Ethiopian Israelis Protesting Police Shooting of Teen Are Saying What Israel Needs to Hear: This Is a Racist Country

Even the most laundered police language cannot conceal or 'whiten' the community’s complex situation – a state of alienation and isolation

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Protesters north of Haifa, Israel, July 3, 2019.
Protesters north of Haifa, Israel, July 3, 2019. Credit: Rami Shllush
Eyal Gato

The protests by Israelis of Ethiopian origin taking place throughout the country are an expression of the pain and anger the community has experienced for years. Although the demonstrators’ accusations are aimed primarily at those in law enforcement uniform, a deeper look shows a more serious indictment against Israeli society and the State of Israel and its institutions as a whole.

Solomon Teka, Yehuda Biadga and Yosef Salmasa could have been teachers, doctors or army officers. They could have been my children, your children or your friends’ children. But the three of them died, one after the other, following encounters with the Israeli police. This is no coincidence. It’s the result of a mistaken perception that is deeply rooted in the state’s institutions.

Ethiopian Israelis protesting police shooting of Solomon TekaCredit: Haaretz

Before a person even opens their mouth, society labels them based on how they look and the social group to which they belong. This process has significant implications for society as a whole and especially for those labeled, because it puts them at a position of inferiority. Foreignness and lack of belonging invite internal confrontation with the most basic elements of a person’s identity. Individuals are required to deny their own identity, their habits, their culture and their language – any component that might, God forbid, sabotage the attempt to belong, to be part of the collective and to enjoy full equality.

>> Read more: Why did they shoot him? | Editorial ■ The revolutionary history of Ethiopia’s Jews

Since the protests began, that whitewashed, overused phrase “over-policing” has surfaced repeatedly. This is ostensibly a neutral expression intended to explain a complex issue, but in practice it attempts to minimize the phenomenon of racism directed at Ethiopian immigrants. Over-policing means profiling, it means assuming a person is dangerous based on his racial affiliation, color, or other identity component. We must state openly that over-policing is racism.

Protesters in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 2, 2019. Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Violence and racism are clear concepts that do not require interpretation. You don’t need to be a sociologist to perceive that racism is spreading through society like wildfire, whether against Ethiopian immigrants or other populations. Still, the Ethiopian case is exceptional, mainly because of the color component that prevents full assimilation into mostly light-skinned Israeli society.

Discrimination against Ethiopian immigrants is a direct result of external differences. Even the most laundered language cannot conceal or “whiten” the community’s difficult and complex situation – a state of alienation and isolation from society and the state in which they live. It’s time for Israeli society to look in the mirror and internalize that it has a serious problem that needs to be treated at the root. There is no difference between the deceptive term “over-policing” and a secret agreement that prevents the sale or rental of apartments to Ethiopian immigrants. A doctor who refuses to treat a person of Ethiopian origin is in the same category as a policeman who shoots a teenager indiscriminately.

It must be clear to every thinking person that the current tense atmosphere is not a direct result of the needless death of Solomon Teka, an 18-year-old boy who was shot to death by a police commander and officer. Solomon’s death is just a symptom of a malignant disease that threatens to destroy the society and state in which we live. A state that, despite the challenges and constant difficulties it poses to us, we continue to love and aspire to be an integral, significant and inseparable part of.

We have established our lives here in Israel not because we sought a better material life, but mainly because our ancestors have longed for Zion for thousands of years, zealously maintaining their Judaism despite the many difficulties and challenges they faced. It is especially important to say now that Israel is our home, among all the Jews, Muslims and Christians who live in the Israeli Levant. We respect everyone and are partners in building the Israeli nation no less than any other group. We demand full equal rights as is customary in proper democracies. This is the protesters’ message for Israeli society.

Eyal Gato is an activist who participated in the protest against the police shooting.

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