Ethiopian-Israelis Protest Police Violence in a Divided Israel

The police killing of an unarmed black teenager has brought racial tensions to the surface. But solidarity is in short supply.

Arianna Skibell
July 12, 2019
Memorial service in Haifa for Solomon Tekah, July 10th, 2019. Photo: Emily Glick

THE FATAL POLICE SHOOTING of an unarmed Ethiopian-Israeli, 18-year-old Solomon Tekah, on June 30th in the northern city of Haifa sparked a wave of demonstrations across Israel. For days, thousands of mostly young protesters blocked major roads in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, clashing with police and demanding accountability. Dozens were injured, and more than 100 were arrested

Following the Jewish week-long mourning period of shiva, protests resumed last week when about 1,000 demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv to march from Azrieli Junction to Rabin Square. Demonstrators chanted and sang. Many held signs bearing slogans like, “Mother, don’t let me be the next victim,” “Our lives are not worthless,” and “Black lives matter.”   

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his sympathies and said all of Israel is with the Ethiopian community, activists and others contend that Tekah’s death is the result of a larger systemic issue that words alone cannot resolve. 

“We struggle against not only the killing, it’s more deep, it’s about racism,” says Avi Yalou, an Ethiopian-Israeli activist who works on a variety of social justice issues in Israel. “It’s difficult to explain what it means to be a black person in Israel.” 

Tekah’s death has reignited calls to end what many in the Ethiopian-Israeli community see as institutional racism and discriminatory policing. It has also highlighted the painful history of the Ethiopian experience in Israel and sparked a conversation about the complex nature of race and collective identity in a largely segregated society.

After a rabbinic ruling declared Ethiopian Jews direct descendants from the biblical tribe of Dan, Israel launched two clandestine airlift missions in the 1980s and ’90s to bring tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Through Operation Solomon in 1991, Israel airlifted 14,000 Ethiopians Jews within 36 hours. While Israelis hailed the airlift as a massive success, Ethiopians have struggled ever since to gain acceptance and social and economic security, and have been frequently mistreated by the police.

Israel’s Internal Investigations Department confirmed last week that the off-duty police officer who shot and killed Tekah fired at the ground, and the bullet ricocheted into Tekah. Officials said they are not inclined to charge the officer, whose identity is being withheld, with manslaughter, but instead with a disciplinary offense. He was released from custody and put under house arrest a day after the incident. 

Ziva Reuven Kabeda, an Ethiopian-Israeli activist and psychodrama therapist, is the mother of two children in Netanya. In the wake of Tekah’s death, she says she is not sure how to speak to her children about the police. 

“I’m asking myself what kind of education and preparation am I giving them,” she says, speaking through a translator. “When they go outside, should I say watch out for strangers and watch out for police? That doesn’t seem right because the police are also there to protect you.” 

David Ratner, a senior researcher at the Israeli Ministry of Education and a sociologist specializing in the Ethiopian-Israeli community, says police brutality and racial profiling are among the most pressing concerns for Ethiopian-Israelis right now. According to data analyzed by the Association of Ethiopian Jews, Ethiopian-Israelis are targeted by police at higher rates than other Jewish Israelis. 

“They are stopped on a daily basis, especially the young adolescent males,” Ratner said. “They are questioned [by police] and they can end up with anything from a criminal file opened for them up to being beaten, like the tragic case of Yosef Salamsa.” 

In 2014, two policemen tasered 22-year-old Yosef Salamsa and left him outside a police station in the northern city of Zichron Yaakov. A few months later, Salamsa was found dead, having apparently taken his own life. The criminal investigation against the police was eventually closed. 

Prior to last week, the previous round of Ethiopian-Israeli protests against police violence erupted in 2015 when two police officers assaulted an Ethiopian soldier, Damas Pakado, in uniform in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. The incident, which appeared to have been unprovoked, was caught on film. The offending officer was later fired, and the police chief announced he would establish a council of police and Ethiopian community leaders to improve relations. 

