Color does Matter: We don’t notice the Ethiopians

Anyone surreptitiously checking the number of children of Ethiopian origin in his or her child’s school class, anyone certain that the Ethiopian employee standing next to him is naturally the cleaner and not the manager – is tainted with racism. It is painful to be different, an ‘other,’ here in the State of Israel and until we realize and acknowledge that we all share an essential part in this pain, it will not fade.

Last week I participated in a meeting of the steering committee of the ‘Israeli Hope’ partnership. One of the speakers at the meeting, Kher Albaz, Joint Director of AJEEC (Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation), an organization active in promoting equal society in the Negev, quoted the words of the Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett, who said that “there is no such thing as ‘I am an ‘other” – the ‘other’ is the ‘other’ and I am me.” This quote of Bennett’s was intended to highlight the difference between him and his predecessor, Shai Piron, who had attempted to implement the “The ‘other’ is me” program.

Any attempt to reach a conclusion regarding which of the attitudes is more appropriate for us as such a polarized society, composed of a multitude of tribes and ideals is likely to result in a lengthy debate. Similarly, maybe the proposal to the next Minister of Education of a program entitled “to be different hurts” is a worthy idea. This, in light of the fact that it is apparent that in Israel of 2016, the color of one’s skin for example is undeniably a factor that renders its owner as “different”, accompanied as it inevitably is by a hostile attitude, especially if that color happens to be black.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered last week at the national Police Headquarters in Jerusalem in order to protest against the closure, by the Department of Police Investigations, of the file in the case of Yosef Salamsa. The demonstration was both stormy and emotional. One of the speakers, the social activist Yayo Abraham, spoke from the heart, mentioning names and stories of Ethiopian youth who have met their deaths during, or shortly after clashes with police.

Such was the case of Yosef Salamsa, a 22 year old young man of Ethiopian origin whose body was found in July 2014 in a quarry in Binyamina , close to his place of employment at the ‘Binyamina’ winery. The cause of death, whether suicide or as the result of a fall, remains a mystery.

Six months prior to his death, in March 2014, Salamsa had been sitting in a public park with his friends drinking beer. Police officers from the local Zichron Yaakov police station approached Salamsa and accused him of breaking into a nearby apartment. Salamsa denied the accusation. The officers subsequently electrocuted Salamsa with a ‘taser’ pistol, placed his hands and feet in handcuffs and drove him to the local police station. Family members who arrived at the station found Salamsa handcuffed and lying on the pavement.  The family claimed that his death is directly connected to the trauma and humiliation he experienced, and that his detention in March left him a broken man. Since the incident, Salamsa hardly left his house and never fully recovered.

The documented findings regarding Israelis of Ethiopian origin are, at best, extremely concerning  – the Ethiopian community in Israel comprises merely 2 percent of the general population, yet its share in the following contexts is significantly larger: 12 percent of the police files for assaulting a police officer are opened against members of the Ethiopian community; 30 percent of Ethiopian youth feel they are discriminated against by the police because of the color of their skin; 40 percent of the prisoners in the Ofek prison for minors are of Ethiopian origin.

Last April, the members of the Ethiopian community decided to break their silence. The dam was breached following the beating of a soldier of Ethiopian origin, Demas Fekadeh, at the hands of Special Police Patrol Unit officers. They have since organized a number of demonstrations, some of them notably large and emotive. The pain, accumulated over years, finally erupted. The searing sense of discriminatory and violent treatment based on their skin color could no longer be overlooked.

A year and four months have passed since Avraham Mangisto, a thirty year old mentally unstable man crossed the border to Gaza and was taken captive by Hamas. He disappeared in September 2014 but the story of his abduction was only published in the media 10 months later. During that period, the security authorities asked his family to remain silent, claiming that any publicity would damage the attempts to free Avraham. It would seem that the sole justification for this claim was the family’s Ethiopian origin.

This is precisely the point at which the reader of this column must surely be proclaiming his or her astonishment and abhorrence at the severity of this state of affairs, the racism of the police and the discriminatory and condescending attitude on the part of the security authorities. It is also however precisely the moment at which we should look at ourselves in the mirror and understand that most of us are tainted with racism – anyone checking the number of children of Ethiopian origin in his or her child’s class, the number of Ethiopian residents in the building in which he is considering buying an apartment, anyone passing by sanitary workers of Ethiopian origin without really noticing them, all those convinced that the Ethiopian employee standing next to them must surely be the cleaner and not the manager.

It is painful to be different,an ‘other’ here, in the State of Israel, and until we realize and acknowledge that we all share an essential part in this pain, it will not fade.

Miri Shalem is the CEO of the Institute for Zionist Strategies. This column is being translated from her weekly column in Makor Rishon.

About the Author
Miri Shalem is CEO of the Institute for Zionist Strategies and an activist for social change for women. Her activities in this field include organizing the national dance conference for Orthodox women and initiating a flashmob protest by Bet Shemesh women against gender segregation in the public space. She worked to establish a women's counseling center in Beit Shemesh, for which she won the Yaffa London Award in 2012. Prior to her current position, Miri was the Director of the Ramat Beit Shemesh Community Center where she was the founder and the chairperson of the city's Women's Council. Two years ago, she was one of the heads of the campaign of Eli Cohen, a mayoral candidate in Bet Shemesh. Miri is a board member at Kolech and Shaharit and a columnist for "Makor Rishon". She is also a member of President Reuven Rivlin's "Israeli hope" steering committee. She has a BA in Economics and Political Science and an MA in Gender Studies. Miri has lived in Beit Shemesh for almost twenty years and, despite the city's difficulties, reaffirms daily her choice to stay there and continue her activism. She is married and a mother of 4.