It turned out that Ferguson wasn’t what they said it was either, but that’s another story.
Don’t Americanize it. A black Israeli of Ethiopian origin was shot dead by a policeman, and there were riots, roads were blocked, cars were overturned and even set on fire. That is where the resemblance stops. There is skin-color racism in Israel, but the dynamics are different. Everything is different.
What happened: All the details are not clear at this time, and won’t be until the official investigation report comes out. But the policeman’s story has leaked out, and it seems to hold up. There are many details that I’ve heard about that I am not including because they can’t be verified. But it seems that what took place was this:
An off-duty policeman in civilian clothes was in a park with his wife and children. He came across a fight in which three older youths were beating up a 13-year old in an attempt to steal his phone. He identified himself as a policeman and ordered them to stop. They turned on him, at which point the 13-year old escaped.
The men approached the policeman and threw stones at him; he was hit several times, including in the head. He drew his weapon and fired a warning shot into the ground. The bullet hit the ground and either the whole bullet or a fragment of it ricocheted upward and struck Salomon Tekah (19) in the chest, killing him. It has been reported that an internal police investigation has confirmed this, and therefore the policeman will not be charged with manslaughter. He may or may not be disciplined.
I interviewed a veteran of the police who is now a firearms instructor, and who teaches security personnel of various levels both how to shoot and when and how they are permitted to do so. He explained that the protocol for arresting a suspect requires that a warning shot be fired unless the officer feels that there is imminent danger to his life. In an open area, the shot may be fired into the air, but in a crowded urban environment it may, indeed must, be fired into the ground. The park was surrounded by apartment buildings, and would be such an environment. In any event, the policeman said that he believed that there was imminent danger to his life.
The instructor also said that police officers are afraid of finding themselves in similar situations, in which they are forced to defend themselves, and then punished for it.
Spokespersons for Tekah’s family and the Ethiopian community have called it murder. The policeman has received death threats, pictures of him and his family have been posted to social media with incitement to kill him, and he has been placed under house arrest with his family in an undisclosed location.
The extent and intensity of the demonstrations, in some cases riots, seems to have taken the country by surprise. It shouldn’t have. There have been numerous cases of conflict between police and Ethiopians, including several others in which people were killed. In 2015, after a young soldier, Damas Pakada, was beaten by police, apparently without provocation, there were massive demonstrations. The Prime Minister appointed a commission to make recommendations, and both he and the police Inspector General met with Pakada to apologize. The policeman who beat him was fired.
The commission made 53 recommendations for changes in education, media, and policing. Some were implemented and some not, but activists in the Ethiopian community say that relations with the police have not improved since then. Ethiopians are arrested to a degree out of proportion to their fraction of the population, and young people say that they are often hassled on the street by police when they are doing nothing illegal.
Expressions of racism are common in some segments of Israeli society. There are many Ethiopians and other dark-skinned Israelis who work as doctors, nurses, and so on. They report that some patients refuse to be treated by them, sometimes abusively. This evening’s TV news featured a woman doctor describing one mother screaming “I won’t let that koosheet [nigger] touch my daughter.” I’ve heard similar stories from my friend who is of Indian origin, and dark skinned.
Even though it seems that the recent shooting, while tragic, was not a case of deliberate malice – or even negligence – by the police officer, it has been the straw that broke the camel’s back with many younger Israelis of Ethiopian origin, most of them born here. They don’t understand why they should accept the continued humiliations from the police and others. They serve in the army (where they sometimes claim that they are discriminated against) and they are asked to die for their country. Some of them do.
Ethiopian Jews were not brought here in chains; they were rescued from persecution. There was no slavery, no Jim Crow, no lynching. A great deal has been written about the mistakes that were made in trying to help people from a subsistence economy integrate into our modern highly technical society. But the ones who are angrily demonstrating today were born here, speak perfect Hebrew, and are quite conversant with modern technology. They are a product of our educational system (in which they also claim to have experienced discrimination).
They are right about one thing: it is their country, no less than it is the country of the descendants of the European Zionists that landed here in 1880, or the Sephardim who greeted them when they got off the boats, or the Eastern Europeans who fled the Nazis, or the North Africans, Egyptians, and Iraqis that were forced out of the communities where they had lived, sometimes for centuries, or the Yemenites who were also rescued from a highly undeveloped culture, or the Russians who escaped the Soviet Union. No less.
This is a difficult problem, especially for the police, who daily have to make decisions that could end up like the one that ended the life of Salomon Tekah, and the career of the policeman, who after all only wanted to stop a robbery and assault of a child.
Progress is being made in many areas. Although still lower than other groups, the percentages of Ethiopian-Israelis graduating from high school and going to university are increasing, as is average family income. Arrests are decreasing, especially for “contact offenses” where a policeman initiates contact by asking someone for their identity card, etc. Perhaps integration is taking longer than it did for other groups, and not fast enough for those that are experiencing it, but it is happening.
But certain things are clear: the ill-treatment of people because of their race must stop, in every context. My wife says there should be a sign at the door of every hospital: “People of numerous colors, religions, and origins work here. If that’s a problem for you, get your healthcare somewhere else.”
I don’t think we need the American-style discussions of how our society is structurally racist that are appearing in the progressive media. We don’t need Americans to tell us that our problem is just like theirs, because it isn’t. We certainly don’t need left-wing NGOs telling Ethiopian-Israelis that Israel is not their country, and that they should join with our enemies to destroy it. We don’t need to widen the cracks in our society.
We do need to take the complaints of the Ethiopian-Israeli community seriously. At the same time, they should stop calling what happened last week “murder.” They need to understand that the police have a job to do, an essential job to maintain a secure society. The anger on both sides needs to be replaced by rational problem-solving.
And we need to get everybody to internalize this simple fact: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. All of them.