Do Black lives matter in Israel?

May 13, 2015

Sarah Levy reports from Tel Aviv on the dynamics behind the protests by Ethiopian Jews against police brutality in Israel.

MORE THAN 5,000 people, mostly Ethiopian Israeli Jews, blocked a highway and major roads in Tel Aviv on May 3 to protest police brutality and discrimination that they face as Blacks in Israel.

The protesters effectively shut down the city for hours before marching to Rabin Square, where police deployed scores of stun grenades, water cannons and mounted police to violently disperse the demonstration. It was a scene unprecedented in recent history on the Israeli side of the Green Line, let alone in a central area of Tel Aviv.

The spark for the protests was a video released on April 26 of a Black Israeli Jewish soldier of Ethiopian descent who was attacked and beaten by several police officers for no apparent reason. Protesters say the video was simply the tipping point for years of anger and frustration harbored by many Ethiopian Jews about the discrimination they experience in Israel--despite the fact that they are both Jews and citizens.

As Waga, a young Ethiopian woman, said in an interview during the protest:

A Jewish Ethiopian demonstration against police brutality in Tel Aviv
A Jewish Ethiopian demonstration against police brutality in Tel Aviv (Sarah Levy | SW)

We [as Ethiopian Jews] feel pushed down in Israel. We feel that people don't hear us, they don't accept us in a lot of places just because we are Black...We're not saying that we're above the law, we're just saying that if we're good enough to go to the army, to go and die for the army, then we must be good enough to get jobs outside the army and for people to rent us houses...

This is the reason we are going out and saying, "Enough is enough--treat us in the same way." We're here in Israel, and we chose to come here--not to run away from Africa, but to be among the Jewish people. We didn't come here to find out that people don't believe we're Jews and to find out that color still matters in how a person is treated...It's sad that in 2015, we are still dealing with this issue of racism that is not supposed to be here in Israel.

IN A country of immigrants that ironically is rife with hate for those of African descent--African asylum seekers, for example, have been unapologetically referred to as a "cancer" by politicians--Ethiopians are entitled to different treatment for one reason: they are Jewish.

The first Jews from Ethiopia arrived in Israel in 1973 after a chief rabbi passed a Halachic law recognizing them as Jews. They came in three major migrations, two of which were orchestrated by the Israeli government after they had been forced to walk for months, desperate to leave the conditions of war and famine in Ethiopia for the possibility of a better life in what they saw as their Jewish homeland. Thousands died either on the journey or waiting to get in.

"We lost over 4,000 souls on the trek to Israel," writes Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, head of an Ethiopian rights organization in Israel. "Yet we kept on in order to realize our centuries-old dream of returning to our homeland. We are patriotic, and in spite of the terrifying war, no one would ever think of questioning why they came."

Yet even before they reached what they hoped would be the promised land, Ethiopian Jewish migrants faced dehumanizing treatment from the Jewish state--in contrast to the experience of European Jews who came before them. When Israel finally sent airplanes to bring them from Ethiopia, for example, the migrants were crammed into cabins where the seats had been removed, as if they were cargo or livestock.

Upon their arrival, the Ethiopians were forced to undergo further procedures to test and secure their "Jewishness"--again, a humiliation that European Jewish immigrants never faced. Men were forcibly circumcised a second time, and Ethiopian Jewish women were administered birth control injections without their consent or knowledge.

"When our parents arrived here, they were so naïve that they thought that because this is the land of the Jewish people, it wouldn't matter where you came from as long as you were a Jew, and you were coming to live in Israel," Waga told me. "But the truth is that shortly after we arrived here, we figured out that color is still something that matters."

Today, the Ethiopian community in Israel numbers around 135,000, many of whom were born in Israel and speak fluent Hebrew. This second generation has made up the bulk of the protesters who claim that even after 30 years, and after many have served with distinction in elite army units, they still face discrimination.

THE TOLL of such prejudice against Ethiopians in Israel can be measured in any number of ways. According to a 2012 Brookdale Institute report, 41 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli families live in poverty compared with 15 percent among the general Jewish population. The report also found that Ethiopian households earn 35 percent less than the national average, and only half of the community's youth receive high school diplomas, compared to 63 percent for the rest of the population.

