Avera Mengistu and Issues of Racism in Israel

Ramat Eliyahu community showing support for the Free Avera Movement. (Photo Credit: Ethan H. Smith)
Ramat Eliyahu community showing support for the Free Avera Movement. (Photo Credit: Ethan H. Smith)

On the afternoon of September 7th, 2014, a mentally disabled Ethiopian-Israeli man left his Ashkelon home and headed for the Gaza Strip. By evening, he’d scaled the fences and disappeared, and his exact whereabouts are still a mystery. That man’s name is Avera Mengistu, and although at a glance, his story doesn’t seem like anything exceptional, Avera’s choice has started a nationwide movement for racial equality in Israel.

I first learned about Avera from my Ethiopian host family. The back wall of their apartment has a flag bearing his name, and there’s a sticker of his face pasted to their front door — something many of the doors in the building share. I asked what it meant, and this led to a conversation about politics, race, and the Free Avera Mengistu movement. They explained how it isn’t Avera’s disappearance itself that’s controversial — it’s Israel’s reaction to it.

For ten months, the Israeli courts prohibited any release of information about Avera — even to his family — and it was only after serious media pressure that they agreed to lift the gag order. It was revealed that Avera was likely being held by captive Hamas, and officials claimed going public with his situation could complicate their efforts to retrieve him. Yet, some people think the silence has nothing to do with rescue efforts, and that it’s Avera’s Ethiopian heritage which puts him on the bottom of Israel’s to-do list. “How would the state have treated him, and how would he have been treated within Israeli society… if Avera’s name was different, maybe if his color was different,” asked Knesset member Hilik Bar during a 2018 conference. Eilin Mengistu, Avera’s father, has also questioned Israel’s efforts to help his son, going so far as to call the debacle a conspiracy. “I ask, why don’t they tell us the whole story, everything that happened there? I ask from you, from the public and from the government, to help me.”

Although it’s uncertain whether the state is complicit in a cover up, the problem of white-on-black racism in Israel has long been approaching a boiling point, and in mid-January of this year, it began to spill over. After Israel Yehuda Biadga — a 24-year-old veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress — was killed by police during a questionable altercation, the community accused the officers of brutality and use of excessive force. The next week, thousands of protesters took to the Tel Aviv streets to voice their concerns and demand justice for Biadga. “We see time and again how the police use violence against youths of Ethiopian origin,” said social activist Avi Yalou. “Yehuda’s story illustrates even more how quick the police are on the trigger when it comes to Ethiopians.” Rachel Yosef — the woman who organized the protest — has also noticed a trend of bias and violence. “We aren’t against the police; this protest is so the police will be better. I want to be sure that when I have children, they can walk proudly.”

It’s a hope that my Ethiopian host sister, Maayan, shares. I asked her if she had any other recent examples of racism, and she laughed. “Just last night,” she told me. “Here. Right outside in the Gan. You didn’t hear it?” 

According to Maayan, at about 11pm, a group of Ethiopian teens and a few of their white friends met in the park outside our apartment buildings to chat over beers. These are kids I know personally — I work with them at the youth center, and they shouldn’t have been drinking, but they’re definitely not criminals. Maayan was by the living room window when a police cruiser pulled into the park. She watched the officers exit the car and immediately surround the Ethiopian boys, ordering them to take out their ID’s but ignoring the white boys on the benches beside them. She said the officers were harsh, and the Ethiopian boys were interrogated until they were finally given back their ID’s and ordered to go inside.

They went without question. If they’d argued, Maayan explains, the Ethiopians probably would have spent the rest of the night at the jail — a lesson some of them have learned the hard way. The white boys were also scolded and told to disperse, but the police didn’t card them, nor did they wait around to make sure they went home like they’d done for the Ethiopian boys. 

Maayan says these kinds of things happen everywhere. She and her friends get carded on the street without reason, and they can’t walk through white neighborhoods without a fear of having the police called on them. “We’re not bad people,” she told me. “The problem is the color of our skin. We get interviews for jobs we’re qualified for, but when they see us in person, we don’t get called back. We apply for apartments, but when we get there, they tell us to go somewhere else. I’ve been called dumb and a thief because I’m black. I’ve been told my food is disgusting because it’s different. They don’t like us because we are different.”

My host mother, Wor Kay, has also faced prejudice in her time here in Israel. She says she tries to shrug it off, but it still hurts, especially when it comes from the kids. A few years ago, Wor Kay volunteered in a Kindergarten as an aid. One Purim, she was excited to dress up in her traditional Ethiopian garments, but the kids did not share the sentiment. “They screamed and asked me to take it off. I asked them why. They said because it was from Ethiopia, and Ethiopians were bad, and Ethiopia was dirty and gross.”

The Ethiopians grapple with stigma and cultural misunderstandings everywhere they go, and right now, the race situation is at a questionable crossroads, but both Wor Kay and Maayan admit there’s been improvements — even if the process is slow. They were also quick to tell me how prejudice isn’t only a problem between whites and blacks. Ethiopians are racist against other Ethiopians. Arabs are racist against Arabs. Jews are racist against other Jews. They say it’s something nobody can escape, no matter where they go, but that everyone can fight it… and we should. 

Yehuda Biagda’s death is still fresh in the minds of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, and as for Avera, Israel forces still haven’t confirmed his whereabouts. The Ethiopians haven’t given up hope. In fact, these issues have helped them to find solidarity. They hang flags with Avera’s name on it. They place stickers on their front doors to show their support, and they march together through the streets to protest the injustices against them. The state of Israel has made great strides to address the problem, but racism is still rampant, and until everyone can walk the streets free from prejudice, it’s our responsibility to keep fighting against it.

About the Author
Ethan H. Smith is a graduate student, a writer, and an alumni of the Yahel Israel social change fellowship. He studies Peace and Conflict in Germany and works as an activist for communities across the globe.
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