Harry Maryles

Racism and police brutality in Israel

Racism is alive and well in America. I can think of little else more repugnant than prejudice against someone because of the color of their skin . When racism involves the police violence often ensues. That can be seen in numerous videos taken (usually by a bystander with a smart-phone) of police mistreating members of the black community. This is not to say that police using force against a black suspect is always motivated by racism. I’m sure a lot of it is justified. But there are just too many videos taken of late showing police using violent tactics against blacks to say it is justified every time.

The tragic death of a young black suspect in Baltimore after he was arrested is the most recent example of many other events like this.

There is not a doubt in my mind that there has been tremendous improvement in race relations in this country. Witness the election and re-election of America’s first black President. But racism against black people in America still exists. And it might be the underlying cause of police brutality against black suspects.

What has shocked me in recent days is that it exists in Israel too. And just like America, it was captured on somebody’s smart-phone.

The reason it shocks me is because when I think about black people in Israel, I think of Israel’s massive program bringing persecuted Ethiopian Jews into the country. I think of the young black Kipa wearing soldier I saw protecting the Kotel entry point – smiling at me as I passed through. I think of Doron Meherte one of the eight students at Merkaz Harav massacred by an Arab a few years ago. Doron was black and yet every bit a part of his peer group. Whether as soldiers, students, or just plain friends. I saw not the slightest hint of racism in all these cases. This generated in me a sense of pride in my people.

And yet it appears that a parallel reality exists between America and Israel when it comes to racism and the police.

Unlike the United States, black people in Israel are mostly immigrants from Ethiopia – not the descendants of slaves who were captured in Africa and sold to slave-owners in the South. They were not treated as second class citizens post emancipation – given separate but (un)equal rights. Nor were they systematically prevented from voting or in other ways kept down. Which is why I am so surprised at a video showing a black soldier being beaten by Israeli police – apparently for no reason at all.

What actually happened is as of yet unknown. But it is highly unlikely that whatever this young black soldier did warranted the reaction he got from the police. And that has generated a massive protest in Jerusalem which predictably turned violent. The Jerusalem protest was followed by one in Tel Aviv.

(As an aside, I have no patience for violent protesters. They ought to be arrested, charged, and if found guilty, subjected to the maximum penalty allowed by law.Violent protest often ends up hurting innocent people to which these people behave with depraved indifference. There is no excusing it or explaining it away.)

Ethiopian Jews are upset. Apparently things are not as rosy as they seemed to me. This incident seems to have touched a nerve in this community. Does that bespeak an undercurrent of racism against Ethiopians in Israel? If so, how then does one reconcile that with my very real and very positive observations?

Perhaps it is a police department where a latent racism can eventually manifest itself. They are the law. They protect the public. Which sometimes means using violence. That might give some of them a sense of entitlement to use violence more freely.

Is it really the case that only Ethiopians experience police brutality in Israel? There has been more than one occasion where Charedim have been brutally beaten by police too. Is the comparison fair? If I am now complaining about police brutality, why haven’t I complained about it when it has occurred in those circumstances.

First let me say, that brutality by one person against another is abhorrent no matter who the victim is. Especially when it is the police that are brutalizing someone. But stepping back and looking what happened here and in cases where Charedi extremists were treated roughly by the police – I see a difference.

In the case of Charedi extremists the police are reacting to violent protest. Violence like burning dumpsters in residential neighborhoods. Or setting fire to clothing stores.Or throwing rocks at passing cars, soldiers, police, politicians, or even female passersby not dressed modestly by their standards.

Violence begets violence. Subduing a rock thrower or arsonist can be a pretty violent affair. That these people have long beards, long Peyos, long coats, and black felt hats does not detract from their crimes. Crimes that put innocent people in danger. So even though it’s possible that there has been some police brutality in these cases, I generally take the view that the vast majority of the time police tactics are justified. But in the case of this lone cyclist, there was no violence at all on his part .

Not knowing all the facts I will reserve judgment about what really happened. But at the same time I cannot blame the Ethiopian community for reacting this way. If there is a racist attitude permeating society at any level – it is repugnant and must be eradicated. This video may have just triggered the reaction to a racism that exists just below the surface. Vigorous but peaceful protests are therefore justified and ought to continue until racism is completely eradicated from the face of the earth. And Israel should be the first in line to do so.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.