Proportions: The Ethiopian Community’s Protest

It has been a hard week. It was harder, I imagine, for the members of the Ethiopian community, who saw yet another of their sons shot and killed. The unbearable lightness of the police’s collective finger on the trigger when it comes to the Ethiopian community, is both incomprehensible and unacceptable. We have witnessed incidents where more than fifty Hilltop Youth broke through the fence of an army base in the West Bank, threw rocks, burned jeeps and tires and even injured the brigade commander with a rock to the head, and not one shot was fired. Yet here, three youths allegedly threw stones from a reported distance of thirty meters at an off duty police officer and one never returned home, shot to death.

Solomon Teka z”l

Solomon Teka was laid to rest on Tuesday, after Monday was spent doing an autopsy on his body, in an attempt to clarify the circumstances of his death. The policeman claimed his death was unintentional, that he fired a warning shot into the ground, and Teka was killed from the ricochet. Because of the attempts to save his life, it was impossible to determine the angle of entry of the bullet, which would have shed light on the veracity of the policeman’s claim. I will just add that it must be some kind of coincidence that Solomon was hit by a ricocheting bullet in the precise spot which marksmen aim to hit during target practice. From thirty meters. Black Lives Matter has come to Israel.

The protests of the Ethiopian community brought the country to a standstill. I personally was stuck for hours at Karmiel junction. Strangely enough, I felt no frustration, only an empathy for their pain and outrage. I rolled down my window and gave them encouragement, and I saw a few others doing the same. It was not done to be let through, but to let them know that they were not alone in their anger at a society that has consistently insulted and discriminated against them.

One Ethiopian young man shot to death by the police is a tragic mistake of judgment. Eleven is a pattern. And these demonstrations are an expression of their justifiable anger. They are saying “Enough”! And it is enough. Predictably, the demonstrations turned violent. With emotions running high, just a number of hours after the funeral, it was expected. Property was damaged, some people were injured. Nobody died. And the reactions were quick to follow.

“Anarchy!” the headlines cried. Really? Only now? The police have been without an appointed chief for a year. The police had an entire day to prepare for this outburst. All the signs were there, that it was going to happen. They had previous experience of the community’s demonstrations to learn from. Yet, they were taken totally by surprise. Anarchy. Just a look at the weekly incidents in the West Bank by settlers against Palestinians and their property without any arrests – burning cars in Issawiya, uprooting olive groves, Price Tag acts of sacrilege on mosques and churches – in what is known as the “Wild West of the West Bank,” is evidence that anarchy has been here for a long time now. The growing number of Underworld assassinations in our cities, in broad daylight and with no regard to collateral damage, while the police are impotent in their efforts to protect our citizens from such brazen violence, is evidence of growing anarchy in our society. Yet only now, when thousands of black-skinned members of a marginalized community take to the streets, only now, they cry “Anarchy”! And our society is not racist?

Protests in Tel Aviv July 2

“Barbarians”! This was how the violence at the demonstrations was described. Funny, when the 50+ white-skinned Hilltop Youth ran amok in the army base as described earlier, they weren’t called “barbarians”. When the Ashkenazi Haredim rioted about army conscription, burned dumpsters and public property until the streets looked like a battlefield, they weren’t called “barbarians”. Only the Ethiopians, from “primitive Africa” earned that epithet. And you ask why they riot?

Then there is this little gem from none other than a former mayor of our nation’s capital: “Unfortunately, I hear that the New Israel Fund poured out its resources to fan the flames”.

