Israel’s #BlackLivesMatter Moment?

Israel’s #BlackLivesMatter Moment?

Ethiopian-Israelis face systematic discrimination and violence at the hands of the police. But comparisons to #BlackLivesMatter in the United States do not capture the complexities of their situation.

Ethiopian-Israelis protest police brutality in Jerusalem, April 30 (Oren Ziv / ActiveStills)

On April 26, Demas Fikadey was on his way home in Holon, a city south of Tel Aviv, when he was beaten by two Israeli police officers investigating a report of a suspicious package. In the attack, which was caught on tape, Fikadey can be seen standing next to his bike when one policeman begins to shove and then punch him. Another policeman joins, and the two wrestle Fikadey to the ground. Fikadey, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent and soldier on active duty, was in uniform when the two policemen assaulted him.

The video of the attack went viral on Israeli social media, sparking protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Demonstrators chanted “A violent officer needs to be in jail” and “Is our blood only good for your wars?” In Tel Aviv, heavily militarized police violently dispersed the protest, firing water cannons, stun grenades, and tear gas into the crowd of demonstrators who had gathered in Rabin Square. “What happened on May 3, 2015 in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv was not like anything I had seen before,” wrote Israeli journalist Hayim Bar-Zahav, who was at the protest. “In my twelve years of professional work, I had not seen police violence like what I saw in Tel Aviv’s central square.”

It was not simply the video that brought thousands of people into the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to voice their anger and frustration, facing off against police on horseback. “A soldier in uniform deserves to be respected and appreciated. But it’s not just that,” Getenet, an Ethiopian resident of Ariel, a West Bank settlement, told Haaretz. Ethiopian-Israelis face discrimination, police violence, and structural inequality. For many, the video represented a breaking point.

While the Israeli government is eager, in its public-relations material, to portray smiling Ethiopian-Israeli soldiers and professionals as members of a diverse and tolerant society, the country’s Ethiopian community remains vastly underserved. A report published by the Meyers-JDC Brookdale Institute found that 41 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli families are poor, compared to 15 percent of families in the general Jewish-Israeli population. Twenty-nine percent of Ethiopian-Israelis between the ages of 22 and 35 lack a high school education, compared to 7 percent of all Jewish Israelis in that age bracket. The youth unemployment rate among Ethiopian-Israelis is 30 percent, compared to 19 percent among all Jewish Israelis.

Ethiopian-Israelis also experience systematic discrimination and violence at the hands of the police. According to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, 30 percent of juveniles serving sentences in jail are of Ethiopian descent, whereas Ethiopian Jews make up less than 2 percent of Israel’s total population (and less than 3 percent of that age demographic). Not surprisingly, a study performed by two professors at Ben Gurion University, published in Haaretz, found very low faith in police among Ethiopian immigrants. Forty-one percent reported that police stop people for no justifiable reason in their area. Twenty-seven percent expressed the belief that they receive worse treatment by police than others. These percentages exceeded those for all other groups, including the ultra-orthodox and even Arabs living in Israel.

In an article for the Israeli website Sicha Mekomit (“Local Call”), nineteen-year-old Rachel Almo wrote, “There is almost no Ethiopian family that has not experienced violence.” Almo described her own family’s encounter with police violence, when police used a Taser against her brother, a soldier in a well-respected combat unit, for sitting with his friends in a public park. “My brother and most of the members of my community are victims of violence,” she wrote. “Most are in jail for nothing, only because of the color of their skin. Our skin color has became an obstacle for us in Israel.”

Unlike in the United States, recent protests against police brutality in Israel have hardly incurred a right-wing backlash. Naftali Bennett, head of the far-right settler party Jewish Home, made an appearance at the protest in Tel Aviv before the police attempted to clear the square. And Demas Fikadey met with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud, who posted about the video on Twitter, “I was shocked by the pictures. We cannot accept this, and we will change things.” Bennett and Netanyahu, both shrewd politicians, recognized that Ethiopian Jews tend to lean to the right politically, and identify with parties more friendly to traditional religious values. The Sephardic ultra-orthodox party Shas, in particular, has made efforts to appeal to Ethiopian-Israeli voters. The party’s spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, who died last year, was an outspoken advocate for Ethiopian Jews’ religious rights.

“If this had been a protest by Arabs, the entire left would have been here,” a twenty-three-year-old demonstrator who served in an army combat unit told Israeli journalist Orly Noy, writing in Sicha Mekomit. Noy, who attended the first anti-police brutality protest in Jerusalem on April 30, noted that aside from a few Jerusalem-based social activists, the left was largely absent from the protest. At the protests in Tel Aviv a few days latter, some left-wing Knesset members were in attendance, notably Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List of Arab parties.

However, Israel’s left-wing parties continue to be dominated by the socioeconomic elite and highly educated Israelis of European descent, and have failed to appeal to non-Ashkenazi and non-secular voters—a failure that was particularly evident during the most recent elections, when the prominent leftist cultural figure Yair Garbuz made derogatory comments about the religious and Jews of non-European descent. In Sicha Mekomit, Noy recalled a conversation she had with Yossi Yonah, a Mizrahi academic and activist and current Knesset member for the center-left Zionist Union, about bringing Ethiopians into the social protest movement in 2011. “They told him, ‘Never—those people won’t send their children to the same kindergartens as ours, what shared struggle are you talking about?'”

It is also not a coincidence that Demas Fikadey and Rachel Almo’s brother are both active-duty soldiers. Ethiopian-Israelis’ rates of participation in military service exceed those of the general population. For many, military service promises upward mobility and a chance to better integrate into Israeli society. Some of the same Ethiopian-Israelis demonstrating in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem serve or have served in the IDF units that operate in the occupied Palestinian territories. A common talking point on Israeli TV since the start of the protests has been that many of those against whom the police used tear gas and stun grenades had served in the previous military operations, such as Protective Edge last summer. One protester, interviewed on a popular news program, said he attended the demonstrations in his reservist uniform to show his commitment to the state.

The images from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, of protesters blocking highways and police firing teargas into crowds, have led some to label the past week’s protests Israel’s #BlackLivesMatter moment. But at this stage, the Ethiopian-Israelis’ protests—unlike those against police violence in the United States—do not seem to herald more mass mobilizations. Since last weekend, there have been smaller demonstrations in the cities of Ashkelon and Beer Sheva and on university campuses, but the protesters’ staying power remains to be seen.

Moreover, the comparisons between Jerusalem and Baltimore do not capture the complexities of the Ethiopian-Israeli community’s situation. In a series of interviews published by Haaretz, a number of Ethiopian-Israeli protesters distanced themselves from the protests against police brutality in Baltimore. “What we’re doing here has nothing to do with what’s going on in Baltimore,” Maya Tzagay, a nineteen-year-old soldier, told Haaretz. “They have their issues. We have ours. But we understand them—we both suffer from racism.”

Joshua Leifer is a member of All That’s Left, an anti-occupation collective. He is currently pursuing a B.A. in history at Princeton University.