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Needed: A heavy dose of goodwill

Israeli society is unstable because so many suffer from harassment over their nationality, ethnic origin, sex, or political persuasion
Police detain protesters at a rally against police violence following the death of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah in Tel Aviv, July 3, 2019. (Neuberg/ Flash90)
Police detain protesters at a rally against police violence following the death of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah in Tel Aviv, July 3, 2019. (Neuberg/ Flash90)

A week has passed since the senseless killing of Solomon Tekah, the latest casualty of Israel’s unconscionable treatment of its citizens of Ethiopian extraction. Is his death, much like that of his fellow Ethiopian-Israeli Yehuda Biadga in February, just another instance of the wholesale diminution of this proud Jewish community, which came to Israel to fulfill their 2,000-year-old dream of living in Zion? Or will it prove to be the long-overdue turning point in the painful — yet absolutely necessary process of uprooting the climate of separation, suspicion and bigotry that has gradually permeated all parts of Israeli society?

The answer to this critical puzzle is still up in the air. But if the experience of the past few days is any indication, the struggle of Ethiopian Jewry for dignity, respect, equality, and justice will once again be buried under a pile of cynical misinformation and diversionary measures. This trend can be reversed only if those Israeli citizens who identify with the outrage of members of this community also understand that it constitutes a microcosm of Israeli society as a whole. The amelioration of its standing, like that of other consistently discriminated groups, requires a thorough revamping of the norms and structures of Israeli society today. From this perspective, the rectification of the wrongs heaped on Ethiopian-Israelis is an integral part of the broader task of healing the Israeli social scene in its entirety.

The wave of protests that erupted immediately following the news of the tragic death of Solomon Tekah at the hands of a police officer exposed the tortured experiences of black Israelis — and especially those of the generation born and brought up in this country. Alongside substantial improvements in education, employment and personal mobility, they have repeatedly suffered from harassment and intolerance driven by ignorance and unsubstantiated fears.

In 2015, a video showing the beating of an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier, now Lt. Damas Pakada, caused a public uproar. Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed a commission headed by Ministry of Justice director-general Amy Palmor to review the treatment of Ethiopian Jews. Its findings sent shockwaves throughout the system. Members of the community were subject to constant over-policing: they were more likely to be stopped, apprehended, investigated, brutalized, charged with petty crimes and incarcerated than virtually any other group in the country. Fifty-three recommendations followed; only a handful have been fully implemented.

As the heartrending testimonies that have flooded the media and social networks in recent days reveal, constant overt and subtle acts of belittlement and discrimination are an integral part of the everyday life of Israelis of Ethiopian origin. They cannot but be hurt to the core by the looks, comments and actions of many of their fellow citizens. They constantly face insensitive bureaucrats. They are particularly alienated from the authorities and the politicians responsible for overseeing these actions. All this pain, disenchantment and pent-up anger exploded last week in the spontaneous outbursts that rocked the country.

Sadly, the initial empathy of large segments of the Israeli population quickly gave way to orchestrated manipulations designed to divert attention from the situation at hand and from those responsible for its increasingly ugly manifestations. The official retreat began with the depiction of Tekah’s death as a tragic, yet isolated, incident which will be thoroughly investigated — as if it was completely dissociated from a fairly long history of overly-zealous policing in the past. The silence of the upper echelons of the government, and especially the prime minister, was designed to add weight to this narrative.

The official quiet was broken only after the protests continued and some took a violent turn. Then Mr. Netanyahu led the way by condemning the clashes and instructing police forces to restore public order. Those caught in the long traffic jams chimed in to complain of the inconveniences they experienced, announcing that the demonstrators “lost their sympathy” — as is if they had ever enjoyed it in the first place. The groundwork was thus laid for the delegitimization of the participants and of their cause. When belated efforts to converse with these enraged citizens failed and promises to convene a new commission to deal with discrimination against Ethiopian Jews failed to calm the charged atmosphere, a renewed wave of protests was (at least temporarily) stemmed only through the explicit request of the bereaved family.

