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Black Lives Matter: Ethiopian Israelis compare and contrast struggle with US

While their history is vastly different from that of Black Americans, the Ethiopian community sees commonalities in their fight against police brutality in Israel
Israelis of Ethiopian origin protest on 8 July 2019 in Tel Aviv after the death of Solomon Teka, a young man of Ethiopian origin killed by an off-duty police officer (AFP)
By Moran Nakar in Tel Aviv

The Black Lives Matter protests that have emerged across the United States and the world following the shocking killing of George Floyd by US police have reignited discussions about racism and anti-Blackness in a lot of countries, including Israel.

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“There is something global about black skin - like a war on the way Black people look in this world,” Zahudito Yosef Seri, an Ethiopian-Israeli mother of two in Ashdod, told Middle East Eye. “Society puts people of that colour through unpleasant experiences and is unable to embrace people who are different.” 

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Seri said that past protests in Israel, combined with recent reporting from the United States, have infused her with a powerful sense of identification with other Black people regardless of location. 

Nearly a year has passed since the latest wave of demonstrations by the Ethiopian community in Israel following the killing of 18-year-old Solomon Teka by police.

Several Ethiopian Israelis told MEE that while public discourse and awareness of police violence against their community - and other Black communities in Israel - has improved somewhat, racism continues to flow below the surface unabated.

Protests against racist violence

Teka was shot in the back by an off-duty police officer on 30 June 2019 who claimed he was trying to break up a fight between youths when the incident took place.

The teenager’s death sparked a series of protests across Israel, during which major arteries were blocked and traffic was halted all over the country. While a few cars were trashed and there was some sporadic vandalism, most of the protests were clearly nonviolent. 

The demonstrators, most of them Ethiopian, denounced Teka’s case, as well as broader discrimination experienced during encounters with Israeli police - which far too frequently lead to the gratuitous death of young Israelis with black skin.

The Ethiopian community in Israel is a tiny minority of the population, with its 150,000 members making up less than two percent of the national population in 2019, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. By comparison, Black Americans represent nearly 13 percent of the population in the US.

Jewish Ethiopians first began arriving in Israel in large numbers in the mid-1980s following Operation Moses. However, the community has long complained of not being treated as equals by other Jewish Israelis.

Teka was the 11th Ethiopian Israeli killed by the police in the past 20 years.

Seri said that the severe racism she has experienced in Israel has only increased since last year’s protests. “Covert racism is even worse now, and everyone takes precautions, tiptoeing around,” she said.

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Daniel Ishtah, a former police officer who today owns a business making gluten-free goods, says he left his job as a detective after realising that he would never be promoted like his white colleagues were.

Having long felt concerned about the police's treatment of the Ethiopian community, Teka’s death was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Ishtah. 

He told MEE that he watched with concern about recent developments in the United States. “This has deeply affected me and increased my involvement on social media and outreach,” he said. 

David, 34, who requested anonymity as a government employee, observed differences in protests at home and in the US.

“The demonstrations there are much harsher. You can’t compare them to ours. We mainly blocked highways and stopped traffic countrywide. That’s nothing compared with all the damage and looting over there,” he said, before adding: “African Americans were slaves for 400 years. Why would their protests surprise anyone?”

Ishtah also said he felt that the protests in the US were more violent than those that took place in Israel in 2019, but he voiced no criticism of US protesters.

“Our community’s demonstrations are also perceived as violent, but please understand - they are protests against the police, as the entity that is supposed to be protecting us [but doesn’t]. What alternative do we have?”

Different pasts, common presents

Despite similarities, Ishtah believes that the Black American struggle is not identical to that of Ethiopian Israelis.

“Ethiopians [in Israel] don’t see themselves as Africans because our Judaism and our Jewish traditions are very strong,” he said. “Many people - including me to some degree - make a distinction between Blacks in the United States and us here.”

Seri explained that Ethiopians in Israel see themselves as different from Blacks in the United States because the histories of the two groups differ so completely.

“Our common fate has to do with our colour, not with a shared history,” she said. “They were slaves brought to the United States under duress. We came to Israel because of Zionism.”

According to Ishtah, the older generation of Ethiopians who arrived in Israel as adults, motivated by Zionism, are less interested in events overseas. They see the same horrifying reports everyone else does, but often don’t see a connection with events in Israel.

“Older people generally say that it’s terrible but it’s happening far away and we have problems of our own,” he added.

Malkamo Zaro, 57, a resident of Rishon LeZion in central Israel, agrees with Ishtah. 

Zaro said that the protests in the United States were completely justified and arose out of the same racism that he, his family and his friends experience here - but he remained focused on efforts to change Israeli society. “I care about the people of Israel,” he said. “I don’t care about what happens in other countries.”

Israeli hypocrisy

David, who works for one of Israel’s security services, pointed out an additional difference between protests in Israel and in the US.

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“What’s nice over there is that everyone goes out to demonstrate, whites and Blacks,” he said. “Here it’s just us, 20,000 or 30,000 people protesting the killing of an Ethiopian man by the police. Our partners in this life, in this society, stay home and watch it on television and don’t come out to see what’s happening in the streets.” 

Seri agreed. “In the struggle abroad, you see more than the colour black standing out. There are demonstrators from all races. It seems to me that the society there has had enough of racism,” she said.

Ishtah denounced the lack of self-awareness in Israeli media discourse these days.

“It’s hypocritical that people like [supermodel] Bar Refaeli defend [the protests] happening in the US while we have been suffering here for 20 or 30 years,” he said. “This is a nation of immigrants who came from Arab countries and from North Africa and experienced racism. And now they are the racists!”

Zaro argues that the situation in Israel for Black people is much worse than in the United States - an argument he attributed to the small size of the community, its lack of political clout and representation in positions of power. 

“Here, the police act like they’re at a shooting range, learning how to fire weapons using our bodies as targets. What they do here to Ethiopians is really a Holocaust. It really pains me,” Zaro said. 

The latest wave of protests in Israel ended with a round of arrests of protesters and no substantial change on the part of the police. While Israeli police officers are now required to wear body cameras, in practice these cameras are usually turned off or not working, and what is indeed filmed never sees the light of day.

Meanwhile, the same Israeli media that severely criticised Ethiopian protesters last year is now broadcasting support for the demonstrations in the US - while Israeli racism, both overt and covert, marches on.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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