Not ‘Israel’s Baltimore’, but real cause for concern

Suddenly, a whole lot of people in Israel are talking about Baltimore.

Police detain an Ethiopian-Israeli man inside City Hall during the riot on May 3rd in Tel Aviv. (Ben Hartman)

Police detain an Ethiopian-Israeli man inside City Hall during the riot on May 3rd in Tel Aviv. (Ben Hartman)

The city has become a buzzword in Israel for riots and protests against police brutality and racism. Coinciding with the publication of a video of an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier being beaten by police, the images of riot cops clashing with protesters and row houses in flames became a symbol to many of what could happen in Israel if the situation spun out of control, if years of frustration in the Ethiopian community were somehow sparked.

At the moment, that seems a far way off. As jarring as the riot in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square was Sunday night, it was a far cry from the riots in Baltimore and a series of other US cities in the past couple of years.

For one, the violence of the protesters was focused squarely on police, with most of the vandalism targeting police as well. We may yet see the day when a violent incident sparks a riot in which Ethiopian Israelis set fire to buildings in their own neighborhoods and fistfight in the streets with white Israelis, but that’s not the case here – and as bad as it was, Sunday night wasn’t Baltimore 2.0.

Still, there’s reason for concern, and one only needs to walk around with their eyes open on a day like Sunday.

An Ethiopian-Israeli mother who wouldn’t give her name stood at Rabin Square before the riot started Sunday night, holding a picture of her son, a young man she said was beaten by police. Hours earlier on the Ayalon Freeway, a group of protesters wore shirts and carried a sign in memory of Yosef Salamsa , an Ethiopian Israeli who is believed to have killed himself earlier this year after alleged abuse by police.

They’re just two out of an unknown number of Ethiopian-Israeli men who have allegedly been abused by Israeli police, a phenomenon that was largely unknown to the wider Israeli public before this past week.

As the dust settled on Rabin Square on Monday, police were preparing for a meeting by a task force formed last week to examine issues involving police and the Ethiopian community. They had vowed to reexamine cases involving allegations of police brutality or Ethiopians accused of assaulting police, but following last night’s events, it’s safe to assume there will be a different tone to the task force’s meetings – which will now be tinged with more mutual suspicion and anger on both sides about Sunday night’s events.

Moving forward, police will have to examine ways to repair ties with a community whose younger generation sees them largely as an adversary that is not looking to protect and serve them. It might not be that much easier with a lot of the older generation, many of whom have heard stories from their children of abuse at the hands of police.

One suggestion will almost certainly be an increased recruitment of Ethiopian police officers. Anyone who has been at a protest in Israel before knows there is already no shortage of Ethiopian Israelis in the Border Patrol or YASSAM units of the Israel Police, but having them in higher numbers on patrol and narcotics and detective units could be a positive step.

Either way, I would not envy the police officers tasked with increasing recruitment among Ethiopian youth, as they’re now the ones rioting against them and the institution in solidarity with Damas Pakedeh, the young IDF soldier shown on tape being beaten by police officers in Holon.

On a certain level, the issue goes beyond racism. It deals partly with the way that, in Israel and many other places, those who are vulnerable or lack connections are more likely to be abused.

If you are on the margins of society or not part of the elite, you are likely to not have the same level of protection from abuse by the authorities; if you live in a poor, neglected neighborhood, it can be easier for law enforcement and other authorities of the state to be dismissive of you. As bad as police brutality towards minorities is, it’s usually just a symptom of a wider series of social failings.

One thing’s for sure, if you are a young Ethiopian Israeli in a neighborhood like Jesse Cohen in Holon, you’d better hope there are cameras nearby if you’re in an altercation with police. A non-Ethiopian Israeli will also find it’s nothing but their word against that of the cops if the incident isn’t on tape, but if you ask most Ethiopian Israelis, they’ll say it’s a whole different ballgame for members of their community.

Moving forward, after the smoke clears from the “Battle of Rabin Square,” there’s a good chance that Yosef and the son of the woman in the square will take a backseat as the debate goes forward, focusing largely on the violence of protesters Sunday night.
That would be a shame, because as violent as protesters were towards police – who largely showed restraint for most of the day – the grievances are very real, and almost every Ethiopian Israeli will tell you they know someone who was abused by police, if they weren’t themselves victims.

And here’s another thing that should be said: Time and again, when people talk about police brutality suffered by Ethiopian Israelis, they mention how the victim was a soldier – how he served his country in Gaza, how he was a paratrooper, a Golanchik, a fighter and a patriot who put his life on the line and deserves better. They’re right, but they’re missing the point.

Freddie Gray wasn’t a combat veteran, and he was no angel in the years before the Baltimore police killed him. He had a rap sheet, but it shouldn’t matter – not in Maryland, and not in Israel. Even if you’re a petty criminal, a knucklehead who dropped out of high school and smokes weed every day, a kid who can’t hold his liquor and runs his mouth too much, or a screw-up the army threw in jail and kicked out of the service, you still deserve respect.

You don’t deserve to lose your dignity or your life. That’s what justice means.

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