Israel Protests

An off-duty police officer shot and killed an Ethiopian teen sparking riots across Israel.
Violent riots erupted in towns and cities throughout Israel recently, peaking on July 2. Cars were set alight, property vandalized, scores of police officers were injured and demonstrators arrested. Hundreds of thousands of motorists were stranded for hours on gridlocked highways and secondary roads, in the heat, without water or warning.

The protesters, predominantly members of the Ethiopian Israeli community and supporters, took to the streets to express their rage at what they condemn as systemic police brutality targeting their community. Numbering approximately 150,000 in a population of just under nine million, Ethiopian Israelis are black and their leadership is saying that this is rank racism.

What sparked this latest round of protests was the death of 19-year old Solomon Teka on June 30. Teka was hanging around with some friends, reportedly beating up a younger boy. An off-duty policeman happened by with his family and intervened. He claims that Tekah and his friends attacked him and he feared for his life. So. He drew his gun and aimed a warning shot at the ground. It ricocheted and hit Teka in the chest, killing him instantly.

There is a different version of events as to what transpired that night; that Teka was shot intentionally and directly. No ricochets. Without forensic evidence, that is mere speculation. But the speculation has traction and credibility, until refuted. Teka is the second Ethiopian Israeli youth to be shot dead by police this year, and the community is enraged, saying they have never been accepted in Israel as equal.

Social media has been flooded with testimonials, which no one — not even Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan — questions. Earlier this week the minister made a remarkable statement in a public ceremony: "I have met with dozens of Ethiopian Israelis who spoke about encounters with police. They didn't invent the stories and didn't co-ordinate them. Racism is a problem for all of Israeli society."

No one is saying that Teka was an angel. But why did an off duty police officer feel it necessary to draw and shoot — at the ground or a young man — who an eyewitness places almost 100 feet away? This question hasn't been answered. Community leaders are adamant that if that had been a "white kid from a Tel Aviv suburb" there is no way the officer would have drawn his gun.

In a fiery and deeply emotional address earlier this week during a special Knesset session, Ethiopian-Israeli MK Pnina Tamano-Shata pointed an unwavering finger at chronic police harassment of the community, compounding the already harsh circumstances of so many.

It was in the late 1970s that the existence of a large, isolated community of observant Jews in Ethiopia came to light. Initially, such stories were dismissed by the rigid and unaccepting arbiters of "Jewishness" in Israel, the Chief Rabbinate, but North American activists drew too much attention to the issue to allow it to be ignored. There were two major operations — in 1984 and 1991 — in which tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel. (The covert Mossad-led "Operation Solomon" of 1991 is the subject of a Netflix movie being released later this month.)

From the outset, the newcomers contended with extreme hardship.

After extended treks through treacherous territory, the refugees crossed a 2,000-plus year divide in the few hours it took to fly to Israel; traversing a primitive, subsistence, rural life in Ethiopia to a very modern, Western and striving Israel. Unlike other large immigrant groups — like those from the former Soviet Union — the Ethiopians were not highly educated. They were initially settled in Absorption Centres in Israel — as are all newcomers — and given a period of time to learn basic language and life skills before being expected to function more independently.

Some have shattered glass and concrete ceilings; many more remain entrenched in an "underclass." There are too many stories of professional women and men being stopped in public places and asked if they are available to clean homes, of elite combat soldiers being refused entry to bars and restaurants which suddenly become "full" when they appear, of young children being denied entry to "good" daycares and schools and of a gravely high proportion of youth in custodial facilities.

There is also historical perspective. As the protests raged, many Israelis thought back to their early years. It was not uncommon for Moroccan and Yemenite immigrants to be housed for extended periods in tent cities, mostly due to a dire shortage of resources. But, it was also "understood" that for "them" it was not such a hardship. There is genuine and widespread empathy among the broader population in Israel for the plight of the Ethiopians, but there is also a measure of restraint, as the deep prejudices encountered in the early years of the state remain fresh.


Comment: Is there genuine and widespread empathy among the broader population? Because if reports are true, it's not just the police that are treating Ethiopian Israeli's like second-class citizens.


The Ethiopian Israeli community thinks that the racism faced by its members, because they are black, is different.

They protest reluctantly, not wanting to give the country they love a black eye. In fairness, compared to race riots in America and elsewhere, these were pretty tame and contained. But the third generation of young Israelis will not abide continued sufferance quietly.

On July 3, the family of Solomon Teka implored demonstrators to reserve their fury, at least until the end of the ritual seven-day mourning period, and refrain from violence.

They did so respectfully, but continued outrage is palpable and sporadic protests continue.