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Hopes, Fears, and Emotions: Impressions of Israel’s Racialized Reality

Today's blog was written by Yahel staff members in response to the shooting of Solomon Tekah and the resulting protests. All interviewees are former or current Yahel staff or partners.

A shot was heard around Israel. On Sunday, June 30 an off-duty officer shot dead 19 year old Solomon Tekah on the playground of a Haifa suburb. According to The Times of Israel, the police statement describes that the adolescent was throwing stones at the police officer. The officer said to have fired in fear of mortal danger. Tekah was an Ethiopian-Israeli.

Occurrences such as these are not unfamiliar to the Ethiopian community in Israel. Since their arrival in the country in multiple waves of immigration beginning in the 1980s, Ethiopians have experienced systematic inequalities. These inequalities appear through socio-economic status, such as obstacles in receiving a higher education and difficulties in obtaining high paying jobs. These inequalities also appear through multifaceted discrimination in multiple realms of life; discrimantion that sometimes ends in violence.

Yahel - Israel Service Learning was born nine years ago out of a close collaboration with our Ethiopian partners in Gedera. Over the years, we have grown and expanded our work to include many communities around the country, but have always continued to work closely with the Ethiopian-Israeli community as partners, friends and family.

Upon the eruption of these recent events we felt a strong need to reach out to our friends and partners from the Ethiopian-Israeli community and hear from them, first hand, about their impressions, thoughts, hopes and fears in the current reality.

Yahel staff member, Yohannes Azenau, came to Israel at the age of 6 in 1990. He grew up partly in Beer Sheva and partly in boarding schools. Yohanes has been active in fighting discrimination against the Ethiopian community for many years. He remembers the first time it became clear to him that something was very wrong -

“In 2010 I discovered that a municipal kindergarten in Beer Sheva was separating between Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians. Not only were the kids split into two classes based on their origin, the Ethiopian classroom was provided with less supplies such as toys and eating utensils.” Yohannes recalls. Together with other local activists, Yohannes helped organize a demonstration against this outright discrimination in the kindergarten. The demonstration brought the matter to the attention of the new mayor of Beer Sheva, who immediately got involved and put and end to the separation. Yohannes remembers how painful it was to realize that racism could be inflicted starting at such an early age. “That day I promised myself that I would fight until things become better for my community”.

Another Yahel employee, activist and MA student of government and diplomacy, Rivkah Avera says “People need to understand that every single day, kids and even adults like myself, are targeted by the police.” According to Rivkah, in Israel’s juvenile hall, 60 percent of the youth are Ethiopian while the Ethiopian community makes up two percent of the Israeli population. Tekah has become part of a statistic. “It doesn’t make sense - he was killed in an innocent place - a neighborhood playground at 8 oclock in the evening! This is not the first time that the police are killing our people.” she says in pain.

Enough is enough. On Tuesday and Wednesday, July 3 and 4, the streets of Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Ashdod, Beer Sheva and many other cities and towns across Israel filled with activists young and old. They mourned and cried in solidarity for Tekah. His memory now represents the greater injustice to Ethiopian-Israelis. His case has become a visible illustration of their inequality. Eventually, peaceful sit-ins and authorized roadblocks, got out of control with tires burning, protests spreading to numerous road junctions stopping traffic on major highways for hours, and even molotov cocktails were thrown by Ethiopian-Israeli youth in a few locations.

This is not the first time there have been protests against police brutality to the Ethopian community. In 2015, a police officer was caught on tape beating Damas Pakada, a soldier in uniform. The footage became viral and angry protests erupted around the country as a result.

According to Michal Avera Samuel, Executive Director of Fidel - an Israeli non-profit dedicated to the successful integration of Ethiopian Israelis into Israeli Society and longstanding Yahel partner - the current protest is different. In the past there were coordinated efforts, this time the protests are completely spontaneous and run by young people. The older generation along with community organizers and other allies are making huge efforts to calm the violence and keep things contained and organized, but are not always successful.

“In my wildest dreams I never thought we would get to this. There are assumptions about us that are very wrong and we experience their implications every day. I completely understand these young protesters. We are fighting for our existence. When I hear from my nephews and nieces about being slapped by police officers, my heart breaks,” says Michal.

Rivkah joined her friends in the streets this week to protest Solomon Tekah’s death. “The fight for us is now in the streets, it is not only a fight for justice, it is a fight for the future. Tomorrow it could be my own brother.” she said. Rivkah and her friends blocked the roads of a southern highway entrance to Haifa. She watched as people grew frustrated from the inside of their air conditioned cars. “They are so disconnected from our reality,” she said. A 60 year old woman got out of her car, looked at her and said, “Go back to where you came from, I don’t care that someone was murdered!”

“Where do you want me to go? Rivkah thought to herself. This is my country, I have nowhere else to go.”

Many Ethiopians in Israel feel that too many Israelis are detached from the crevices in their own society. “What is most frustrating to me is that the Israeli public is not here with us. They are busy looking at edited films. I am against violence but I think that the reactions yesterday were not proportional. People were so quick to say that they withdraw their support from the community. This is not a popularity contest. We are fighting for the lives of our children!” explains Michal.

“We reached this terrible state as a result of 30 years of oppression. I wouldn’t call this a shooting, I would call it a murder.” says Rivkah. “I think that Israeli society is entirely unaware of the situation. The shooting is an extreme of what we go through on a regular basis. People need to understand that every day children and adults are being targeted by the police, experiencing violence,” she concludes.

Seven months ago Yohannes spoke before the Palmor committee in the Knesset. The Palmor committee was established by PM Netanyahu after the 2015 protests in an effort to abolish racism against Ethiopian Israelis. “I told the members of the committee that learning about our folklore is not enough; eating injera is not the solution. Our culture is not the problem - the challenges that our community members face today didn’t come with them from Ethiopia. The problem lies with how people treat someone with darker skin.” Yohannes explained to the members of the committee that the situation is no less than a ticking-time bomb, that at this point the community has no trust in the police. “Six months ago a young man was shot in Bat Yam. A few days ago Solomon Teka was killed. The police needs to do some serious introspection. This cannot keep happening. The government and the police have been warned.”

Looking forward, there is still some hope.

According to Michal, there is hope for the future in the upcoming generation of young leaders. “Here are impressive young leaders - a whole generation - that will not be silent. This generation is putting everything front of center and will not quietly absorb the reality. I have a lot of respect for them.”

Based on the tenacity of these protests, it seems as though these young leaders will not allow Israeli society to quietly continue systematic racism and discrimination. These protests may be the beginning of a long process of open conversations about race and racism within Israeli society.

At Yahel, our hearts are aching. It pains us once again to see a young unarmed Ethiopian man killed. This is not an issue of the Ethiopian community alone, it is an issue that touches all of us. May Salomon Teka's memory be a blessing. May Israel wake up to understand that this must change.

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