The report also found that many landlords refuse to rent to Ethiopians on the basis of race, and journalists have noted a practice of white Israelis organizing to keep Ethiopian Jews out of their neighborhoods.

Protesters have additionally highlighted how, similar to the U.S., Black Jews in Israel are disproportionately represented in the prison population in Israel, constituting 30 percent of Israeli juveniles behind bars, although they make up only 2 percent of the population.

Another report revealed that a shocking 40 percent of Ethiopian men who serve in the army are sent to military prison during their service. The disciplinary measures often result from being marking "absent without leave" due to arriving late for duty--something is difficult to avoid when so many Ethiopians are compelled to work full-time jobs in order to survive on the $100 a month soldiers are paid.

All of these factors contribute to the unfair treatment many Ethiopians say they have faced at the hands of white Israeli police.

In a statement that echoes the anguished voices from Baltimore, Ferguson and African American communities across the U.S., one Ethiopian mother at the May 3 protest told the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz:

It's very hard for me. The kids go out at night, and we don't know how they'll come back--maybe having been beaten, maybe they'll call from the police station to come pick them up. I worry about them...Even if they did something wrong, there's no reason to beat or curse them.

"There is no other group that has suffered so many beatings, yet stayed silent in their suffering and tried to survive," said Ziva Mekonen-Dagu of the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, who was also at the protest. "It's very good this silence is ending now."

THE RELEASE of this pent-up resentment was catalyzed by the release of the video showing the Ethiopian soldier being beaten by police. Days after the video came out, Ethiopians held an April 30 protest in Jerusalem that drew 1,000 people and was met by violence from police, though not as intense as the crackdown on May 3.

In light of the Baltimore uprising that was unfolding at the same time, the Ethiopian protesters immediately drew the connection between their struggle in Israel and African Americans in the U.S., chanting "Baltimore is here!" and holding signs that read "Black Lives Matter."

Yet despite similarities, there are also major differences with the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., chiefly because the struggle of Ethiopian Israelis takes place in the context of a Jewish ethnocratic state that is based on racial exclusivity--in particular, the marginalization of Palestinians.

Perhaps most glaringly, the protests in Israel have been met warmly and enthusiastically by both "left" and right Israeli politicians, who have reached out to the protesters with open arms--literally and figuratively.

The day after the May 3 protest, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the soldier in the video, Damas Pakada, to apologize--and posted a photo of the two embracing on Twitter. "I was shocked by the pictures," Netanyahu wrote. "We cannot accept it...police will do whatever needs to be done to fix its conduct...We need to also fix Israeli society."

On May 4, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said that the outburst of Ethiopian protests had "exposed an open, bleeding wound in the heart of Israeli society" and that the country must respond to their grievances. "We must look directly at this open wound," he said. "We have erred. We did not look, and we did not listen enough...We aren't strangers to one another, we are brothers, and we must not deteriorate into a place we will all regret."

Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party and one of Netanyahu's coalition partners, even visited the protest in Tel Aviv on May 3.

As Zack Beauchamp wrote later, the supportive presence of Bennett--a politician known for his open racism against Palestinians--might seem like a contradiction to outsiders, "but Ethiopians are Jews, and that makes all the difference." Beauchamp continued:

Right-wing parties, the ones most skeptical of concessions to the Palestinians, have a history of building a support base among Israel's less-privileged Jews. Netanyahu's Likud, in particular, long relied on votes from Sephardic Jews, Jews of Arab and North African descent who have long been marginalized relative to the European-descended Ashkenazim. People who may not have much sympathy for Palestinians in the West Bank or Israel's Arab citizens feel very differently about Jewish minorities...This Zionist ideology inclines mainstream Israeli society to take the concerns of the Ethiopian community seriously. Harm done to them is harm done to Jews--which shouldn't be tolerated in the Jewish state.

THIS POPULAR mentality could be seen on May 3 as the protest made its way down major streets of Tel Aviv. Cars passing by honked in support, and Israelis clapped and cheered from their apartments stories above. Walking down Arlozov, I witnessed one white Ashkenazi-looking biker even join in the march.

As an anti-Zionist protester told me as we made our way with the march to Rabin Square, "It's strange to be marching and see people cheering from their windows, and to see drivers waving in support. When it's a demo in support of Palestine, we have eggs thrown at us."

