In Israel Too, Young Black Men Face Police Racism and Brutality

Israel's police force's record of brutality and over-policing against Israelis of Ethiopian descent mean, just like their peers in the U.S., young black Israelis are growing up in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
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Ethiopian Israelis protest in Tel Aviv, June 22, 2015.
Ethiopian Israelis protest in Tel Aviv, June 22, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

Here is a section from a story written by an 11-year-old Israeli student of Ethiopian descent for an elementary school writing competition this spring. It is based on his personal experience:

The fat policeman said, “I think they came to break into a house here, because they’re Ethiopian criminals and we have to take them in for questioning and knock them around.” All the way to the police station we begged them to let us call our parents but they wouldn’t.

They took us to the interrogation room, where they hit us until we would tell them what we were “really” doing in that [wealthy] neighborhood. Every time, we told them the same thing – that we were running, we got tired, and sat down to rest on the bench. And every time, we were kicked or slapped again.

In the end, we despaired and refused to speak. Finally, the policemen got sick of us and let us go, warning us if we came with a kilometer of that neighborhood it would be the end of us.

A year ago, the viral video of an unprovoked beating by two police officers of Demas Fekadah, a decorated Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in uniform, set off demonstrations by the Ethiopian-Israeli community, in some of which police deployed outrageous riot control measures against a largely docile crowd.

Those protests led Prime Minister Netanyahu to convene a special police and Ethiopian community leaders and activists commission to outline necessary reforms.

A few weeks ago, an Israeli Channel 2 expose of the police whitewash of their brutalization of another young Ethiopian man, the late Yosef Salamseh, triggered another demonstration, which also turned violent.

Salamseh, who was never charged with any crime, had been tazered and left shackled and unconscious in a police station parking lot, and after a lengthy recuperation from his beating, went missing and was found dead in a quarry.

The Channel 2 segment convinced angry activists that the police had filed false reports and that the Police Internal Investigations Department had not properly investigated the family’s complaints.

“Each time a police officer engages us [African-Americans], death, injury, maiming is possible” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote to his son, in his vivid Pulitzer-Prize winning best-seller, Between the World and Me.

Coates essentially produced a book-length version of “the Talk” that African-American parents have with their sons, meant to warn young black men that they’re first considered a threat and a suspect by police officers, and only second, if ever, a citizen to be protected.

He writes about the terror he felt when the county police once pulled him over: “I knew that they [the police] shot Gary Hopkins and said he went for an officer’s gun, shot at moving cars, shot at the unarmed, shot through the backs of men and claimed that it had been they who’d been under fire. These shooters were investigated, exonerated, and promptly returned to the streets, where so emboldened, they shot again.”

Coates tells his son that his black skin makes him fair game at any time for any one in a blue uniform regardless of the circumstances, or for that matter, the color of the officer.

Do Ethiopian-Israeli parents need to have the same talk with their sons?

The numbers suggest that they do. According to an analysis by advocacy NGO the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ) [supported by the Moriah Fund where I work] of Israel Police figures, Ethiopian Israeli citizens are charged with assaulting police officers at a rate wildly disproportionate to their numbers.

The number of alleged assaults by Ethiopian-Israelis against police officers jumped from 364 in 2007 to 735 in 2015, during a period in which the number of total alleged assaults on officers by Jewish citizens remained stable.

In 2015 Ethiopian-Israelis were charged in 12% of all cases of alleged assaults on officers involving Jews, six times their proportion of the Jewish population in Israel (around 2%).

This is troubling because the charge of assaulting an officer is the standard tactic used by police to disguise instances of police brutality; the victim is put on the defensive and the judicial system almost always believes an officer.

Add to this an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and the practice by police of requesting expedited proceedings of assault charges which have the effect of sidelining investigation of the police brutality charges, and the deck is stacked against Ethiopian complainants.

This is not to say that all cases of alleged assault against police officers are actually instances of police brutality, or that Ethiopian-Israelis are always innocent.

But of 50 cases of alleged assaults selected and submitted for review by the Ethiopian legal aid and advocacy organization Tebeka (a grantee of the Moriah Fund) as an outcome of the PM’s commission, criminal charges were dropped in only five.

Recall too that the soldier Demas Fekadah was arrested for assaulting the officers who beat him up, and only the viral video led to dismissal of the charges and of one of the officers.

There is some good news. According to Tebeka director Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, a member of the commission, since May 2015 outreach efforts have yielded an additional 20 Ethiopian police officers; promotions raised the number of higher ranking Ethiopian officers from 27 to 44; 34 new positions were added for Amharic speaking officers at police hotline call centers; a pilot project of police donning body cameras in an Ethiopian neighborhood is set to launch next month; a special officer has been designated to monitor the use of tazers, and police promise to improve police-community relations through educational efforts and trust building.

When current police chief Roni Alsheich took office, he publicly admitted that there was “over-policing” of the Ethiopian community; i.e. an excessive level of harassment and arrests, rather than protection.

The steady stream of recorded incidents of police harassment of Ethiopian youth and young men that circulate on Israeli social media should make it clear that Alsheich is going to have to speak louder and clearer, and punish officers who harass or brutalize Ethiopian-Israelis, if he wants to avoid the violence now rocking America, and change the kind of stories Ethiopian children write.

Don Futterman is the program director, Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation which supports the two Ethiopian-led NGOs IAEJ and Tebeka. Don Futterman can also be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.

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