In a world where Israel is accused of being an “apartheid state” and Zionism is equated with racism, it is understandable that we would recoil from accusations of actual racism in Israel, but we can’t afford to do so.
On June 30, 18-year-old Solomon Tekah was shot and killed by a police officer in Haifa. He is one of at least four Ethiopian-Israelis killed by police in recent years, while another seven deaths were cited as suicide or as being the result of uncertain causes after police encounters, according to community leaders. Reports of police brutality against the black community are alarming and suggest a systemic problem.
Supporters of Israel on social media like to celebrate Muslims, Druze and other minorities who reach the pinnacles of Israeli society, and so we should. But we should not restrain our criticism of serious racial injustice in that country just because of what outsiders might think. There have been struggles in Israel not only between Jews and Arabs, but around the treatment of and inequalities experienced by Sephardim and Mizrahim, Bedouins, Ethiopians and others. There are also legitimate concerns around the treatment of African asylum-seekers, concentrated in south Tel Aviv, who have been neglected and used as political footballs by politicians.
The New York Times Sunday compared the growing awareness of police brutality, as well as more casual racism, to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. In addition to the most visible cases – police killings – the article also includes examples of pervasive prejudices, such as the Ethiopian-born head of a social services agency who was offered housecleaning work by strangers on the street, as but one example. Interestingly, even though one arm of the Israeli government coordinated the airlift of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in 1991, another arm insisted on second, symbolic circumcisions for the men, whose Judaism was apparently legitimate enough for the Law of Return but somehow not legitimate enough for the state-sanctioned arbiters of religious identity.
It is particularly disheartening when one compares the racism experienced by Ethiopian-Israelis with the hopefulness this community carried with them to Israel. One individual said that arriving in Israel after journeying for two months was “like touching the moon.”
“Is this the Israel we dreamed of?” Zion Getahun remarked. “It’s a question I ask.”
In light of recent events, the minister for internal security, Gilad Erdan, is setting up a new unit “to fight expressions of racism wherever they exist,” to ensure that force is used by police responsibly and that “over-policing” – in which Ethiopian-Israelis say they feel like they are treated like automatic suspects – is brought to heel.
The parallels are notable with the situation in the United States, where African-Americans experience disproportionate brutality and deaths at the hands of police officers. Also similar are the fears of parents, like the mother who worries about the coming time when her now-11-year-old son will want to go out by himself.
What is notable in the Times article, which seems well presented and fair, is that, unlike African-Americans in the United States, Ethiopian-Israelis do not have nearly the same level of community leadership or representation in government and other places of power. They are a small minority of 150,000, lacking the established community organizations that African-Americans have built over generations.
This means that, more even than in the United States, and more than in Canada, where non-indigenous Canadians have begun to speak up on behalf of the rights of indigenous peoples here and to address the wrongs that have been perpetrated, the moral obligation falls even more heavily on people who do not belong to the affected communities to right these wrongs.
In Israel, there is a need to encourage and support communal leadership among Ethiopian-Israelis while simultaneously speaking out on their behalf when they experience discrimination. As supporters of Israel and as people who are proud of the many achievements of the Jewish state in creating an enviable society nearly from scratch in an historical blink of an eye, we, too, have a voice.
Express concerns to Israeli family and friends, send support to the myriad organizations that build connections across Israel’s many divides and, while we’re at it, consider whether we can improve our own attitudes about and treatment of people who are different from us.