Chalking Police Brutality Up to a 'Bad Apple' Brings Israel Closer to Baltimore

Using this excuse allows us to avoid important questions: How racist are the police? Do officers act violently against Ethiopians because they believe they can do so with impunity?

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
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Ethiopian Israelis protesting in Tel Aviv, Mon., May 3, 2015.
Ethiopian Israelis protesting in Tel Aviv, Mon., May 3, 2015.Credit: Avshalom Halutz
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

From the outset, official responses to the unprovoked beating by Israeli police of an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in uniform, Demas Fekadeh, were wrongheaded and rooted in a patronizing attitude that it would be possible to manage the Ethiopians – to pacify them – rather than address their claims.

Ethiopians are expected to behave nicely, to follow their presumed cultural norm of deference to authority, to show enormous gratitude for all that’s been done on their behalf, and never act out on whatever slights they experience. This infantilizing culture of condescension is the flipside of the extensive efforts made by the government to absorb Ethiopian immigrants.

After the video of Fekadeh being beat up went viral, police spokespeople took to the airwaves to reassure the Ethiopian community, and the public at large, that police brutality was not tolerated, and that the officer would be suspended (he was later dismissed, but why wasn’t he charged with assault?), stressing that one "bad apple" should not tarnish the image of generally-harmonious relations between the Ethiopian community and the Israel Police.

But the “bad apple” explanation is a lie, and the police know it. Numerous stories of police brutality against Ethiopians have reached the media in recent years. The beating of a 21-year-old Ethiopian involved in a party fracas even after he was subdued was uploaded to YouYube in 2012. Interviewees in this segment complained back then that police harassment of Ethiopians had become routine. The alleged beating of 11-year-old David Mengistu was reported back in 2006 and the alleged assault on Getachu Ananeh by police officers was covered in January of this year.

The violence allegedly extends to the unjustified use of Taser guns. Police were accused of using the guns against two young Ethiopian men out buying cigarettes early this year, Jijau Bimro in 2012 and Yosef Salamseh in 2014. In the case of Salamseh, the police brutality was said to have prompted their subsequent deaths, or suicides, as some insist.

Throughout Monday's media coverage of Sunday's protest in Tel Aviv, interviewees explained their motivations for attending the demonstration by citing their personal experiences of police harassment.

The “bad apple” excuse allows the police to avoid the kind of internal soul-searching required to root out unacceptable police behavior, and avoid asking the questions that need to be asked: How racist are the police? Do officers act violently against Ethiopians because they believe they can do so with impunity? Is the ethnic genie at work here – are Mizrahi police officers (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) venting their own sense of oppression on a group that is below them on the societal pecking order? Does the presence of 47,000 black African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, and the relentless demonization of them by some government leaders, harden police attitudes toward Ethiopian-Israelis? How can the yin-yang of over-policing and under-policing in Ethiopian neighborhoods be averted?

The police presumably decided to permit the demonstration on Sunday night to let the Ethiopian community ventilate, confident they could contain the situation. But police could control neither the rage of young Ethiopians, nor their own tendency to overreact when confronting this population, deploying water cannons and stun grenades on the main thoroughfares of Tel Aviv in the same pattern of violent excess that led to the protest in the first place. To keep things in perspective, we should note that despite the disturbances, the level of vandalism and property destruction was minimal compared to what was witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore.

Some of the Ethiopian activists I know came away proud and amazed by the willingness of so many young Ethiopians to show up, to make themselves heard and put themselves on the line. Others came away furious, worried the violence will overshadow their just demands or damage the community’s image further, perhaps none were more upset than those who felt their protest was hijacked by small numbers of demonstrators who were out of control or deliberately sought provocations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the Fekadeh incident and met the met the soldier on Monday, as promised. Netanyahu did what we expected him to do: he hugged Fekadeh for a classic photo-op, and expressed his revulsion for what had happened to the young man. But following the violent events of Sunday night, in which several dozen officers and protestors were hurt and dozens of protestes were detained, Netanyahu decided to go the extra mile, and summoned leading Ethiopian activists and community leaders to join him. For three hours this afternoon, the prime minister, other ministers and his chief of police, Yohanan Danino, listened as Ethiopian-Israeli public figures, including NGO leaders and current and former Knesset members, shared their personal traumas of police harassment and intimidation.

Committees are being formed and real reform was promised at this meeting. But if the hard questions are not asked, if police behavior and attitudes are not drastically altered, if internal police investigations serve only to whitewash police brutality, and if we get more of the “bad apple” excuse, we may inch closer to our own Ferguson and Baltimore.

Don Futterman is the program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation working to strengthen the Ethiopian immigrant community in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.

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