During the subsequent hiatus, the entire issue has been purposefully politicized. Nir Barkat, one of the so-called rising stars of the Likud, blamed the New Israel Fund for the violence of the protests. Netanyahu’s son, Yair, followed suit: “Everything that happened this week was fueled by the New Israel Fund and Standing Together with German money.” It was as if the profound offense felt by Ethiopian Jews did not exist; that the activists were merely puppets of subversive forces bent on discrediting the Likud leadership; and that the resort to force undermined any justifiable claims. One Ethiopian leader, Avi Yalou, summarily dismissed these charges: “You can go on spreading lies and falsehoods about the NIF and German money, but you, too, know it has no connection to reality. Our struggle…is an existential struggle to live in equality and security.” Other activists echoed these sentiments, highlighting the fact that the time-worn tactics of attributing guilt by association (the New Israel Fund has supported organizations of Ethiopian Jews for the past three decades) would not shake their determination to bring about justice for their fellow Ethiopian citizens of Israel.

The attempt to politicize the Ethiopian cause (even though the bulk of the community has traditionally voted for the Likud) is intended to serve several purposes simultaneously. First, by presenting the struggle in partisan terms, it weakens its appeal in broad segments of Israeli society. Second, by transforming it into a seemingly left-right issue, it undermines its basic veracity. And third, it thereby removes responsibility for the appalling state of affairs from the present government and shifts it to its opponents during a particularly sensitive election period. Unfortunately for them, this strategy contains one fatal flaw: the implication that the protestors are emissaries of the current opposition underlines the fact that the government, indeed, bears full responsibility for the breakdown of efforts to provide safety and equity for all its citizens — whether of Ethiopian or any other origin.

This process of distortion of the palpable anguish of an entire community cannot so easily be brushed away by such arguments or by conscious attempts to highlight other matters (brewing unrest along the borders, more confrontations with Palestinians, a resurgence of the Iranian threat and abuse of toddlers in day-care centers). If the utilitarian political benefits of sowing further friction and divisiveness would be laid aside even for a moment and a modicum of goodwill could be brought to bear on an untenable situation, then much can be done without further delay. Severe measures may be used to eliminate any sign of disrespect or discrimination against Ethiopian Jews; over-policing of any sort should be punished immediately; compassion must be exhibited towards protestors; sensitivity courses for all public officials can be made mandatory; hate crimes must be prosecuted forthwith. Affirmative action programs should be instituted in education and the labor market. The remaining Falash Mura in Ethiopia must finally be allowed to be reunited with their families in Israel. And, yes, public discourse against persons of color and other marginalized groups has to be altered and deviations stringently prohibited. These steps (most of which do not involve any financial outlays), however, require not only determined government leadership; they also demand ongoing citizen cooperation and vigilance.

Above all, they involve acknowledgement of the fact that intolerance toward Ethiopian Jews is part of a much more comprehensive pattern of structured inequality against distinct portions of Israeli society who suffer, in one way or another, from persistent harassment on the basis of nationality, ethnic origin, gender or political persuasion. These include Arab citizens of Israel (as well as the Druze, Circassian and Bedouin communities), Mizrahi Jews, Russian-speakers, Haredim, women, the LGBQT community, and now even the “left,” which in recent years has become a distinct social category. All these groups remain, just like Ethiopian Jews, insecure and unprotected in the common domain. And as long as they are unsafe, Israeli society as a whole will remain unstable.

The challenges posed by the justified frustration and resentment of Ethiopian Jews are a timely reminder that systematic intolerance against any particular group creates an indelible blot on Israel. No specific measures to improve the lot of one community will suffice until the root causes of racism and prejudice are identified and eradicated and Israelis, led by tolerant leaders, carve out inclusive public spaces that provide equal room for the rich and diverse communities that compose Israel today.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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