coverage. It happened in Kiryat Malakhi and the police came to Ohana’s aid. No one was hurt. Similar protests outside the homes of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and attorney Keren Bar-Menachem, the head of the police internal investigations unit, also flew under the media radar. After the Kiryat Malakhi actions, the protests were expanded to take aim at State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. The primary demand of the protesters is clear: Make public the video footage of the shooting of Solomon Teka, the 18-year-old Israeli of Ethiopian descent, who was shot to death by an off-duty police officer a month ago.

>> Read more: Arrested, imprisoned, shot: Police violence is pushing Ethiopian Israelis to fear, fury and despair | Opinion ■ Israel has fallen into the condescension trap with the Ethiopian community | Opinion

This is a partial answer to the question of where have all the Ethiopian demonstrators gone. After hundreds were injured and arrested in the massive protests a month ago, the aim of the activists now is to reduce the physical cost of the protest, without forgoing the demand for a credible investigation of the Teka shooting and of police brutality toward Ethiopian-Israelis in general.

It’s been a month since Solomon Teka died from a police officer’s gunfire in Kiryat Haim and less than six months since Yehuda Biadga was killed by police gunfire in Bat Yam. After the Biadga killing, there was a single mass protest in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. After the Teka killing, protesters blocked roads in a number of locations simultaneously. “That’s it. We’re not going to ask anymore, we’re going to demand. We see that it’s impossible to bring about change with festivals or roundtable discussions,” says Mekonen Igda, a social activist from Be’er Sheva. He and others promise that if the results of the police investigation are not convincing, they will take to the streets again.

“After Yehuda (Biadga) was killed, I went around the neighborhoods, and told the teens ‘let’s let the anger out in other ways,’” says Zohar Blau, a counselor who works with at-risk youth. “Then five months later another boy was killed. How can I look these kids in the eye? I myself have lost faith in the system – How can I tell people that things have changed?”

Blau, from Ramle, says she was in shock when she saw that it was mostly teens who blocked Highway 431 at the start of the protest. “I knew a lot of them, they called to me by name. I started shouting at them to remember that they had parents waiting for them at home, but when I got home I cried and I thought – really, what do they have to lose?”

“The media tells the story as if the protest began with the youths’ violence,” says Desash Tehai-Malas, a mother of three from Ashdod. “It’s not true. To tell the story correctly you have to start four decades earlier. The root of the problem is the police violence, not our young people.”

“We have never been a violent community, that’s not our way,” says Zamenai Tafra, an educational counselor from Rehovot who heads the protest’s communications effort. “There was anger that built up over many years of confrontations with police. And when two cases like this happen in less than six months, it’s mind-boggling. The young people have no sense of basic security. I know kids who sit at home, depressed and afraid.”

The height of hypocrisy

The leaders, second- and third-generation in Israel, weren’t afraid of losing control over the protests. “In every city or region there were local leaders, but that’s the advantage of a spontaneous organization – you’re not waiting at home for someone to tell you what to do. I’m glad about the traffic jams – otherwise it wouldn’t have made an impression. We brought an entire country to a halt, and that has impact,” says Tehai-Malas. As for those who criticized the style of the protest, she says, “That’s the height of hypocrisy.”

After the first days, the protest seemed to subside. “People saw the masses of armed police and that made them think twice,” says activist Yitzhak Tayim. Also, the leadership deliberately tried to keep the media in the dark about the protests, to avoid leaks to the police, for one thing. And in fact, some senior police officers expressed dismay that the police intelligence network did not know about the protests in time.

“In previous demonstrations, there was a message to shout out our protest but not to go further,” says Igda. “The protests were controlled by Ethiopians whom I call apostates... They’re not aware of their community, they only want to please the white masters. Part of the idea this time was to spread the protest all over the country.

“Let’s be honest, Israeli society never supported us,” says Yitzhak Tayim. “It was convenient for them for us to be nice and quiet and do menial jobs.”

“I’m fighting for my life, for my family and my community. If I don’t fight these wars, no one else will. I want to stress that all the people going out to these protests are leaders,” says Tayim, who knows some of the protesters through a project for training social activists. “Every protester is a leader. Now the hidden racists have come out of the closet. I’m very experienced at dealing with open racism. We thought the hidden racists were our friends but now their true faces have been revealed. We haven’t ‘lost them’ because they were never with us.”

Many of the protesters in Kiryat Haim (Teka’s hometown), Gedera, Netanya and other places were teenagers, some younger than 12 (the age of criminal responsibility). But by the end of the first week, there were 238 arrests. There is no more current data from the police, but activists who’ve opened a legal aid hotline say more than 300 people were arrested. “This protest was very different from the one in January,” says Aviran Hanuk, 38, director of a day center for the elderly in Bat Yam. “That time we met and planned the protest; this time it was the initiative of youths who were fed up with over-policing. They were fed up with being treated as suspects when they were just out walking near their homes. They were the ones who said ‘enough’ – and we came out to the streets to be with them.”

Hanuk has been involved in organizing the legal defenses. He says the basis for the legal efforts was already put in place in January after the first protest because “the police are always trampling the protesters’ rights. We have volunteers, we received dozens of calls every day. We worked in cooperation with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the public defender to be able to respond to everyone.

“For a week, the police were on a hunt for us,” says Hanuk. “They took people from their homes, there was a flood of arrests. The phone never stopped ringing: Minors were being questioned without an adult present; people were being questioned without a lawyer present. One man was arrested in Netanya just for making an obscene gesture at police, and a minor was detained for several days. Now we want to go over all the cases and see where violence was used in the interrogation room or in the field, where rights were violated. We’ll collect all the material and file complaints with the police internal investigations unit.”

The day after

Meanwhile, community social leaders have been convening panel discussions at neighborhood community centers and elsewhere to discuss what comes next. “We don’t need literary heroes – We have our own heroes,” social activist Avi Yalu said at a panel talk at Bar-Ilan University. “Each one of us comes from a family of heroes.” He also warned, “Without identifying the problem, there can be no solutions. And the problem is with the police attitude and police norms.”

“We need to take control of the narrative, it’s a fight for the public’s awareness,” says Tayim. Alternative media have been set up “to relay information the public isn’t familiar with because the media don’t tell them about it,” he adds.

“What happened last month is just the beginning,” says Tafra. “This is a marathon and we have to get organized. We have all we need to bring about change.”

“We’re a community that doesn’t have a lot of resources but our activity today is designed to keep the protest simmering while we wait for the decision in the investigation of Solomon Teka’s death,” says Igda. “The outcome there will affect which way the protest develops. This protest is a milestone for the community and for the young people who understand that they have to fight for their future. Even if a heavy price must be paid, this generation understands that it’s on their watch. If a harsh protest is needed, there will be a harsh protest.” I can’t recall any community in Israel, certainly not in recent years, that has had to fight for its freedom of movement and the freedom to live.”