A police killing puts racism on the agenda. This time in Israel.

Why We Wrote This

United by religion, divided by race? When a policeman killed an Ethiopian Jew, it stirred outrage and protests that are forcing Israelis to confront anti-black racism as a real problem.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
A protester is detained by police at a demonstration in Jerusalem, July 15, 2019, against the death of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah, an Ethiopian Jew shot by an off-duty policeman on June 30. At right, the woman's T-shirt is labeled, "Solomon Tekah, of blessed memory."

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The covert operations that brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel decades ago are among the dramatic moments in the country’s history – a visceral realization of a biblical promise to gather together a nation of exiles. But their absorption and integration have been a challenge. Now, continuing protests over the police shooting of a young Ethiopian Jew are forcing Israelis who often give little attention to the tiny immigrant community to acknowledge that anti-black racism is real.

At a special session Monday of parliament, Speaker Yuli Edelstein said, “We need to honestly say that as a society and as a country, we have not done everything necessary for their integration,” saying there had been “sometimes racist or patronizing treatment because of their skin color.”

Michal Avera-Samuel, an Ethiopian community activist, says Israeli society needs to confront racism in a more direct way. “I’ve never heard of any policeman taking out their gun and shooting a white kid,” she says. She wants an independent inquiry into police behavior, an acknowledgment of anti-black racism, and educational programs to fight it.

Nevertheless she adds, “We are Zionists. We are building this country. We are all Jews. This is our nation. We don’t have another place.”

A scuffle breaks out at a community center employing black youths. An off-duty policeman intervenes, pulls out a gun, and opens fire, killing one of the teenagers.

The policeman later explains he felt threatened, but bystanders charge racism, triggering a wave of angry and violent protests.

It has the familiar ring of American urban tragedy. But the racially charged chain of events actually played out in an Israeli neighborhood with Ethiopian Jews, claiming the life of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah. The subsequent outrage has put anti-black racism and the socio-economic situation of the immigrant group on the country’s agenda.

Since the June 30 shooting, thousands of Ethiopians and supporters have demonstrated at major road junctions, snarling traffic for hours. In some incidents, protesters have thrown rocks at police and vandalized vehicles.

At a recent demonstration on a main drag in central Tel Aviv, protesters chanted “violent policemen should be inside [jail],” while invoking African American anti-racism protests by holding their arms above their heads with wrists crossed.

“It could have been my younger brother,’’ says Workalen Ananya, a 29-year-old customer service representative from the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. 

“We need a change. We need for there to be confidence between the police and the public,” she says. “It’s easy for the police to bug Ethiopian immigrants because it sees us as people without [strong] backing. We don’t have connections; we’re easy to shut up.”

The sudden mass arrival of Ethiopian Jews in Israel is considered one of the dramatic moments of the country’s history – a visceral realization of a biblical promise to gather together a nation of exiles.

Some 23,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel, many of them after walking for days in the desert, in jumbo jets in two covert operations seven years apart in the 1980s and ’90s. Thousands more trickled in over many years before and since. Today some 144,000 Ethiopians Jews live in Israel – more than one-third of them first-generation Israelis – making up 1.7% of the country’s total population.      

But the absorption and integration of the Ethiopians has been a challenge, and the newcomers have run up against discrimination and government neglect. A Bank of Israel report found that 35% of Ethiopian households in 2013 were living in poverty – nearly twice the national rate, but a substantial decline from 54% in 2003. An academic survey in 2011 found that 53% of Israeli employers preferred not to hire Ethiopian Jews.

Little focus on Ethiopians

On a deeper, more symbolic level, because the Ethiopians come from a population separated from the rest of the Jewish people for thousands of years, many Israeli Rabbinic authorities question the authenticity of their lineage. 

“There is a day-to-day difficulty for the Ethiopians that most people don’t appreciate. The general Israeli public doesn’t think about what is going on with the Ethiopians,’’ says Steven Kaplan, a sociology professor at Hebrew University who focuses on the Ethiopian Jewish community. “They are a small part of the population. There’s the Palestinians, Iranians, the economy, and parliamentary elections” that dominate the national spotlight. 

The current debate has stoked soul-searching in Israel: how to distill where the discrimination experienced by every other large wave of Jewish immigrants to Israel ends, and anti-black bigotry found in the United States and throughout the world begins.

