This July, thousands of Ethiopian Jews participated in sit-ins, blocking main roads all over Israel with burning tires. More than 100 police officers were injured and more than 136 demonstrators arrested. The immediate catalyst was the death of Ethiopian Israeli teenager Soloman Teka at the hands of an off-duty policeman.
While protesters claimed Teka had been shot in cold blood, the officer testified he had simply been relaxing in the park with his family when a fight broke out and he attempted to break it up, at which point his life was threatened. The bullet, he claimed, had been aimed at the ground but ricocheted, killing Teka accidentally. Forensic reports later corroborated this.
Teka’s family and their supporters aren’t buying it: “They’re killing my son a second time,” Teka’s father told a press conference in mid-July, as numerous eyewitnesses testified that the policeman was 20 meters away and in no danger. Sami Baruka, the manager of the Kiryat Haim youth center, who had known Teka since he was 11, called him a respectful child who dreamed of combat service in the Israeli army. “I educate the kid to give back [to the community], and in the end they’re bringing him to his parents in a casket,” Baruka said. “The government needs to wake up.”
And while the officer involved is under house arrest, charged with “reckless endangerment,” furious protesters don’t understand why he isn’t in jail for manslaughter.
Given the growing number of similar deaths of Ethiopian Israelis, this anger and suspicion are understandable. There was the case of mentally ill Yehuda Biadga, 24, shot dead by police earlier this year as he lunged at an officer with a kitchen knife; and Yosef Salamsa, 22, who police claimed was drunk and disorderly, and who apparently took his own life after undergoing numerous run-ins with police and being tasered. No charges were brought against officers in either incident. Despite sincere efforts at internal police investigations, it seems unlikely that conclusions will alleviate the community’s suspicions that their children are unfairly targeted.
For me and most Israelis, these demonstrations are a heartbreaking wake-up call. The repatriation of Beta Yisrael, or The House of Israel—as the Ethiopian Jewish community is known in Hebrew—began as the stunning fulfillment of biblical prophecy and Zionist ideology.
Top-secret missions to save Ethiopian Jews from famine, political upheaval and anti-Semitism, beginning with Operation Moses in 1984, culminated in the thrilling and heroic Operation Solomon in May 1991, as the Israeli Air Force secretly swooped in over two days to rescue nearly 15,000 desperate Jews who had trekked more than 400 miles from Gondar to Addis Ababa. The achievement filled us with pride. As then-Air Force commander Major General Avihu Ben-Nun declared, “Operation Solomon truly represents what Zionism is.” It evoked biblical prophecy: “And I will gather them from the ends of the earth…the blind and the lame…those with child and those in labor…In a vast throng they will return here” (Jeremiah 31:8). Many in Israel, myself included, were entranced by the seemingly exotic newcomers who had faced such peril.
We never heard of their hardships upon arrival: Government officials separated communities to “prevent ghettoization,” thus depriving them of the strong tribal and family support networks they depended on; educators and social workers serving them received no special training and had no language skills to help them. It took years for the government to admit its mistakes.
But more tragic than bureaucratic incompetence was the shameful, deep-rooted racial prejudice they were forced to endure on a daily basis, ranging from ugly interactions on public buses to rejections of their school and job applications. Most poisonous of all was their experience with Israeli police.
In 2015, Damas Pakada, a 21-year-old IDF soldier in uniform, was stopped by a policeman in the vicinity of a suspicious package. Pakada later told Ynet that after he was thrown to the ground and beaten, the officer told him, “I’m doing my job, and if I need to put a bullet in your head, I would do it. I am proud of my job.” The video of that incident, which went viral, actually made me cry. Unlike in other cases, the officers involved here were suspended, and a police spokesman called the incident “shameful.”
But such shameful occurrences go beyond police brutality. In 1986, the newspaper Maariv revealed that Ethiopian blood donations to Magen David Adom were being quietly discarded because of fears of disease. In 1985, the chief rabbinate overturned its previous decision to accept Beta Yisrael as Jews, requiring them to undergo a symbolic conversion by immersing in the ritual bath. (This has since been overruled.) The chief rabbinate has refused to accept Ethiopian religious leaders, kessim, as qualified to practice. This too was overturned, but only last year.
This legacy of insult, misunderstanding and fear will not be easy to overcome. But the new outspokenness of Beta Yisrael shows that despite all barriers, they have become true Israelis.
Referring to the complaints of her fellow Israelis over the violence of recent protests, Ethiopian-Israeli model Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, voted Miss Israel in 2013, had this to say: “I’m sorry about the violence. But there are youngsters from the Ethiopian community who were born here, and they have Israeli chutzpah, and they aren’t going to be silenced anymore.”
Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright living in Jerusalem.