In an effort to reach out to Israeli Ethiopians who have been protesting police brutality and racism, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday met with Damas Pakedeh, the Ethiopian soldier who was beaten up by police officers last week.
Pakedeh was received at the Prime Minister’s Office in Yerushalayim, where Netanyahu embraced him and expressed his shock at the video that captured the incident.
“Hello, Damas, how are you? I wanted to tell you that I was shocked by the video, that we don’t accept it, that the police are dealing with it and we are working to change the situation,” Netanyahu said.
“But I also heard you as well, that you did not want the violence to continue — this is real leadership.”
“I heard you were an excellent student, that you do volunteering on the weekend … that you work very hard,” Netanyahu said.
The Pakedeh incident touched off protests last Thursday in Yerushalayim and Sunday in Tel Aviv, both of which turned violent. The latter event saw Israeli policemen pelted with rocks and bottles in the heart of the city and a mounted charge against the rioters. Before it was over, as many as 55 police officers and 12 civilians were reportedly injured.
President Reuven Rivlin said on Monday that the outbreak of angry protests has “exposed an open, bleeding wound in the heart of Israeli society” and that the country must respond to their grievances.
The violence caught much of the country, including the government, off guard. Rivlin said Israel was seeing “the pain of a community crying out over a sense of discrimination, racism, and of being unanswered.”
“We must look directly at this open wound. We have erred. We did not look, and we did not listen enough,” he said. “We are not strangers to one another, we are brothers, and we must not deteriorate into a place we will all regret.”
About 120,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, a small minority in a country of eight million. Their absorption has been problematic, with many arriving without a modern education and then falling into unemployment and poverty as their family structures disintegrate.
Many of the older generation work at menial jobs — men as security guards and women as cleaning ladies. They tend to have low literacy rates and suffer from high rates of domestic violence. Their children speak fluent Hebrew, study in universities and serve in the army, but despite such gains, the younger generation is still struggling compared to other Israelis.
The images of black Israelis clashing with police have drawn comparisons to the unrest in Baltimore.
But Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, executive director of Tebeka, an advocacy group for Ethiopian Israelis, largely rejected the comparison. While both protests were sparked by police brutality, he told The Associated Press that Ethiopian-Israelis have a different set of issues related to integration into Israel’s modern, fast-paced society.
He called on Netanyahu to make Ethiopian absorption a keystone of his new administration, which is expected to take office in the coming days.
“Before it is too late we call on the prime minister to take the matter into his own hands,” he said. “We urge and we demand of him to bring these issues to an end … in four years I would want to see this prime minister say ‘I’m glad I did’ instead of ‘I wish I had.’”