Do black lives matter in Israel? Ethiopian Jews protest racism and police brutality

DAVID SHEEN | 5/21/2015, 5:43 p.m.

Just as African-American activists have taken to the streets in recent months, decrying anti-Black brutalities by the police, their African-Israeli counterparts have launched a parallel protest in recent days, calling for an end to racial discrimination in the Holy Land.

April 30, thousands of Ethiopian-Israelis faced off with police in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence, and three days later, thousands more converged on Tel Aviv, blocking 10 lanes of traffic on the country’s busiest thoroughfare for hours. In the fracas that followed outside Tel Aviv City Hall, Israeli police used tear gas, shock grenades and pressurized foul-smelling water to quell the disturbances. In subsequent days, cities with substantial Ethiopian populations, including Haifa, Ashkelon and Beersheba, saw local protests.

The immediate trigger for the Ethiopian uprising was an uproar over a viral video in which Israeli police officers are seen beating Ethiopian-Israeli soldier Damas Pakada in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. In the short clip, no apparent reason for the attack can be discerned, other than the soldier not moving with sufficient speed after being instructed to leave the residential area. After the furor that followed the video’s release, Israeli police said that the officer in question would be fired, but as of press time he remains on the force.

“We are talking about how the authorities conceive of things,” Ethiopian-Israeli scholar and blogger Hananya Vanda told the New York Amsterdam News. “An Ethiopian, simply by virtue of his existence, becomes a problem. He is perceived of as a problem. “Everywhere you go, a police officer will come to arrest you.”

Many protesters have also cited the beating of another young Ethiopian-Israeli man at the hands of police as a major grievance. In March 2014, Israeli officers beat and tasered 22-year-old Yosef Salamsa, and then left him on the ground in a police parking lot for hours before allowing him to receive medical assistance. Months later, Salamsa was found dead, and although his family suspected foul play, police pressured them to bury their son without first laying eyes on his body. In January 2015, a cross-country march to the capital by Salamsa’s family and friends planted the seeds for the current wave of Ethiopian protests.

“Though you want to deny it, you can’t,” Salamsa’s brother, Asher, told the Amsterdam News on the opening leg of the journey to Jerusalem. “This is the reality, this racism exists. Wherever you go, there is racism. But you see it especially from the police. They can attack anyone, but it’s easier for them to attack a minority.”

After the demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Netanyahu met with the soldier whose assault was captured on video and vowed that justice would be done.

For many Ethiopian protestors, the community’s complaints extend beyond police brutality. Half of Ethiopian-Israeli families and two-thirds of Ethiopian-Israeli youth live below the poverty line, according to Molad, the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy. The recent revelation that some Ethiopian Jews were coerced into taking birth-control injections to be eligible to immigrate to Israel, and that this contributed to the halving of the Ethiopian-Israeli birthrate in only a decade, remains a source of outrage.

The last time that Ethiopian-Israelis held large protests against anti-Black racism was in January 2012, after it emerged that residents of an entire neighborhood in the Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi signed a secret pact promising that none of them would sell or rent their apartments to Israelis of African origin. “Frequently we have all these incidents connected to racism,” Vanda says. “There are protests, and then it happens all over again.

After the protest, they go to the authorities, they meet with the prime minister. He makes his promises, he takes a selfie with the victims, and then it happens all over again.”

Esther Vorknach, 25, one of the Ethiopian-Israelis who protested in Tel Aviv until the early hours of the morning May 4, describes a despair she says is common among community elders. “Our parents, from the moment they immigrated, they anticipated arriving in a land of milk and honey,” Vorknach told the Amsterdam News. “It’s really difficult to see them disappointed. Their disappointment really frustrates us.”

While renewed protests by Ethiopian Jews have triggered a national conversation about anti-Black racism in Israel, this discourse has omitted another dark-skinned population of East African origin that also claims to be treated unfairly by Israeli authorities. Approximately 65,000 Christians and Muslims, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, entered Israel between 2006 and 2012, seeking refuge, but the state has been loathe to grant them official status. Thus far, Israel has granted refugee rights to just four Eritreans and no Sudanese.

Government officials insist that the vast majority of these Africans migrated to Israel for economic reasons and that no harm would befall them if they were repatriated. To induce the Africans to emigrate, Israel has used both carrot and stick. On the one hand, it has offered the migrants sums of up to $3,500 to board a flight back to Africa; on the other hand, it has rounded up thousands of migrants in Israeli cities and placed them in desert detention centers to pressure them to accept its terms. A January 2014 poll by the Israeli newspaper with the highest circulation showed that the vast majority of Israeli Jews support these policies.

If Ethiopian Jews are disliked by some Israelis because of their race, the African asylum-seekers are despised by even more Israelis, because of both their race and their religion. “People hate the refugees because of their skin color, for the same reason they hate us,” says Vorknach. “But I think that people are often okay with harassing them precisely because they are not Jews. I often hear all kinds of comments like ‘They’re not Jews, so we’re allowed to crack their heads. They’re not Jews, so we’re allowed to crush them.’”

Widespread antipathy toward the asylum-seekers bleeds into anger toward those few Israeli Jews who advocate on their behalf, causing some to keep their sympathies to themselves. “All day on the Internet, whoever support the refugees, the Sudanese and Eritreans, people wish death upon them,” said Vorknach, one of the few Ethiopian-Israelis who openly supports the asylum-seekers. “People want to help others, but just because of their ethnicity, they have to hide it.”