While ceasing racial profiling within the police force is a top policy priority for Yalou, he says the disappearance of Ethiopian-Israeli Avera Mengistu remains for him the most devastating manifestation of unequal care, concern, and allocation of national resources. 

In 2012, Mengistu, who was 28 at the time of his disappearance and suffering from mental illness, crossed the border into Gaza. He was captured and remains, presumably, imprisoned by Hamas. 

“We talk about racism against our community, and I want to remind everyone about our brother in Gaza,” Yalou says. “No one talks about it. We need to bring him home.” By contrast, when Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured and held by Hamas militants in a border raid in 2006, there was a national outcry. Then-Interior Minister Roni Bar-On warned Hamas on national radio that “the sky will fall on them” if Shalit was harmed or killed. He was released in a prisoner exchange in 2011.

Ethiopian-Israelis have also faced other forms of discrimination. In the mid-1990s, Ethiopians were outraged to discover Israel was throwing away their donated blood for fear it might be HIV-positive. And in 2012, reports emerged that women immigrating from Ethiopia were told by authorities they would be denied entry unless they agreed to be injected with Depo Provera, a long-acting birth control drug. 

Additionally, the rates of domestic violence, divorce, and suicide are higher for Ethiopian-Israelis compared to other sectors of society. There are significant gaps in employment and income rates between Ethiopian-Israelis and the general Jewish population. And a significant percentage of Ethiopian-Israelis have comparatively little or no formal education. 

While the general public has expressed concern and offered sympathy to the Tekah family, many Israelis lost patience for last week’s demonstrations when pockets of violence erupted, injuring police, bystanders, and protesters alike. 

Netanyahu said Tekah’s death was a tragedy, but called for the “rule of law” to be enforced. 

“We cannot see the violent blocking of roads. We cannot see firebombs, and attacks on police officers, citizens and private property. This is inconceivable and the police are deployed accordingly to prevent this,” he said in a statement. 

Dror Rubin, who works with Jewish and Arab youth in periphery towns where non-Ashkenazi immigrants are encouraged to settle, says initially people felt emotional solidarity with the protesters. 

“But when the demonstrations became violent they really lost in the battle of public opinion,” he says. 

ETHIOPIAN JEWS make up a particularly small community within Israel’s diverse, ethnically divided society. And while other groups, such as Mizrahi Jews, the ultra-orthodox, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, asylum-seekers, and Palestinians have all reported varying degrees of structural discrimination and disenchranchisement, there have been few solidarity efforts between these groups. 

Ratner says that while it’s true that each of these minority groups is marginalized to varying degrees, there are important structural differences that divide them. 

“It has to do with Israel’s specific political structure and political culture,” he explains. “It’s the basic premise of the definition of the collective. And the collective here is defined as a Jewish collective.”

This means, he adds, that Palestinians are the “absolute other.” “They are not a part of the collective, so for most of the [Israeli] population, solidarity is out of the question,” he says. 

But the question of Jewishness has also plagued the Ethiopian community, albeit in very different ways. 

“The community had to fight for its right to immigrate to Israel and, from the moment they arrived, had to fight for their right to be recognized as Jews,” says Elliot Glassenberg, the co-chair of Right Now, which advocates for asylum-seekers in Israel. 

Starting in the 1980s, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate required Ethiopian immigrants to undergo a conversion ceremony, and in some cases, re-circumcisions. The Ethiopian community opposed this policy, which they said disregarded their authentic Jewish practice, and began refusing to comply. In 1985, the policy was changed, requiring the conversion only for Ethiopian Jews who married through the Rabbinate. Today, the Rabbinate asks for proof of lineage and makes decisions on a case-by-case basis. 

The authenticity of Ethiopian Judaism again came under question as recently as last year, when an investigation revealed that Barkan Winery, in seeking a stricter Kosher certificate, had stopped allowing its Ethiopian employees to work in production, saying only Jews can come into contact with the wine.  

Kabeda says while there hasn’t been much solidarity between minority groups in Israel, she certainly sees a place for that work. 

