The Carmiel Dance Festival takes place in northern Israel every summer – or at least during those not spent in the specter of the coronavirus.
“The festival that the entire city celebrates” – local social activist Yael Mekonen-Dego calls it. Dance troupes from all over the country participate in the event, an entire week of colorful performances and various activities for children.
Four years ago, some Ethiopian Israeli children, about 12 years old, went to enjoy the festival – like the rest of the kids in the area. But police officers at the venue began to follow them and then arrested them, accusing them of stealing and taking them to the local police station. When their parents arrived, the police kicked them out without any explanation; only after three days which the youngsters spent in the Kishon jail were they released. This incident, Mekonen-Dego says, affected her deeply and motivated her to join a then-new initiative called Mothers on Guard.
Protests had been held a few months previously, in March 2016, against the decision of the Justice Ministry unit investigating police misconduct, to close the case involving the death of a young man named Yosef Salmasa – due to lack of evidence. Salmasa was tasered by police and found dead several months later, was found dead, His death was apparently the result of a violent arrest and abuse on the part of the police for a crime he did not commit. Salmasa unintentionally became a symbol of the battle against police violence. Most of the demonstrators at the time were young Ethiopian Israelis, members of one of the main communities suffering violence at the hands of the Israel Police, alongside Arabs.
Between the protesters and the police in Jerusalem stood Franus Salmasa, Yosef’s mother, who tried to separate the two sides bodily, while trying to calm things down. Social activists Ziva Mekonen and Hana Elazar, who were present at the time, saw the police violence against the demonstrators and asked themselves: “Where are their mothers?” That is when their decision to act to change things was made.
At the end of that month, the Mothers on Guard grassroots movement was launched, for the most part by mothers of Ethiopian origin who were not willing to accept a situation in which their children could not move around freely in the public domain. Their first activity was a protest in front of the Knesset in March 2016 against policies that endanger their children’s lives.
Shula Mola, a founder of the mothers’ group and a long-time social and civil-rights activist who holds a doctorate in education, recalls now that at the first demonstration, “the message we wanted to convey was: ‘We are here and you can’t do what you want to our children.’ It was also a call for other mothers to join us. Over the years the organization grew and today there are young women and men activists and also non-Ethiopian mothers who want to express solidarity with us.”
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Mola says they came to protest police brutality but also found comfort in one another. They naturally began to share experiences that they and their children had with the police, and the stories that accumulated painted a sad and infuriating picture.
“We began telling one another all sorts of experiences that we had with the police and had repressed,” Mola says. “We continued with our activity because we wanted to move forward and not just survive. Suddenly this problem became more significant and powerful; we realized how systematic it was.”
Most Black and brown parents walk around with the idea that one day their child could leave the house and not come home because of police violence – a concrete threat that is often confirmed, in reality. The members of Mothers on Guard refuse to accept this situation as fate. The cooperation between them in recent years has led to an understanding of the power they wield collectively, to empower each other but also to influence others to take a part in their struggle.
Mothers on Guard activities also have a community dimension. Two years ago, the group launched a program called “Buna in the Neighborhood” – a buna is a traditional coffee ceremony that’s part of daily life in Ethiopian homes – where families and neighbors gather and talk, to keep each other informed of local events.
As part of this project, Mekonen-Dago says, activists in the organization go once a week to different neighborhoods in different cities with a full buna kit, sit down in a central location and invite passersby to come sit with them. They explain to the young people and their parents about their rights concerning the police – but mostly listen to their experiences.
“The idea was to connect them to the safest place they know. The buna ceremony is something they were raised on and grew up with,” Mekonen-Dago explains. “At first, they didn’t want to talk to us, we looked to them as if we were crazy, but after some time they began to sit with us, and we had amazing conversations both with the young people and with the parents who were passing by.”
Still, Mothers on Guard focuses mainly on holding weekly “watches,” or protests, outside police stations around the country. One of the group’s activists, Elsa Baruch, explains that the goal is to remind the police officers who are beginning and ending their shifts that behind the children they may abuse are mothers who want to sleep peacefully at night.
“We are asking that the police protect our children too. We are raising awareness but are also trying to create a dialogue,” she says. “Mostly the police are not responsive. They don’t see this as a problem that they are part of.”
After the killing of Solomon Teka by an off-duty police officer last year, Mothers on Guard joined forces with a group founded by activists fighting police brutality after Teka’s death. They protested for months across from the homes senior officials, including the head of the Justice Ministry unit for investigating the police, the attorney general, the state prosecutor and the justice minister. In addition, they attend hearings that are still ongoing in the Teka case.
Ashkenazi Jerusalem moms
A few weeks ago, with the demonstrations near the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem in full swing, some women, mostly Ashkenazi, created the Mothers Against Violence group – but as opposed to Mothers on Guard, they received exposure and a warm embrace from the media. One of the members of the new group was interviewed on the news and expressed deep shock at the police violence against their children, who were out protesting on Balfour Street. She said her group was inspired by a similar phenomenon they saw in the United States.
The shock in the face of police brutality on Balfour Street seems to be out of touch with the reality in many communities in Israel, and testifies to the privilege that white people have in our country. And ultimately it constitutes an erasure of or a justification for daily police aggression against less powerful groups.
The fact that until now, police violence and specifically the activities of Mothers on Guard against it has been ignored led to criticism of the new Mothers Against Violence group, and its members did not take long to respond. They approached Mothers on Guard with the intention of cooperating with them, and at a meeting held in Tel Aviv members of the new group admitted that only now are they beginning to understand what other communities have been saying about police conduct.
The question now is why these white women had to see violence reach their own children before offering support to mothers whose offspring have been injured and even killed for so many years. The uneven balance of power here did not escape them, because the Mothers Against Violence people said at the meeting: “We have access to power and a microphone, we can help you, but to do so we need to get rid of Bibi [Netanyahu].”
Some of the Mothers on Guard women felt that the approach of the white mothers superficializes the struggle against police violence, according to Dr. Mola, who says that Mothers Against Violence “spoke a lot about our shared womb, but we are not the same. They interfered with the womb of the Ethiopian mother so she would not have children.”
Mola adds, appealing to the other mothers: “In the name of the universal womb, don’t superficialize and dilute our story. Come cooperate with us with open eyes, acknowledging the ethnic class differences that set different agendas for us.”
Often, the veteran activist explains, “alliances with white people are limited because they are not willing to give up their privilege and their patronizing. When we mention this, they are hurt emotionally – it’s what’s called ‘white fragility’ – and then they can leave the conversation and the room.”
Ethiopian mothers, however, do not have the possibility of leaving the room. They stay because this is a battle for their children’s lives.
In the end, it is clear to everyone that the violence directed against Ethiopians, Arabs, Mizrahim and ultra-Orthodox in Israel will never be the lot of Ashkenazim in their day-to-day lives, when their children go out to have fun at the mall or are playing in the neighborhood park. That is why the important questions are whether this same privileged minority is really ready to fight against social injustice that does not hurt it, or whether the battle against police brutality is just another tool to recruit supporters in the fight against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.