At a special session Monday of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, Speaker Yuli Edelstein, himself an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, said Ethiopians and other immigrant groups have been forced to make extra efforts to break through glass ceilings in Israel.

“We need to honestly say that as a society and as a country, we have not done everything necessary for their integration – not just regarding home mortgages, but in the broader sense of sometimes racist or patronizing treatment because of their skin color,’’ Mr. Edelstein said.

A need to confront racism directly

But Michal Avera-Samuel, a community activist who runs Fidel, a nonprofit aimed at promoting the success of Ethiopian children in Israel’s education system, says that Israeli society needs to confront both institutional and casual racism in a more direct way. 

“I’ve never heard of any policeman taking out their gun and shooting a white kid. ... If a policeman gets violent with Ethiopian kids, there’s no punishment,’’ says Ms. Avera-Samuel.

At Monday’s special parliamentary discussion, an Ethiopian lawmaker from the opposition, Pnina Tamano-Shata, demanded a governmental commission of inquiry into the contemporary situation of Ethiopians.

Ms. Avera-Samuel says she wants an independent inquiry into police behavior, an acknowledgement of anti-black racism, and educational programs to fight it.

The gap between Ethiopians and wider society is due in part to a policy of settling the community in Israeli working-class neighborhoods, says the activist. That separation from Israel’s more affluent populations is why Ethiopians are commonly stereotyped as security guards or supermarket clerks, and why youths are deemed threatening, Ms. Avera-Samuel says.   

“The profiling is everywhere. We become suspects immediately. We tell youths, ‘You have to protect yourselves.’ We say, ‘When you see the police, go to the other side of the road.’

“Kids shouldn’t have to spend their summer vacation feeling that they’re not safe,” she says.

Right-left politics in the mix

The off-duty policeman said he fired his gun at the ground and did not target Mr. Tekah. On Monday he was released from house arrest, and he is expected to face charges of reckless homicide, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison.

The demonstrations in recent weeks aren’t the community’s first protests, but footage of Ethiopian demonstrators setting fire to cars, shattering windshields, and throwing rocks prompted criticism from some that the protesters had gotten out of control.

Sympathy for the plight of Ethiopian Jews usually cuts across Israel’s partisan divide. That changed somewhat in the recent uproar, with one right-wing lawmaker claiming the demonstrations were fanned by the New Israel Fund, a liberal nonprofit branded by the right as extremist and traitorous. Out on the streets of Tel Aviv, meanwhile, protesters blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I don’t think Israelis consider themselves to be racists. Their general view of the Ethiopian immigration is positive. I think that the process of integrating this group into Israeli society is a long process,’’ says Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli journalist and fellow at the Jewish Policy Planning Institute. “To deny that mistakes were made, or that skin color plays a role would be naive and foolish. But to say that everything is because of skin color is not fair and is inaccurate.”

Mr. Rosner says that the Israeli police department has made efforts in recent years to recruit more Ethiopian police officers. That said, Ethiopians account for 20% of the population of juveniles in detention.

Similarity to U.S.

Indeed, Ethiopian Israelis who follow racial tensions in the U.S. feel they are experiencing the same sort of discrimination from law enforcement officers. 

“Every time I meet a policeman, they stop you for nothing. They say, ‘What are you doing here?’’’ says Shmuel Berl, an Ethiopian comedian and filmmaker. He complains the reactions of Israelis can be patronizing and “hypocritical.”

“Israelis like to pretend,” he says. “They say, ‘Wow, is this happening here? Hate is not only against Ethiopians.’ They don’t want to see the truth. They’re asking us, ‘Why are you going crazy?’ But if someone shoots at you, you would also shout and scream.” 

Though they see present discrimination as similar to that in the U.S., Ethiopian Israelis draw a distinction between the roots of racism in Israel and those in the U.S. The legacy of slavery and segregation is not woven into the DNA of Israeli society, they say, and most still identify as patriotic members of Israel’s Jewish majority. 

“We don’t have a history of bad blood with Israeli society,’’ says Ms. Avera-Samuel. “We are Zionists. We are building this country. We are all Jews. This is our nation. We don’t have another place.”

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