The Ethiopian Israeli protests that erupted after Solomon Teka was shot to death by a policeman four months ago have not subsided. Last week, demonstrators disrupted an Israel Bar Association conference with their call for a national commission of inquiry.
For an hour and a half, attorney Keren Bar-Menachem, head of the police internal investigations division (known by the Hebrew acronym Mahash), was trapped inside the association’s Tel Aviv headquarters and needed police assistance to get out. Bar-Menachem was at the conference to participate in a panel entitled “Equal Rights and Eradicating Racism.” A number of activists interrupted her, shouting slogans against the police and Mahash, and prevented Bar-Menachem from leaving.
Although demonstrations have been going on outside her home over the last months, this was the first direct encounter between the protesters and Bar-Menachem. The protesters’ actions at the conference show they aren’t about to play by the rules, even if it means people will say they’re not nice.
After the police restricted the protests in Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva, two active protest sites remain: In outside Ben-Menachem’s home in Netanya and outside State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan’s home in Jerusalem. In Netanya, local council members and neighbors have been calling on police to prevent the demonstrations; in Jerusalem, after a random encounter with the state prosecutor outside his home, the protesters decided to switch tactics: They now protest twice a week outside his house and once a week in downtown’s Zion Square.
They also demonstrated outside the Justice Ministry during the prime minister’s hearing there – the protest was covered in the media. This week they are planning a large protest march in Kiryat Haim, the Haifa suburb where Teka was shot. “It’s a never-ending protest,” said Tesfay, one of the regular protesters in Jerusalem. “It continues at home, at night, too. You go to sleep with it and wake up with it and go through the day with it.” Since July, the most raucous protests have been outside Ben-Menachem’s home, and though the protesters have been there nearly every day, they have yet to hear a word from her. Yet when she rose to speak at the Bar Association conference, it was the protesters who wouldn’t let her be heard. The anger had already reached a boiling point earlier: An attorney from the police’s new department dealing with pardons said that only 85 requests for a police pardon had been received, and only 15 of those had been accepted.
The pardon program was launched a year ago in wake of a report by Emmy Palmor, then the director-general of the Justice Ministry, that found that the number of criminal investigations and charges brought against Ethiopian Israelis was extremely disproportionate to their percentage of the population and often based on “trivial” matters. The pardon program offers people the chance to have their criminal record expunged.
“The government has to do much more but I’m not sure it wants to,” said protester Shlomit Bukaya after the conference. “The lawyer said the small number of pardons is due to the community’s lack of faith in the establishment. It’s annoying, because the ministry has much more work to do on this program and she’s complaining that the community doesn’t turn to them.”
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Bar Association Chairman Avi Himi’s remarks in praise of Bar-Menachem were the straw that broke the camel’s back. “Solomon Teka was murdered night after night and day after day, because his name was smeared by the lies of the police,” said one protester. After activists interrupted the panel for nearly an hour with their shouting, the organizers announced the event was over. Some of the protesters went outside and blocked Bar-Menachem’s car. Meanwhile, she sat down for a private talk with Teka’s sister inside the building. She promised that a decision on whether to charge the officer who shot Teka would be issued in the next week or two, and that she would give her as much of the material that was filmed at the scene as she could.
‘You’ll never walk alone’
This wasn’t the first event disrupted by the protesters. In September the protest leaders convened a gathering of politicians just ahead of the election, under the heading “We Demand a National Commission of Inquiry.” Participants included lawmakers Moti Yogev, Revital Swid, Pnina Tamano-Shata, Moshe Abutbul and others. Likud and Yisrael Beitenu did not send any representatives. There, too, the protesters lost patience. After one politician after another tried to glorify his or her efforts on behalf of the community, Teka’s sister got up and shouted, “What have you done? And what do you plan to do about the violence and judicial racism?” The event descended into chaos.
Shula Mola, former head of Israel’s Association for Ethiopian Jews, said, “I can’t stand hearing this bull anymore. The question posed at the conference was: What is your position, and what do you promise to do regarding the demand for an inquiry commission? Solomon Teka’s father, who was there, said to us, ‘I know they’re lying but we can’t not hear them out.’”
But Mola is pleased with the turn the protests have taken: “The people in suits need to know that something is broken right now, and it’s up to them, not us, to fix it. They just sit there in their ties, telling stories and citing statistics – enough already, you’ve been stringing us along for so many years.
“I’m not embarrassed or sorry. It all has to do with the overwhelming feeling of injustice and not feeling safe in the public space. I want there to be an inquiry commission and I’d be glad to say that I was wrong. Breaking up the conference is our way of opposing the lies and whitewashing. It’s not an easy situation for Keren Bar-Menachem, but we’re not in an easy situation either.”
Benjamin Aklom, a protest leader, also justified the methods employed by the protesters, though he admitted that he left the Bar Association event with mixed feelings: “We’ve been sitting outside her house for a long time. I sent her messages until she blocked me on the phone. I wanted to get some kind of response from her and when there was an opportunity, we missed it.”
Another regular protester said, “The only thing that interests me right now is Solomon Teka. I’m putting all the community’s other problems aside. We wanted to look Keren Bar-Menachem in the eye and tell her that we won’t go away, that we will fight in every legal way possible. I said to her, ‘Keren, you’ll never walk alone. Wherever you go, we will be there.’”
An unexpected and less emotional encounter occurred on Yom Kippur eve, before the start of the holiday, when protesters came to blow a shofar outside the state prosecutor’s home in Jerusalem. Nitzan came out, wearing shorts and sandals. “Kudos on your determination,” he told them. “We are taking this matter seriously. We’ve recently been doing an additional investigation to ensure we make the right decision. I can’t tell you any more than that, but I ask that you trust us.”
The conversation continued; the protesters complained that the results of Mahash’s investigation into the case of Yehuda Biadga, a 24-year-old of Ethiopian origin who was killed by an officer in January, was made public on the morning of the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which prevented them from being able to protest against it. They also asked about video footage of Teka’s shooting. “I requested that this be checked out because I heard people talking about it,” Nitzan said. “There is no such video. If you believe us, fine, if not then not.” He also said he is not opposed to a commission of inquiry but that it is not up to him, and said that if they disagree with Mahash’s findings regarding Biadga’s death, they can petition the High Court of Justice, but that “we think it was the right decision.”
“We didn’t really get an answer from him,” said Tesfay. “This is not just about Solomon Teka. There were others killed before him. We wanted him to make this decision as if it were his son. We wanted to tell him not to make a mistake like with Yehuda Biadga. We thought about it for a long time before we went to his house that day. It’s not easy to go demonstrate in front of someone on such a day and tell him, ‘You’re not doing your job.’ We really came in order to say that we do not forget the victims.”
The decision on the case will be made in the coming weeks. The protesters see this as a critical time for their struggle.