Ethiopian Community in Israel- Shooting, Protest and Response

Israeli women from the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during the Sigd holiday marking the desire to 'return to Jerusalem', as they celebrate from a hilltop in the holy city overlooking the Temple Mount, on November 16, 2017. Sigd used to mark the aspirations of Ethiopian Jews to go to Jerusalem and nowadays the festivity is celebrated in Jerusalem with thousands of Ethiopians from all over Israel congregating to pray together, led by their religious leaders, the 'Kessim' who recites prayers while they overlook the old city of Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON

Yes, And…

If you know about the world of improv, you know that the “Yes, and…” approach is becoming quite popular. 

With the news of a 19-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli, Solomon Tekah, killed by an off-duty police officer, I want to apply the “Yes, and…” approach to this situation. 

Let’s take a step back. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states unequivocally that “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles….it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” 

In Israel’s early years, the country worked hard to ensure it would be a safe haven for all Jews, regardless of race or ethnicity. Within just three years, Israel absorbed over 650,000 Jews from 71 countries. Israel saved Holocaust survivors, Jews from Libya, Morocco and Iraq and many other Middle Eastern countries. Proportionally, this was the largest single migration to any country of the twentieth century.

Whether it was Operation Magic Carpet from Yemen in 1949; the fight for Soviet Jewry in the late 80s and 90s; or the covert military operations – Moses, Joshua, and Solomon – from 1984 to 1991, to bring Ethopian Jews to the Jewish state, Israel has ensured that it would be a country that any Jew can find its asylum there.  

The State of Israel and Jews around the world should burst with pride in how it has fulfilled its mission in this way.

Yes, and…we can also acknowledge the very real challenge Israeli society has faced in incorporating Jews from all backgrounds into its society. Daniel Gordis has referred to the challenge of integration in Israel’s early years as one of “cultural elitism” as opposed to racism. 

And this challenge of absorption and integration has continued to this day. With close to 140,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, I have two questions for us to consider. 

  1. How can Israeli society continue to embrace its four tribes, as President Rivlin described them, in a way that brings out the best in each group?
  2. How can we use this as an opportunity to put a mirror to Israeli society and ask critical questions without demonizing Israel in the public square as some might choose to do in an opportunistic and cynical way?

Let’s ask the questions, consider the various perspectives, and push ourselves to feel comfortable in the uncomfortable areas of education.

What Happened?

Last Sunday, an off-duty police officer shot and killed Ethiopian-Israeli teenager Solomon Tekah (19). The officer apparently attempted to break up a street fight, during which Tekah threw stones at him, prompting the officer to shoot; there are different perspectives on the intention of the cop. 

Tekah’s father, Varkah, asked the public to refrain from protesting “until the end of the shiva (mourning period) and to act with restraint and patience.”

The details of the incident are being investigated, but in the meantime, thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest what they see as systemic racism and resentment regarding “law enforcement’s treatment of the minority community.” These protests left more than 110 police officers wounded and 136 protesters arrested. The protests, comprised of the Ehtiopian-Israeli community and its supporters, have turned violent, ranging from highway blockages to assaulting police officers to setting cars on fire. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck an empathetic and conciliatory tone, saying, “The death of Solomon Tekah is a great tragedy,” while remaining resolute that “we cannot see the blocking of roads, Molotov cocktails, attacks on police and citizens and private property.” 

President Reuven Rivlin has called for calm: “We must stop, I repeat, stop — and think together how we go on from here. This is not a civil war. It is a shared struggle of brothers and sisters for their shared home and their shared future. I ask of all of us to act responsibly and with moderation. We are brothers and sisters. We came here, all of us, to our homeland, which is home for every one of us, and we are all equal in it. We will fight for our values and we will fight to ensure a safe future for every child that grows up here.”

Take A Step Back: Who Are The Ethiopian Jews And What Is Their Story?

Israeli historian Anita Shapira describes the Ethiopian story in her book Israel: A History. While there are different approaches to the Ethiopian Jewish community (known as Beta Israel), it seems that it has a long-standing history that left it detached from the rest of the Jewish nation after being exiled from the land of Israel (likely with the destruction of the First Temple, or earlier). Many questioned their Jewish status, and in 1973 Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that the group was indeed Jewish. When political instability put the Jewish community there at risk in the 1980’s, Israel took upon itself to rescue tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.

American-Israeli scholar Daniel Gordis describes Israel’s commitment to rescuing all Jews in trouble, as well as the challenges involved in absorbing the members of the Ethiopian community, in his book Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn. He calls this episode “an immigration project unlike anything Israel had ever attempted before” and states: “Sadly, many Ethiopians became an underclass.” He writes of the instances of racism and discrimination that Ethiopians faced in Israel, though ultimately attributes the barriers they faced to “the very different culture from which they hailed, the vast difference between their Judaism and the religious culture of the country to which they arrived – and the challenges that face immigrants all over the world.”

Diversity of Perspectives within Israel

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan visited the mourning Tekah family. He told them: “Millions of citizens are sharing your grief. What happened with Solomon is sad and tragic, and I hope this is the last [such] case.” Erdan also criticized the police force’s internal affairs department and pointed to a “lack of trust.”

In this Israel Hayom article, Ethiopian-Israeli Sanbato describes how the young children in his community are afraid of police and ambulance sirens, much as children in the South fear rocket sirens. He argues that they are “being forced to grow up with the sense they are being persecuted for no other reason than they are the children of immigrants from Ethiopia.” 

In this Hebrew-language article, Michal Aharoni points to the fact that most of the protestors were Ethiopian-Israeli youth. She maintains that despite what the mainstream might feel, that Ethiopian-Israelis have equal opportunity for success, and are advancing in many areas, the Ethiopian-Israeli community, even its Israeli-born youth, do not experience this equality. What they are protesting and really asking for is the key to “main arena of Israeli society, and not a small side room.” In this Maariv article, there are several several personal accounts of growing up in the Ethiopian-Israeli community. 25-year-old Yehuda describes: “You, whose skin isn’t black, don’t understand but we live in two different countries…. Every day I need to remind myself to walk proudly, with freedom, without worrying about your judgmental stares with preconceived notions.” 18-year-old Yasmin stated: “We are not our parents; we fight for our place here, for our basic right for safety and equality, for our future.”

Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer argues that the Ethiopian situation was a ticking time bomb from its very inception. Israel acted with great heroism and bravado in bringing the community to Israel, but did not invest enough in its absorption.