It has been more than three weeks since the earthquake that rocked Israel in wake of the shooting of Israeli-Ethiopian teenager Solomon Tekah by an off-duty police officer. The national debate that began with an emphasis on the details of the shooting incident has since turned into a discourse on the image of Israeli society – who we are and how we relate to the other’s sense of belonging.
Tekah was reportedly involved in a fight, which the officer was attempting to break up. The officer, who hasn’t been named, claimed he did not target Tekah and had only fired at the ground. Still, the June 30 killing was viewed by the Ethiopian community and many Israelis as part of a pattern of systemic police racism against Ethiopians, and led to days of massive protests across the country. The officer is expected to face charges of reckless homicide.
This event gives us an opportunity to see where we have come from and where we are headed – both ideologically and practically. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that the state “…will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel ... ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex ... (and) guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture...”.
But the truth is that even today, 71 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, some citizens from various identity groups – LGBTQ, people with disabilities, Ethiopians, Arabs and other marginalized groups – feel that “justice” and “equality of social rights” do not apply to them. All make the same basic claim: that many if not most Israelis don’t know their story; that they are not part of the discourse in Israel – and that this paves the way to alienation, injustice, inequality and even racism.
This is the case any time a particular group feels that an identity component distinguishes it from others and becomes a source of discrimination: gender, special needs, national identification, socio-economic status, etc.
All Israelis should be deeply concerned about this inequality. When there is injustice in a society, it affects not only the victims of the injustice, but also and especially the health of the entire society.
For Ethiopian immigrants, it is a doubled edged sword when it comes to their status in society: their skin color leads to racism, and there are doubts about whether or not they are really Jewish.
Sadly, there’s a long history of anti-Ethiopian bigotry in Israeli society. We recall the issue of the discarded blood units in the mid-1990s, the deep resentment over the lack of public interest in the disappearance of Avera Mengistu (a mentally challenged Israeli-Ethiopian who reportedly crossed into Gaza and disappeared), and the affair of the Barkan Wineries, which tried to prevent Ethiopian immigrants from working in wine production for reasons of kashrut and backed down only in wake of public pressure. All of these come in addition to many individual cases of Ethiopian citizens feeling that they are victims of discrimination and racism in the street, in places of business, in employment and in housing.
Are these feelings of discrimination and injustice against a particular group new to Israeli society? Not really. Last year, David Deri’s documentary, Sallah, This is the Land of Israel, stirred up anew the resentment felt by Israel’s North African immigrants. Deri’s documentary corroborated a long-held suspicion that in the 1950s, Israel’s leadership discriminated against North African Jews by settling them in the country’s periphery rather than the center of Israel where Ashkenazi immigrants were settled. The documentary focuses on the deep wounds among the original immigrants as well as the impact this policy has had on the next generations. This deeply-rooted sense of marginalization and discrimination culminated in the Wadi Salib riots in Haifa in 1959, where the police shooting of a resident of North African origin escalated into widespread protests; and later on in the establishment of Israel’s Black Panthers movement in 1971 by the second generation of North African immigrants.
So, the wounds have never completely healed and perhaps precisely from this wounded and painful place, we must all look reality right in the face and take responsibility. Because we don’t want to see another “Sallah” film a few decades down the line and painfully recall what we can correct now, this time regarding Ethiopian immigrants.
So what should we do as a society to improve the situation? Discrimination starts with deep currents that originate in implicit biases and prejudices. These are the forces that motivate and legitimize it. We must fight it where it starts. First, all of us, ordinary people and governmental systems alike, must adopt the “us” approach over the “them” approach. Second, the change must include parents, educators and policymakers. The home is where we first learn about the “other.” And of course, there are the schools, which help us to validate or refute what we have learned. Finally, our leadership must place social issues and especially the promotion of justice and equality at the top of our national priorities.
The coming elections offer an opportunity for the various political parties to address how they will confront the subject of social cohesion in Israel and the issues of justice, equality, attitudes toward the other and trust among the different groups in Israeli society.
A society in which everyone feels equal is not only a moral obligation, but also a national interest: A society in which everyone feels equal is a much stronger one in the face of external challenges. The things that harm the other today can hurt any one of us tomorrow.
So let’s stop talking about “them,” and let’s start thinking – and talking – about “us.”