Opinion |

Treating Shooting Death of Ethiopian Israeli as 'Exception' Is the Wall Defending Institutionalized Racism

Guy Ben-Porat
Guy Ben-Porat
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Protesters confront police during demonstrations near Kiryat Ata, July 2, 2019.
Protesters confront police during demonstrations near Kiryat Ata, July 2, 2019.Credit: Rami Shllush
Guy Ben-Porat
Guy Ben-Porat

The police’s reaction to another killing of an Ethiopian-Israeli teenager – “the incident is being investigated” – is predictable and wrong for many reasons. The establishment’s reaction to police violence, not only in Israel, follows similar patterns.

First comes a sweeping denial, a claim that there was no police violence at all. Second, when the violence is documented and reported in the media, the victims are blamed: “They” behaved violently, the police responded “proportionately” or were defending themselves. Third, when the evidence makes it impossible to deny or deflect the blame, the incident is described as “exceptional” or “local”: A policeman or a few policemen deviated from the rules and will be punished.

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The police’s internal investigations range from describing police violence as reasonable to describing it as exceptional, and from exonerating a policeman or a few policemen to conviction. It doesn’t touch on the elephant in the room – institutionalized racism.

The fact that in Israel there is institutionalized racism against people of Ethiopian descent (and Arab citizens, of course) is not denied. A few years ago the government formed a committee “to eliminate racism against people of Ethiopian origin” (we’re still waiting for a committee that will address racism against Arab citizens). There was even a special team at the Justice Ministry to deal with the issue.

Institutionalized racism is both overt and covert, found in the daily practices of the government and its institutions. It’s reflected in the ongoing failure of their efforts to provide equal and professional treatment to everyone regardless of their color, religion or origin. Police violence is the tip of the iceberg, and decent people find its overt expression difficult to ignore. That’s why an investigation of “exceptional” incidents, as professional as it may be, isn’t enough.

The death of Freddie Gray, a young black man from Baltimore, while he was in police detention, had a different outcome from that of many previous incidents – not an investigation into the angle of the shooting or the use of force during detention, but a special Justice Department committee that examined the police's conduct.

The document written by the committee, which is available online, should be read by anyone considering police reform in Israel. The investigators examined the practices of the Baltimore Police Department – where arrests are made, who is arrested and the outcome of every arrest.

The conclusions were unequivocal, this is institutionalized racism, or in the words of the report: “BPD’s targeted policing of certain Baltimore neighborhoods with minimal oversight or accountability disproportionately harms African-American residents. Racially disparate impact is present at every stage of BPD’s enforcement actions.”

In Israel, a place where white Jews see isolated incidents, others see systematic and institutionalized racism that’s not limited to a policeman or even the police force. It’s linked to the whole society. The “exception” or the “localized incident” is the wall that defends institutionalized racism and enables anyone who is not a potential victim of police violence to repress the reality.

The next demonstration will also be a protest by “Ethiopians” (or Arab citizens). The investigation of the incident, whatever its conclusions, will at most lead to the punishment of an isolated policeman. But to address institutionalized racism we need much more: solidarity, social commitment and a demand to accept responsibility. We can start with the minister in charge, the public security minister. His name is Gilad Erdan.

Prof. Guy Ben Porat teaches in the Public Policy and Administration Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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