A Very Israeli Protest

Protesting police violence against Ethiopians, July 2, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

The protests by Israelis of Ethiopian descent are a badly needed wake-up call for every Israeli. A large number of the demonstrators are youths born in Israel, into a reality of discrimination. Every one of them can tell you at length and with pain in their eyes about the racist epithets they hear at work, in leisure or while walking on the street. On this backdrop come the latest protests, even if the immediate catalyst behind them was the police killing of Solomon Teka in Kiryat Haim.

The violence accompanying the protests has been severe, including vandalism and setting cars on fire, and resulted in dozens of people injured. But along with the criticism that it deserves, we must understand that the violence is as great as the anger. It’s not just against police violence but against racist patterns in other areas of life. The more important challenge is to confront the racism, which has been cultivated in recent years by Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. It cannot only be an Ethiopian protest; the struggle must be a common one that crosses community and ethnic lines.

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Over-policing based on racist profiling and nasty remarks in the public sphere are not just personal stories for many demonstrators. So is dropping out of school and living on the margins of society. These reflect an institutionalized pattern under which Israelis of Ethiopian descent are judged and measured, first and foremost, by the color of their skin. “The trouble is we aren’t viewed as human beings,” one protester said in Tel Aviv. This is a serious indictment, and it shows just how much Israel has neglected the principle of equality, as anchored in the Declaration of Independence, court decisions and basic rules of decency.

Further testimony can be found in the report issued by the Justice Ministry’s Unit for Coordinating the Struggle Against Racism some three months ago. The unit received 230 complaints in 2018 (compared to 75 a year earlier), which related mainly to discrimination in employment and the receipt of services, racist remarks and publications, police conduct and the education system. Forty percent of these complaints were filed by citizens of Ethiopian origin; 32 percent were filed by Arabs. “Racism exists in Israel and its establishment,” wrote Justice Emeritus Elyakim Rubinstein, head of the public council that works with the unit.

The report makes clear that we need urgent systemic change in employment, education, police and the religious establishment. Moreover, while the government assigned the authority of the unit fighting against racism, it has so far refrained from anchoring its authorities in law. This is a topic worthy of urgent attention for the ministerial committee for the advancement of Ethiopian immigrants, which Netanyahu initiated on Tuesday, as he hastened to do during previous rounds of protests.

Ethiopian Israelis and their descendants have experienced arrogance and discrimination for two generations. Their protest confirms it for Israeli society: Preventing racism is an existential need.