In case you hadn’t heard, a huge rally of Ethiopian Israeli Jews took place in Tel Aviv on Sunday which quickly devolved into violence, leaving dozens of injured on both sides: the police and the demonstrators. The initial spark for the demonstration was a video, which rapidly went viral over the internet, of Israeli police brutally beating an Ethiopian IDF soldier. The Ethiopian community, generally the loveliest, quietest, gentlest people, finally had enough and went out to protest.
Here is the story.
What began as a peaceful protest turned into bedlam in the heart of Tel Aviv Sunday, as demonstrators gathered to protest police brutality and alleged institutional racism against Israel’s Ethiopian population.
A video released last week showed a policeman and a police volunteer assaulting an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in Holon. That footage sparked a demonstration in Jerusalem Thursday, and again in Tel Aviv Sunday night.
At Sunday’s demonstration, protesters threw rocks and glass bottles at police, who responded with stun grenades and fired water cannons at protesters.
As of midnight Sunday, almost 50 people were injured. According to Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, 23 of them were police officers.
By the end of the night, 26 protesters were arrested, he said.
Sunday’s protest began mildly. A few dozen Ethiopian-Israelis and sympathizers gathered at the intersection of Menachem Begin and Eliezer Kaplan streets. The group blocked traffic on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway and other roadways, but the protest was non-violent.
Tenat, a nurse at Petach Tikva’s Schneider Children’s Hospital, sat down in the middle of the intersection. She had just worked a double shift at the hospital and was tired, but felt it was important to come to the demonstration. So she did what she could: block the intersection.
“This is my country, too,” she said. “Tomorrow it could be my brothers or my cousins [who are subject to police brutality].”
But as more people arrived at the normally busy intersection, the intensity grew. Police formed a human chain, locking arms to prevent protesters from crossing Menachem Begin eastward to Givat Hatachmoshet Street. Restless demonstrators took that as a challenge.
The two sides pushed up against each other for dominance. Protesters shouted at Israel Police, and then at the Border Police officers who arrived as reinforcements. A female protester broke the tension at 5:45 p.m. when she grabbed a policewoman’s hair and pulled. She was swarmed by other officers, handcuffed and escorted away.
After more aimless struggling with police on Givat Hatachmoshet, the protesters eventually made their way west down Kaplan toward Rabin Square, where the rally was planned to continue.
With no leadership or organizing committee, the protest lacked focus as the demonstrators arrived at the square in central Tel Aviv.
People chanted in Hebrew, “Violent police officers should be locked up!” and “For blacks and for whites, racism is the devil.”
Sometimes it was simpler. “Police state” and “no to racism,” some shouted.
But while many protesters came with good intentions, there were no speeches planned, no fixed goal. And so with nothing to do, protesters pushed their way onto the platform overlooking the square. Police quickly and forcefully pushed them back.
In response, protesters threw plastic water bottles at them. Eventually that unrest yielded small scuffles in the parking lot beneath the platform. The mounted police unit arrived on the scene shortly after 8:00 p.m., causing a stir amongst the demonstrators.
Police regrouped on the platform above the square, forming another human chain of officers in full riot gear. Protesters pushed and shoved, someone brought a hose from a nearby building and sprayed the police.
At a little after 9:00 p.m. the first stun grenades were thrown by police. That set off the first of many rounds of escalation, followed by full-blown conflict.
Over and over, police and protesters clashed on the east side of Rabin Square. The two sides would push and shove until someone — from either side — would push too hard. Police would respond by throwing stun grenades. Protesters would respond by throwing bottles and rocks.
According to Rosenfeld, “Police did not use force until… protesters threw stones at officers and there was no option but to make arrests.”
I think the police were badly organized and also insensitive. Stun grenades? At a civilian demonstration? What were they thinking? Why didn’t’ they bring in the water cannons first?
At 10:55 p.m. police brought water cannon trucks into the square, dousing protesters with a sudsy blue spray. Several protesters were knocked down by the water cannon. Medics from Magen David Adom, who treated demonstrators and police alike, had to themselves brave the water cannons to get to and treat injured protesters.
But there were glimmers of hope in the chaos. A middle-aged Ethiopian man, Gidon, gathered a group of younger people around him. “Violence,” he told the group, “we’ve gotten it. The hardest hits, we’ve experienced them.” That’s why now, he told the surrounding protesters, don’t pick up a rock. “Say no to that violence.”
Black and white Israelis struck up dialogue on the outskirts of the square. The Ethiopians tried to explain what they’ve been through, the white Israelis asked if this — the violence — was really the best way to solve the problem.
There were also low points. A volunteer medic — not a member of Magen David Adom — was helping a wounded protester, whose head and arm were bleeding. As the medic and others gathered to clean the man’s wounds and apply bandages, a stun grenade landed in the middle of the group. The volunteer medic fell to the ground.