This is the same Mr. Barkat, who as mayor of Jerusalem cooperated with the New Israel Fund, in projects for the city. Suddenly now Barkat describes the New Israel Fund as a subversive organization which promotes unrest and anarchy? However, to the point, the New Israel Fund has been involved with the Ethiopian community for a long time. Its support now is not a sudden act of political opportunism. This is its response: “The New Israel Fund’s role right now is to raise up these voices. We support the protesters and we stand with all Israelis struggling against racism and police violence”. Freedom of speech and the right to protest, are inalienable civil rights in a democracy. Inalienable. Those who seek to stifle protest employ methods like strangling the protests of funding, so that their demonstrations cannot reach public consciousness. Wouldn’t it be convenient if for lack of funds, Ethiopians from all over the country were unable to come together in a concerted effort to make their voice heard throughout the country? THAT is undemocratic. Therefore, the New Israel Fund, in providing logistical support and finance for these demonstrations, is facilitating the Ethiopian community’s ability to assert the democratic right to protest. These demonstrations were a genuine outburst of emotion, grass roots and spontaneous. Not manufactured by an invisible hand with a political agenda. If you could have seen their eyes while they blocked the junction, expressing so much pent up pain and anger – and determination – you would understand just how genuine the protest was. Imagine the courage it takes for a young woman who probably weighs less than 50kg, to stand in front of a huge truck with her broomstick-thin arms raised in a “blocked” gesture, and brings it to a halt. Then, imagine the intensity of passion required for her to do that. Is that a flame ignited from within, or a flame fanned by an organization with an agenda? I think we both know the answer to that.

“Blocked”

If we cannot even acknowledge the sincerity of their pain and anger; when we view these demonstrations from the perspective of how it affected us and not what it meant to them, then we are imprisoned by the ivory tower of our social privilege. I am against violence, I do not advocate it. But that goes both ways, and you can’t get more violent than shooting an 18 year old boy to death. We should remember that. So, please, enough with the moralizing about violence, only when it affects us.

Here are just a few examples of what the Ethiopian community endures:
– From the moment they arrived in Israel, the Israeli rabbinate expressed doubts as to their “Jewishness” and forced them to undergo a conversion process, including another ritual brit mila.
– Magen David Adom rejected blood donations from Ethiopians, citing fear of AIDS. This was a blanket policy, instead of testing the blood and discarding infected samples. As of July 2017, they are allowed to give blood, but it has been revealed that their donations are subsequently thrown into the bin.
– Damas Pakada, a young army soldier who came home for his birthday, was beaten to a pulp by two policemen. In their defense they said he was resisting arrest. He wasn’t. Even if he was, how can this violence by a police officer be justified?
– An Ethiopian man called a taxi to take him to work in Refael. When the taxi driver saw that he was Ethiopian, he drove off, leaving him stranded on the sidewalk.
– Ethiopians are often denied entry into night clubs and access to other entertainment facilities.
– Barkan wineries removed Ethiopian workers from the wine-making process in their factory, because the mashgich kashrut decided they were not “really Jewish” and claimed that their participation in the process sullies the kashrut of the wine. This, even after the Rabbinate forced them to undergo another conversion, as mentioned above.
– To date, eleven Ethiopian men have been killed by Israeli police. Eleven. Israeli youth offenders arrested are three times more likely to go to prison. This has a direct ripple effect on their ability to earn a living and their socio-economic conditions, essentially sentencing them to never being able to break out of the cycle of poverty. Ethiopian neighborhoods are disproportionately over-policed.
They are victims of institutional prejudice. They are being told, by these acts of prejudice, that they are not wanted. That they don’t belong here. That they are not one of “us”. Can you imagine the humiliation they have to endure, every day, just because of the color of their skin? How much would you be prepared to take, until you exploded? Have they really gone too far? Or have we provoked them?

Many of us who were trapped in our cars at these junctions were extremely frustrated by how much our routines were disturbed by them. We are angry at the inconvenience to our lives. Some people had their cars damaged, even burned. The cars are insured and after the inconvenience of having to wait for the insurance, they will be replaced. Let us not forget that there is a mother mourning her son. No insurance will bring him back. Proportions.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach made aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz transforming rocks and mud to a green oasis in the Gallilee. He served in infantry during his army service, serving in both Lebanon and the West Bank, including on reserve duty during the first intifada. Paul still lives on Tuval with his wife and two sons.
Comments