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After a Police Shooting, Ethiopian Israelis Seek a ‘Black Lives Matter’ Reckoning


NETANYA, Israel — What stings most is not that he was arrested at 15, that his crime was speaking up for a younger boy, that he was one more Ethiopian harassed by the Israeli police, or even that he was pummeled by the police officer on the way to the station house.

The one memory that Izra Ayalo, 25, cannot shake was the moment when the officer told a commander, “Watch this,” and raised his fist again.

Mr. Ayalo flinched. The commander laughed.

“From that point on,” Mr. Ayalo said, “I’ve had a hole in my heart.”

He is not the only one.

The fatal police shooting of an unarmed Ethiopian-Israeli teenager on June 30 has set off angry and sometimes violent protests in cities across Israel, forcing a national reckoning with what black Israelis say is a history of endemic racism, especially when it comes to treatment by the police.

Ethiopian-Israelis, a tiny minority of 150,000 in a country of 9 million, say they hope the killing of 18-year-old Solomon Tekah might finally be their Black Lives Matter moment. At a minimum, it has been a galvanizing one: In housing-complex courtyards and shady parks, on social media and in professional suites, people in all reaches of the community have become newly emboldened to speak out.

“It’s about all of us: lawyers, doctors, everyone,” said Michal Avera Samuel, the Ethiopian-born director of Fidel, a nonprofit organization that runs youth centers and offers training in leadership and parenting skills — but who says she is frequently offered housecleaning work by people who do not know her. “For the first time, we are willing to put it on the table.”

Ethiopian-Israelis have been here before.

At least four Ethiopian Israelis have been killed by police fire since 1997. Another seven were recorded as suicides or died in murky circumstances after encounters with the police, according to community activists. Nine of the 11 were under age 25.

You don’t have to talk to many black men in Israel to find stories of abuse by the police.

Laoul Tashala, 24, said that as an 11-year-old boy in the city of Rehovot, in a poor neighborhood where half the residents are Ethiopian-Israeli, he was “searched and stripped” by officers who confiscated the cellphone he had bought with money earned from odd jobs and gardening.

His friend David Mulu, 25, told of being picked up by police — for the third time and as ever for no reason — six months ago outside the community center where he was a youth counselor.

“How does it look when the kids see I’ve been arrested?” he said.

“All of us have stories like this,” said Mr. Ayalo, who works as a deliveryman in the city of Netanya, home of the country’s largest concentration of Ethiopian-Israelis. He said his rap sheet contained 10 bogus arrests, four of them expunged so far.

“They know we don’t have money for lawyers,” he said. “They know we can’t defend ourselves.”

Israeli officials acknowledge a longstanding problem of “over-policing” — aggressive tactics in response to minor violations.

In 2015, after two officers were caught on video beating a young soldier of Ethiopian descent as he headed home in uniform in an apparently unprovoked assault, the government formed a commission to stamp out racism. It was led by Emi Palmor, the director general of the Justice Ministry.

Government absorption policies sent many Ethiopian children to boarding schools. Patriarchal family structures began to break down as women went to work and children overtook their illiterate parents, leading to domestic conflict.

Even their Judaism was questioned. Traditional religious leaders, or Kessim, were stripped of authority by state religious bodies. Men were asked to undergo a second, symbolic circumcision.

The immigrants tended to stick together and even with the benefit of government-subsidized mortgages could only afford apartments in the poorest neighborhoods, spawning ghettos that have proved hard to escape.

“The concept was that they would develop best as a community,” said Isaac Herzog, a former minister of social services and welfare who now chairs the Jewish Agency, which deals with immigration. “That was a historic mistake.”

Only 20 percent of Ethiopian Israelis who grew up here hold an academic degree, compared with 40 percent of the rest of the Jewish population, according to a 2015 study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. Monthly household income is nearly a third lower than the national average.

Even those who do get an education often find color is still a formidable barrier.

“It’s very difficult as someone who’s black to get the same opportunities,” said Alamito Itzhak, 32, of Netanya, who said she had earned a teaching certificate but was stuck working as a supermarket cashier. “People find it very hard to see you as equal.”

But it is in the conflicts with the police that racism can be deadly.

In January, just months before Mr. Tekah was shot in the northern city of Haifa, Yehuda Biadga, 24, was fatally shot in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam. Mr. Biadga, who suffered from a mental disorder, was the street with a knife. His family had called the police for help.

The killings are not as common as those in the United States, a far larger country with a larger black minority, but the parallels are unmistakable.

“As a mother, I’m very afraid,” said Tami Ayalo, 35, an account manager at an import-export company who was visiting her mother in a heavily Ethiopian district of Kiryat Malachi. With an 11-year-old son who will soon want the freedom to go out alone, she said, “You know you are getting close” to the stage when the police may see him as an “automatic suspect.”

The police acknowledge the problem.

Gilad Erdan, the minister for internal security, said this week that he met with dozens of activists who told of mistreatment by the police and “they did not all make up stories and did not coordinate with each other.”

But the authorities say there has been progress. Ms. Palmor wrote recently that internal data reflected “a drop in over-policing” and “a significant improvement in police interactions with young Ethiopian Israelis.” Indictments of Ethiopian-Israeli minors for assaulting a police officer have fallen by about a third.

Mr. Erdan and Motti Cohen, the acting police commissioner, promised to set up a new unit “to fight expressions of racism wherever they exist” and to ensure that force is used “moderately and responsibly only against those who break the law.”

Ethiopians are hopeful but they have heard these promises before. All they ask, they say, after an extraordinary journey to a promised land, is to be accepted as no less Israeli than anyone else.

In the 1980s, as a youth of 14, Zion Getahun walked hundreds of miles from his village in Ethiopia to a camp in Sudan, from where he was airlifted to Israel.

He had grown up listening to his grandmother dream aloud about reaching Jerusalem. Getting there after a journey of more than two months was “like touching the moon,” he said.

Mr. Getahun, an educator who sat on the Palmor committee and runs an Ethiopian community center in Jerusalem, compared the Ethiopians to Arab Israelis who have long born the brunt of bigotry here. Now, he said, “We have passed the Arabs in discrimination.”

“Is this the Israel we dreamed of?” he added. “It’s a question I ask.”


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