The shooting death of an 18-year-old Ethiopian immigrant unleashed an uncharacteristic rage that brought thousands into the streets throughout Israel. While there is no justification for violence, including rock-throwing and setting fire to cars, or for holding millions of people hostage in traffic jams, the frustration that fueled the fury is easy to understand.
To be sure, every immigrant group that arrives in Israel is treated as outsiders, until the next wave of immigration from a different country comes along. But the Ethiopians have had a much harder go of it, partly because of skin color. Another thing working against them is their tradition of humility and modesty that makes it harder for them to stand up for their rights — unlike, say, Moroccans or Russians.
The shooting death last week of Solomon Tekah by an off-duty policeman — the second Ethiopian youth to be shot and killed by police in half a year — and the media attention it generated, provided a reason and an opportunity for members of the community to speak out on the humiliation they’ve endured. For example, a youth of Ethiopian origin who is out late at night with his friends will routinely be stopped by police and asked to produce ID, something that almost never happens with other young people.
Dr. Hadas Malada-Matzri, the first Ethiopian-Israeli female doctor in the Israeli army, wrote last week of being called “kushit” by classmates and of patients refusing to be treated by her, including a pilot with a rank of colonel. A female soldier said she didn’t want to go to the “smelly Ethiopian doctor.”
And there was the time when she took two of her young children to an appointment at the mother-child health clinic in Ofakim and was subjected to stone-throwing and name-calling by children at a nearby school.
In Rechovot, this January, an Ethiopian-Israeli fireman was abused by an officer who broke an egg on his head, threw a shoe at him and said, “Say thank you that we brought you out of the jungle. It’s doubtful that you’re even Jewish.” All this took place in front of other firemen, and no one lifted a finger. Worse, when it was brought to the attention of the commander of the fire station, he did everything in his power to cover it up.
And, just recently, an Ethiopian-Israeli paratrooper was called “kushi” by his platoon commander. (Thankfully, IDF Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi immediately dismissed the officer.)
To be fair, these intolerable instances of discrimination are not mainstream. But they must be uprooted.
Israel as a country is certainly not racist. It has gone to extraordinary lengths to bring Ethiopians to the country, in daring rescue missions, and to provide housing and other opportunities. But more must be done to educate and sensitize the public. And the message must go out from the command of the police, the army, the fire department and elsewhere that there will be zero-tolerance for discrimination.