Ethiopian Community in Israel- Shooting, Protest and Response

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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.”

Why Does This Matter?

  1. Ethiopian integration into Israeli society – That the Israeli rescue of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s and 1990s was an incredible and unique feat is widely recognized. New York Times journalist William Safire noted in 1985: “For the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought into a country not in chains but in dignity, not as slaves but as citizens.” The trickier part of this mission has proved to be the integration of these people into Israeli society. Given the great disparity between the new immigrants, who had no prior exposure to modern technology or culture, and the westernized Israelis who received them, the Ethiopian-Israeli community has definitely come a long way since their arrival; Ethiopian-Israelis are enrolling in universities, rising in the ranks in the military and excelling in various professions. But the community overall has lower socio-economic standing, with unemployment and poverty rates higher than average, and experiences racism and discrimination. Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer calls it “that very Israeli syndrome of excellence at peaks and stagnation in the troughs.” A Jerusalem Post article referenced that the Ethiopian-Israeli community “has long accused the state, including the military, of racism, neglect, brutality and abuse.” Prime Minister Netanyahu acknowledged the tension this week, saying “We worked together and achieved important things for the Ethiopian community in Israel and we have more work to do.”
  2. Fodder for anti-Israel sentiment? When an episode like this becomes the front page of Israeli news, what are international readers thinking? Does this incident fuel the fires of anti-Zionism and/or anti-Semitism? Our role as educators is to take charge and have the discussions with our students, modeling how to probe without demonizing Israel. We can discuss this episode with our students in a measured, thoughtful and unprejudiced way. Inno Farda Sanbato wrote in Israel Hayom: “It is a shame that a handful of racist cops are devastating families, destroying an entire community and harming the image of a state that we love and hold so dear.” Some educators might fear that bringing this up will cause their students to turn away from Israel. Read our piece on the Yemenite Children Affair to gain some insights on how to do this well and why it is so important. 
  3. Internal Israeli conflict – Often, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is front and center in Israel news. In our weekly, we try to bring a multiplicity of topics that make up Israeli society – but you’ll be hard pressed to see a week go by without some mention of “the conflict” in the news. I would even argue that the Palestinian “other” has allowed Israelis to forget some of the Jew vs. Jew turmoil within Israel. An incident like this, though, brings internal Israeli conflict to the fore, and certainly the Israeli population can’t ignore it. Scores have been injured during these protests and bigger questions of how the diversity of Israel’s Jewish community can unite without being uniform. 

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. 

Discussion Questions

  1. This incident, one of a handful of such to happen in Israel in the past several years, brings to mind similar instances in the U.S., including the Travyon Martin case and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Racism in the U.S. and in Israel are different beasts, as, of course, the U.S. has a history of slavery and systematic segregation to contend with and Israel made daring missions to bring Ethiopians to its shores. Might one country’s experience shed light on the other’s? What might the U.S. learn from Israel’s experiences, and Israel from the U.S.’?
  2. No matter the circumstances, the death of a 19-year-old is a tragedy. The Ethiopian-Israeli community is understandably shaken up, and outrage at such an incident is unsurprising. The protests in response to Tekah’s death have been quite violent; many law enforcement officials have been injured and much property damaged. Is this reaction justified? (See this Times of Israel article and video for a personal account.)
  3. This Haaretz article calls attention to what it terms the “white media” coverage of events. It accuses the media of working hand-in-hand with the police, overstating the violence of the protests and asking to wait until details of the shooting become clear. What do you make of this accusation?  
  4. Reflection questions: What do you think are the challenges of being a minority in your own society, and how does it compare to the complexities of being a minority in Israeli society? Black Israelis have a deep connection to the Jewish people from various backgrounds. How do you think the concept of peoplehood would affect America if it were part of our conception of identity?

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Watch this video and use the accompanying educational resources to learn more about the amazing plight of the Ethiopian Jewish community. 
  2. In 2015, President Reuven Rivlin delivered a speech about the “four tribes” of Israel. He addressed the growing diversity and also lack of interaction between the different “tribes.” He powerfully stated: “We must not allow the ‘new Israeli order’ to cajole us into sectarianism and separation. We must not give up on the concept of ‘Israeliness’; we should rather open up its gates and expand its language.” Read his words here and/or watch an abridged English-subtitled video of the speech, and then discuss it with your students. 
  3. Use this article to further explore Ethiopian integration in Israel. It highlights some achievements within the Ethiopian-Israeli community and provides discussion questions and classroom tips for year-round use.
  4. Use the “Yes, and…” approach popularized by the world of improvisation to discuss the Ethiopian-Israeli community’s integration into Israeli society.
  5. Watch one of Jerusalem U’s feature films, Mekonen: The Journey of an African Jew. The film tells the incredible story of an Ethiopian-Israeli youth. It is available for purchase, together with educational resources, on the Media Lab website

In Other News…

  1. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak is hoping to make a political comeback. He is forming a new party and intends to run in Israel’s September elections. 
  2. A new DNA analysis done recently revealed important information about ancient Israel’s old foes, the Philistines.
  3. The IDF ruled that Reform rabbis are allowed to officiate at military funerals.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President of Education at Jerusalem U. Noam holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design. Before joining Jerusalem U, he was the principal of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where he spent 9 years actively engaging and empowering students to find meaning in their Jewish learning.

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