At the protest, I talked to Michael Mashian, a middle-aged white Israeli man wearing a kippa and a suit, who stood out as one of the few white protesters who had been at the demonstration since the beginning and didn't appear to be an anarchist. He told me that he saw the mistreatment of Ethiopian Jews in Israel as something that needs to be corrected, but that he saw their plight as essentially part of the "birth pangs" of a relatively young state.

When I asked if he was surprised that Israel would discriminate against Jews, he replied:

Israel is not discriminating against Jews, definitely not. This is why we are all here together. This is not because of racism but has to do with lack of sufficient social integration, because [the Ethiopians] are a relatively new population to come to Israel. This is just part of integration. It's a process. Sometimes it gets a little dirty, but we're going to get it right.

According to Guy Ben-Porat, an associate professor at Ben Gurion University and author of a forthcoming survey on police-minority relations in Israel, Israeli popular support of the Ethiopians' protest has to do with how the latter's demands fit within the Jewish state.

Even though they feel that they're discriminated against and mistreated, Ethiopians "still have strong trust and faith in Israeli institutions," Ben-Porat told Vox News. "We explain this paradox by the fact that they really want to belong. They really want to be part of the Jewish collective."

In other words, Ethiopians in Israel are fighting for what they see as their fair share of the Zionist pie, not to declare and upturn the whole thing as rotten.

THE LIMITS placed on the Ethiopian protests--at least for now--by the constraints of the Zionist project also explains protesters' lack of solidarity with other non-Jewish oppressed groups in Israel--notably African asylum seekers, who number around 60,000 and come from mainly Eritrea and Sudan.

As Sheen noted in his article "Ethiopian-Israelis Protest Police Brutality, But Do Black Lives Matter, If They're Not Jews?" there were hardly any Ethiopian Jews at a Tel Aviv protest sandwiched between the two Ethiopian protests against the forced deportation of African asylum seekers, despite the seemingly shared circumstances of the two African immigrant communities.

Sheen added:

In Israel, Black Jews are just as likely to support the expulsion of the asylum-seekers as white Jews, and perhaps even more so. Though some would assume Ethiopians would empathize with other oppressed groups in Israel--especially their fellow Black Africans--this has overwhelmingly not been the case. While disappointing, it is hardly surprising: Palestinian people routinely note that out of all the occupation forces they face, Ethiopian-Israeli troops mete out some of the most vicious abuses.

As one anti-Zionist white Israeli who was there in solidarity commented to me at the march, "The Ethiopians are saying that they shouldn't be discriminated based on their skin color when they serve in the army...where they will go to discriminate and brutalize another group of people based on their skin color. It's contradictory."

These dynamics directly pose the question: Can a society that directs racism against an "external" enemy ever be genuinely antiracist on the domestic front?

Although politicians are professing their intention to end racism against Black Israeli Jews, Israeli society remains highly racialized internally. There are, in fact, a whole host of disturbingly racist policies in Israel, which should come as no surprise in a Jewish state that still depends on foreigners to do the less desirable jobs. Just one example is a 2003 "no sex" contract that Chinese workers for an Israeli company were forced to sign, promising they would not have sex with or marry Israelis as a precondition for getting a job.

Whether the Ethiopian Jews' protests in the last week have been inspiring and exciting is not in question. The fact that they have been able to raise the issue of racism and discrimination within mainstream discussion and the fact that the officers caught on video brutalizing the Black soldier are being held accountable shows that they are having an impact.

But the extent to which the protests can advance and not just dissipate like the cottage cheese uprising or Israel's Occupy of 2011 will depend on whether protesters can break out of the Zionist bubble and take up the question of solidarity with other oppressed groups in Israel.

As Sheen wrote:

Since the 130,000 Ethiopians in Israel only amount to about 2 percent of the population, the campaign to combat systemic racism will require forging alliances with other people of color, at home and abroad. It is still unclear how hardcore Black Lives Matter activists in the United States will respond to news of Ethiopian-Israelis adopting their war cries. But if African Jews hope to recruit allies in the U.S., they may have to confront the difficult question of why they aren't looking for local partners of color as well.

Daphna Thier contributed to this article.

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