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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.