This week’s protests by Israelis of Ethiopian descent following the heartbreaking death of Solomon Teka, who was shot by an off-duty policeman in the Haifa neighborhood of Kiryat Haim, should engender the sympathy of the entire society. The protests are in response to blatant, persistent, unbridled racism on the part of police against dark-skinned people that gets justified time after time by defenders of the establishment – the prosecutors, the media, the public security minister and the prime minister.
Police violence and the phenomenon of always having a finger on the trigger is directed at members of this community and, at the same time, toward Palestinians, Bedouins and Israeli Arabs more generally.
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Ethiopian immigrants have been living in Israel for four decades. Their protests began soon after their arrival with the religious establishment’s failure to accept them as Jews. In addition to that, there was their rejection as blood donors, the failure to let all of their relatives immigrate, an education system that didn’t want to absorb their children, as well as the patronizing policies at Jewish Agency absorption centers and cities that refused outright to accept Ethiopian immigrants in their midst.
Those earlier protests were mainly led by what is now the older generation, and they were calmer. In 2015, a video of police beating up an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian origin, Demas Fekadeh, without justification caused uproar. That incident triggered protests that saw a new, younger and painful voice crying out against what the older generation hadn’t dared say directly – that Israel’s policies were openly and covertly racist against them. Following those protests, a unit was created at the Justice Ministry to coordinate a campaign against racism, but from the standpoint of the Ethiopian community, it only confirmed the existence of racism and in effect nothing changed in how the country handled the issue.
As part of the effort to address racism toward the Ethiopian community, a project was launched to teach police about the community’s culture. Members of the community were uncomfortable with the project and criticized it.
For her part, in her book “Strength in Immigration – The Story of Ethiopian Jews,” written in Hebrew, Shelly Engdaw-Vanda had this to say: “The project legitimizes the assumption that police violence is due to the culture of the Ethiopian community rather than due to the police. The cultural explanation is liable to legitimize the continued abuse of Ethiopian immigrants. The solution is clear: Properly dealing with members of the Ethiopian community and enforcing the law against violent police.”
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“Formal institutions continue to present plans purportedly created for the sake of the community but that continue to show it in a negative light, as they show how, after so many years, they haven’t integrated into Israeli society, while that is not the real problem,” she went on to write, adding: “Perhaps these programs serve the financial needs of government agencies and other organizations.”
During the current wave of protests, many have written in the media about the protesters’ distrust of them, about how they keep being labeled the “white media.” The truth is that many of the journalists have honestly earned this title. There was the shameful coverage of the slaying of Yehuda Biadga, a man of Ethiopian descent with emotional difficulties, who was shot twice in January by a policeman in Bat Yam. The coverage amounted to spokesmanship for the police. My colleague at Haaretz, Josh Breiner, wrote: “The shooting at the young man was not due to racism but a lack of professionalism,” and even took the trouble to remind readers that “the job of police on patrol in a busy area like the Ayalon District is complicated, filled with confrontations and is particularly prone to burnout.”
Even before the protests began the media was already hand-in-hand with police in describing the protesters as violent – even though the protest leaders were fully cooperating with the police, and there were kessim, Ethiopian religious clerics present as well. The media also quite repeatedly described the policeman who shot Teka as having been under threat.
This pattern is repeating itself in the current protests as well. In order to try and quell the protests from the start, police reporters have been saying that we ought to wait for the results of the investigation into Teka's death, followed by reports that the policeman had faced “severe threats” when he opened fire. Now he himself is filing a complaint about threats. It was tough to miss how Tuesday’s reporting by Channel 12 was totally focused on the traffic jams. For a moment, it appeared as though that was the most important item of news for the day. The rhetoric of the reporters and presenters included infinite use of the word anger: “Tell us please why are you angry?” they asked protesters and “Are you angry?” and little by little the word “anarchy” also crept in. It’s important to pause here for a moment to stress how these important protests by the Ethiopian community against the killing of an 18-year-old were covered by the most popular television newscasts beneath the heading of “anarchy,” and were compared to the riots in France.
“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease,” Ta Nehisi Coates wrote in his thunderous book, “Between the World and Me.” In that book he tells the story of being black in the U.S. and captures the experience of what dark skinned people feel like in society. They feel like the law doesn’t protect them, but provides an excuse to arrest and assault them.
The Israel Police must be thoroughly be cleansed of the racism that has spread throughout the system. Investigators are supposed to stop covering up for and protecting violent policemen who shoot at dark skinned people. The media must stop acting as police spokespeople, to get rid of this establishment perspective and exchange it for that of the human being who is struggling against injustice and to ask hard questions. How is it that a trained officer could not overcome a few teenagers and instead resorted to using his weapon? What sort of threat could have existed to lead him to shoot Teka to death? Why have policemen who have shot Israelis of Ethiopian descent not been put on trial?
The political establishment hasn’t really related to the Ethiopian community as a real electoral force, they serve more as decoration. It’s mostly due to their small numbers and the fact that most are loyal to the Likud and Shas. Now for the first time there are signs of awakening among opinion leaders of the community. Let’s hope community members will punish the Likud in the next election for Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s shameful conduct, his failure to accept responsibility and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lack of leadership. All of this is happening under their watch.