“It’s very important,” she says. “This is a story of marginalized populations like Arabs, Mizrahim, migrant workers, and the LGBTQ community.”

She says she and her friends were recently talking about this issue and trying to understand why there isn’t more cross-cultural collaboration. Ultimately, however, “everyone in their individual group is fighting for their own lives. It would be the right thing if we could all work together but right now everyone is working on their own issue,” she says.

Rubin cautions not to overlay an American framework on Israel. While there are examples of intersectional solidarity in the US—like recent actions with Jews and Japanese American internment survivors protesting the detention camps at the US–Mexico border—in Israel, issues of citizenship, religion, race, and ethnicity often feel insurmountably divisive.

“It might sound logical that weakened societies should cooperate with each other to [counter] discrimination, but unfortunately it’s not going to happen because the Ethiopian Jews don’t want to be connected with the Arab stuggle,” Rubin says. “You can’t separate the Arab stuggle [within the 1948 borders] from the Palestinian struggle in the West Bank and Gaza.” 

Kabeda says for her the issue of civil rights for Arab-Israelis and the conflict in the West Bank and Gaza are totally separate. 

“There are the issues that are relevant to citizens and then there’s the national or political issue of the conflict and they are very different,” she says. “If you ask me about my political opinions, that’s a whole different story. We’re talking about citizen rights and they have the same rights I have, and we should all be treated the same way.”  

Ahmad Abu Ahmad, a Palestinian citizen from Nazareth and a law graduate in Jerusalem, sees it differently. He says that while he feels the recent protests were valid and just, he would not participate. 

“For me as a Palestinian, it’s hard to fully identity with that. I’m also a victim of systematized violence, but many times this violence comes from Ethiopian men, from Ethiopian cops and Ethiopian soldiers, so it’s really tricky,” he says. 

“They want to fight violence but still be a part of the system. They want to be identified as Israeli equal citizens at the expense of the natives. My goal is not to be part of the Israeli collective identity. I cannot stand against violence while I’m standing next to people who are being violent against me in some way.” 

Abu Ahmad added that if Palestinians protested in the same manner, they would be met with much more force. “If Arabs did this, I can guarantee you on every intersection that was blocked you’d have five, six people killed. In 2000, people were killed with snipers,” he says. 

In 2000, Palestinian citizens launched a series of demonstrations in Arab cities and towns in the north of Israel to protest police violence. Police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition, including sniper rifles. Thirteen Palestinians were killed. 

Glassenberg says he would like to see more solidarity with Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, considering racism has, in certain ways, tied the Ethiopian struggle to the refugee struggle, and there have been a number of incidents of Ethiopians being harassed because they are mistaken for Eritrean or Sudanese refugees. There are currently about 33,000 asylum seekers in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, who crossed the border between Egypt and Israeli hoping to escape war and humanitarian mistreatment. Just last week, a central Israeli municipality denied school enrollment to 129 children of Eritrean asylum seekers. 

Kabeda says she does not have faith in this government to address issues of civil rights and discrimination in Israel. She says was appalled when, a few years ago, Israeli Police Chief Roni Alsheich said it was natural for police to be more suspicious of Ethiopians because research shows immigrants are disproportionately involved in crime. 

“The whole country heard this,” she says. “When a government employee says something like this and the government doesn’t say anything in response that shows they agree with him and reinforces the idea that it is normal to be suspicious of an Ethiopian walking down the street.”

Glassenberg says in certain ways racism is more tolerated in Israeli discourse. There are separate education systems for secular Jews, religious Jews, and Palestinian citizens. Palestinians in East Jerusalem, while permitted to vote in municipal elections, cannot vote in national ones. In the northern city of Afula, whose municipality has pledged to keep the town’s “Jewish character” intact, Arab residents have been prohibited from entering a public park. Segregation is considered a valid way to structure society. 

“When racism is acceptable in certain ways, it trickles down in other ways,” he says.

Arianna Skibell is a journalist based in Durham, NC. She currently writes about climate change for Politico.