Damas Pakada, 21, immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia seven years ago. He serves as a soldier in the Israeli Defense Force, helping to provide for his siblings. A week ago on Sunday, he was riding his bike on his way home in the city of Holon. Little did he know he would be thrust into the center of an Israeli schism over racism and police brutality.
As Pakada reached a street that was blocked by police, he says he asked a policeman what the matter was. From that moment on things quickly turned nasty. “He told me: ‘Turn around or I don’t know what will I do to you,’ and immediately started pushing me,” Pakada told Ynet, an Israeli news site. “I told him not to use force and in response he pushed me from the bikes and started hitting me.”
Pakada managed to take a few steps back from the officer and picked up a stone from the ground. “I was afraid,” he told Ynet, “and the policeman threatened to shoot me.” As more police officers came to the scene, Pakada was arrested and later accused of assaulting an officer.
The seemingly unprovoked police brutality against Pakada was filmed by a neighbor, reached the media and became viral within a day.
The result was similar to what’s happened in American cities following the release of videos showing police aggregation against blacks: anger, massive rallies, public discussion and demonstrations that sometimes turned violent.
Last week protesters took to the streets in Jerusalem. Then on Sunday, thousands of Israelis, a majority of them from the Ethiopian community, demonstrated in Tel Aviv. In the first few hours of the rally, even when demonstrators shut down major highways, police showed relative restraint. However, after sunset the situation escalated and clashes erupted in Rabin Square at the heart of the city. Protesters threw stones, planks and bottles at the police force, which in return fired stun grenades and tear gas. At least 46 people were injured, half of them police officers. By the time protesters left the square around 2 a.m., dozens had been arrested.
— Avi Blecherman (@Yomgashum) May 3, 2015
A celebrated immigration
The Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel is relatively small. According to the most recent figures (released last year by the Israeli Bureau for Statistics), 135,000 Ethiopian Jews lived in Israel in 2013, of whom 50,000 were born in the country. They represented a fraction of the 6.5 million Jewish citizens in Israel that year.
Ethiopians arrived in Israel in a few waves of immigration. From 1979 to 1983, the Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence agency, helped thousands walk across deserts on their way to the promised land. In 1985 and 1991 major airlift operations brought thousands more Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Some of these operations were quite risky and celebrated as heroic. None of them could have taken place without the full support of the state of Israel. The immigration from Ethiopia strengthened the Israeli ethos: a country that belongs to all Jews around the world, regardless of their skin color or origin. El-Al, the Israeli airliner that flew the Ethiopians to Israel, used their images in its TV commercials. Every now and then a local media outlet would publish a story about the “first Ethiopian” to become an officer in an elite unit or a doctor in the Israeli Defense Forces. The fact that Ethiopians are serving as members in the Israeli parliament is presented by some as a symbol of their successful integration in the society.
A history of discrimination
Reality, however, is less rosy, and incidents of discrimination are not unheard of. Stories about Ethiopians not allowed in clubs and pubs are common. Members of the Ethiopian community are also angered by the cap on the number of immigrants who are now allowed to enter Israel from Ethiopia, while such restrictions do not apply to any other country of origin.
In the past, some cases of discrimination got worldwide media attention. In January 1996 a newspaper revealed that blood donations from Ethiopians were secretly destroyed. In 2012 a TV investigation claimed that Ethiopian women might have been given a birth control drug without a full explanation of its effects.
Aside from episodes of explicit discrimination, figures from the Bureau of Statistics help illustrate some of the gaps between Ethiopians and other Israelis. The average income of an Ethiopian family is 35% lower than that of an average Israeli family. In 2013 only 50% of Ethiopian high school students passed their exams, compered with 63% in the general population. That year only 47% of Ethiopian households were connected to the Internet, compared with over 70% in the general population.
Recently, however, profiling and aggression by the police seems to be the main concern for the community.
Confronting the violence
On Sunday, protesters in Tel Aviv chanted “Enough of racism, enough of violence!” and “A violent police officer should be in prison.” Many mentioned the case of Yosef Salmasa, a 22-year-old who committed suicide last year, four months after police used a Taser while arresting him. His family claimed there was no real reason for his arrest.
On social media young Ethiopians share their views and experiences, saying they are fed up with police violence. In response to Pakada’s run-in with the police, one member of an Ethiopian Jews group wrote: “We all know that if that instance wasn’t filmed he would already be in jail for no reason, like hundreds of us.”
Social media has played a key role in events over the last week. Information about planned demonstrations and ways to support the struggle passes through Facebook groups such as “Ethiopians United,” “The Black Hand Movement” and “Ethio Kings.” On Monday, protesters were called to Tel Aviv District Court to support Sunday’s detainees.
In an interview with The New York Times, Israeli associate professor Guy Ben-Porat, who researches relations between the police and sectors of Israeli society, said Ethiopian-Israeli citizens “strongly believe that they are discriminated against and harassed. Young Ethiopian males in particular feel the police are out to get them and that they won’t get justice.”
According to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), almost 30% of juveniles in Israeli prisons are of Ethiopian descent. (The Israeli Prison Service does not provide racial breakdown of prisoners.)
While Israelis are no strangers to images of violence, the chaotic scenes from Tel Aviv — a city nicknamed (usually in resentment) as a “bubble” — surprised many. “Battlefield” and “Lost Control” were some of the headlines Monday morning in Israel’s largest newspaper, Israel Hayom.
Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, said Monday that the protests “revealed an open and raw wound at the heart of Israeli society,” but condemned the violence that erupted in Tel Aviv.
Pakada himself was released from custody soon after the video footage of his beating was aired. On Sunday he condemned the violence between police and protesters and on Monday he met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu tweeted a photo from the meeting, saying, “I told Pakada that I was shocked from the images [of him beaten]. We can not accept it and we will change it.”
אמרתי היום לחייל דמאס פיקדה: “הזדעזעתי מהתמונות. אנחנו לא יכולים לקבל את זה ונשנה את הדברים”. pic.twitter.com/PMNxOnLSp3
— בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) May 4, 2015
The prime minister later met with representatives of the Ethiopian community and promised to personally supervise work on solving some of the problems and issues they have raised.
היום בצהריים קיימתי דיון נרחב על המצוקות המרכזיות של יוצאי אתיופיה בישראל, כפי שבאו לידי ביטוי גם בהפגנות האחרונות בירוש…
The police officer who beat Pakada was discharged from duty and the police chief, Yohanan Danino, established a team to examine the relationship between police and the Ethiopian community.
Riki Tegave leads Hiyot, a non-governmental organization designed to empower the Ethiopian community and help immigrants integrate into society. In a phone interview Monday morning she said that the demonstrations are the result of anger and feelings of discrimination that were built up in recent years and have reached a boiling point. When asked about Netanyahu’s comments, she said: “We have had enough promises. It is time to take real action for a real change. We will have to see what Netanyahu does now, as he forms his new government. That will determine if demonstrations will continue or end.”
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Uri Blau is an Israeli investigative journalist specialized in military and political affairs, corruption and transparency . He was a 2014 Nieman Fellow for Journalism at Harvard University