‘Not MLK, but Malcolm X’: Is Israel Having Its Black Lives Matter Moment?

Both countries are experiencing police violence against black citizens, but experts say there is major difference between African-American and Ethiopian-Israeli communities

Members of the security forces detaining a protester during a demonstration against police brutality against Ethiopian Israelis, Tel Aviv, July 3, 2019.
AFP

An unarmed black teenager is shot dead by an off-duty cop, sparking nationwide protests. On the face of it, the similarities between events that brought thousands of Ethiopian Israelis onto the streets this week and the U.S. movement Black Lives Matter are striking.

On Sunday, 18-year-old Solomon Teka was shot by an off-duty policeman trying to break up a playground fight in a suburb of Haifa. The policeman said he fired because he felt under threat after stones were hurled at him. He insisted, however, that he shot at the ground.

But whether or not he intended to kill was irrelevant for most Ethiopian Israelis. As far as they were concerned, he would not have fired his gun if the quarreling teens were white.

Black Lives Matter was first launched as a hashtag in 2013 after the acquittal of a white neighborhood watchman who shot and killed black teen Trayvon Martin. A year later, after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, it became a full-fledged protest movement.

“The statistics show that both in Israel and the United States, people with black skin are more likely to have their rights violated,” says Sharon Abraham-Weiss, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “In Israel, for example, if you are a black minor you are four times as likely to end up in jail as your white counterpart,” she says.

No other option

The first major wave of protests by Ethiopian Israelis, in 2015, were also sparked by police actions. In that case, the trigger was a viral video that showed a police officer beating up a uniformed soldier of Ethiopian descent.

A masked member of the Ethiopian-Israeli community walking past a burning barrier blocking the main entrance to Jerusalem, July 2, 2019.
AFP

Even if the latest protests weren’t directly influenced by Black Lives Matter, says Ronny Regev, a scholar of African-American history at the Hebrew University, there is “no doubt that it was in the back of their minds.

“After all,” she says, “the issues are so similar. In both places, you have black people suffering from economic and social inequality — and then it all explodes when you have these incidents of police brutality.”

Efrat Yerday, chairwoman of the Association of Ethiopian Jews, doesn’t see a direct link to Black Lives Matter. “I’m not sure I would say that we were inspired by them,” she says. “What we have here are cases of shootings that have no rationale, in which young men of Ethiopian origin have been targeted simply because of the color of their skin.

“We don’t need to look at photos from Ferguson to figure out what needs to be done,” she adds. “What we’re seeing here in Israel is a natural reaction to a very deep pain. We don’t have economic capital and we don’t have political capital. So the only option we have if we want to affect change is to get out and demonstrate.”

But Omer Keynan, an Israeli sociologist who studies digital culture, is not so quick to discount the influence of the U.S. movement.

“If you follow the social media posts of Ethiopian-Israeli activists, you can see that they often use the Black Lives Matter hashtag,” he says. “If you go to their protests, you’ll see that many of the speakers use spoken word poetry to share their experiences of racial discrimination — just as they do at Black Lives Matter protests.

“In both protest movements,” he continues, “the influence of hip-hop music is very strong. And I’ve even seen Ethiopian Israelis use quotes from Malcolm X in their posts — not Martin Luther King Jr but Malcolm X, who was much more radical. So there is no question in my mind that African-American culture is having a significant influence on what is happening here.”

Young protesters taking part in a Black Lives Matter march in Seattle, April 15, 2017.
Ted S. Warren / AP

Another similarity, he notes, is the prominence of women in both movements. “In the United States, Black Lives Matter was founded by women, and in Israel, while there’s no centralized leadership, women have definitely been at the forefront of the demonstrations,” says Keynan, whose doctoral dissertation explored the role of social media on the Ethiopian-Israeli protest movement.

Yerday offers an explanation for this phenomenon. “It is our men who are the victims of police brutality, and we, as mothers and sisters, feel a very strong responsibility to be there for them,” she says. “After all, we share the same blood.”

‘Our roots are here’

Despite similar experiences with police brutality and racism, African Americans and Ethiopian Jews have very different histories. Black people were brought to America as slaves hundreds of years ago. By contrast, Ethiopian Jews, relatively recent arrivals to Israel, had long dreamed of coming here and were famous for kissing the ground when they arrived.

As Danny Admasu, a cultural historian who studies attitudes in Israel toward black people, notes: “We weren’t brought from Africa; we came from Africa.”

This may explain, he says, why those participating in the protests across Israel tend to be more irreverent when they confront the police than their counterparts in the United States — in some cases even calling them “Nazis.”

“It’s because we feel this is our home,” says Admasu, who is also a prominent Ethiopian-Israeli social activist. “Our struggle here is to be part of this society, whereas in America you hear more and more about black people who want to go to Africa, where their roots are. For us, our roots are here.”

Members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community blocking the main entrance to Jerusalem, July 2, 2019. One protester is holding a poster featuring Solomon Teka, who was shot dead by an off-duty officer.
AFP

According to Keynan, another factor that distinguishes Ethiopian Israelis is their fixation on military service.

“This is something that constantly comes up,” he says. “And it ties together the protests today and the protests we had in 2015. In 2015, it all started with an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier who was beaten up. Today, anybody who talks about Solomon Teka mentions the fact that he dreamed of serving in the army. Something about army service carries great significance for Ethiopian Israelis. It’s a symbol of social integration, of being part of the collective effort to defend the country — and when someone who is a soldier or wants to be a soldier is hurt or killed, it is seen as betrayal in a way.”

He does not believe there is a parallel equivalent in the United States, “I guess because you don’t have compulsory service there and the army doesn’t fill the same function in society.”

Another key distinction is that Ethiopian Israelis have not succeeded — unlike their counterparts in Black Lives Matter — in forming alliances with other oppressed and marginalized groups. Their natural allies, notes Keynan, would be Arab Israelis, who also suffer disproportionately from police violence, and African asylum seekers.

“But we have to remember that, more than any other group in Israel, Ethiopian Jews have suffered because of the constant doubts cast upon their Jewishness,” he says. “This need to prove themselves as Jewish, it would seem, prevents them from forming partnerships and coalitions with non-Jewish groups.”