What needs to be noted is that Israelis have always discriminated against the “newest” set of Olim. The early Ashkenazim looked down on the Moroccans who looked down on the Yemenites. We all looked down at the Russians until they overtook us. And then came the Ethiopians. The problem for this community was that they had to deal not only with the usual travails of immigration itself with which all immigrants have to cope, but also with a profound culture shock: moving out of a pre-industrialized agrarian society into a modern 20th and 21st century society. And yes, of course there is racism, not insitutionalized maybe but there is no denying that it exists – yes, there are racists in Israel just as there are in every other country – and thus we find that the Ethiopians’ absorption problems are magnified tremendously.
The main question that we Israelis must ask ourselves is “are we really that racist or is this a distortion of the facts?”. Sadly, from various reports that I have read from ordinary Ethiopians, we are not such tzadikim.
Here is a Facebook post that describes just one man’s situation:
A couple of Saturdays ago we ate Shabbat dinner with another couple, as is customary in the community.
Full Disclosure: He is of Ethiopian descent, she is of Ashkenazi descent.
The conversation was about a lot of topics, but part of it was about his lack of success in finding a job in the profession for which which he studied and invested in for many years; years where he could not be with his family as he worked in shifts in guarding the community, including weekends holidays etc.
His name Yosef Shay. At first glance at his resume you can see he has a BA as a biotechnology engineer, and his name is completely Israeli, but when they reach the visual part he doesn’t get the job!
So yes, you can hide behind a “not suitable” and all kinds of other slogans.
Unfortunately I’m pretty sure if he was not Ethiopian he would have been accepted much more easily!
Share this and draw attention to decent employers and offer relevant employemnt so that the Ethiopian community’s strggle against discriminaton will be unneccessary.
Seth Franzman, a journalist whom I deeply respect and who always has something interesting to write, shocks us with his own personal story: “Are you really stunned that ethiopian anger has reached Tel Aviv?”:
“I was in the army four years ago, and when I was released, my wife and I went to rent an apartment — and we were told they don’t want Ethiopians,” said one young protestor to a newscast on Sunday night. He was standing in a crowd of mostly Ethiopian Jewish protesters in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, the site of many protests over the years.
Was this Tel Aviv? The high-tech metropolis where everything is relaxed and people sit on the beach for hours on end? How, some wondered, could such violence reach all the way into this bubble?
But the real question is: How could it not?
What happened on Sunday night was the culmination of a week of anger over a video that surfaced showing two policemen assaulting an Ethiopian IDF soldier named Damas Pakada in Holon. This followed a year of incidents that had Ethiopian Jews feeling they had become targets of police brutality. On March 1, 2014, Yosef Salamseh was approached by police in a park in Binyamina. According to reports, police accused him of breaking into a house, tasered him, beat and handcuffed him and then took him to a station where family members found him left unconscious in a parking lot. Never charged with a crime, he filed a complaint about the assault, but instead of it being addressed his family was harassed and he was found dead in July, allegedly a suicide.
Racism against Ethiopians pervades Israeli society in more subtle ways, too. My wife, who is Ethiopian, was asked last week if she wants a job cleaning, when she has an MA and works as a senior civil servant. Israeli historian Anita Shapira claimed in her recent book that Ethiopians had to “transition…to an industrialized achievement-oriented society.” Such hidden prejudices — the assumption that Ethiopians don’t understand “achievement” — lead to long-term marginalization.
During Thursday and Sunday’s mass protests, many other minorities, including Arabs, ultra-Orthodox, national-religious Jews and Mizrachi Jews expressed sympathy. “They did it to us Moroccans too,” said an elderly bearded man named Avraham on French Hill Thursday.
Ethiopians join a long list of groups seen as an “other” in Israeli society. These are the people who have for years presented their “integration” as a success story. The protesters time and again stressed that they are “the most Israeli.” But the press and politicians still call them “immigrants,” even though most are born in Israel.
The problem, of course, is that the protesters don’t want to be a permanent underclass, or remain in a situation where so many are being incarcerated. The community feels totally abandoned by a state to which they have given everything. When the state drafts a person from a poor Ethiopian community for three years and pays them $100 a month, and then that person cannot find a job, cannot rent an apartment, cannot afford a car or go to university, they want answers. Their immigrant parents’ generation accepted the poverty they found in Israel. But this generation has said enough.
A first step towards the Ethiopians was made by Binyamin Netanyahu who met with the soldier who had been beaten by the police and pledged to work to eliminate racism.
One major problem that still exists works on the “road to hell is paved with good intentions” principle: Israel has so many programs to integrate Ethiopians, but they end up doing more harm than good, as this article describes in “Separate but not equal“.
Let us hope the new government – if and when it is formed, and if it it holds up long enough to pass any worthwhile legislation (a lot of ifs, I know) – has the sense and the sensitivity to deal honestly and efficiently with the Ethiopian community in order to help them advance and integrate successfully into Israeli society. Let us hope too that the authorities, social activists and NGOs will manage to educate Israeli society against racism of all kinds.
Our lives, our future and those of our children depend upon this.