Note: Sahar Vardi serves as Coordinator of AFSC's Israel program working with refusers to military service and against militarism within Israel. She attended a recent protest focused on recent killings and abuse of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. This is her reflection on it and its connection to the movement against police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, in the United States. - Lucy
On Thursday April 30th at 4PM, a few dozen Ethiopian Israelis gathered for a protest in front of the police headquarters in Jerusalem. The protest was prompted by the documented beating of an Ethiopian Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier by police a few days earlier, an incident that raised once again the issue of police violence against the Ethiopian community.
Three Ethiopians were killed by police, or killed themselves after extreme police abuse, in the past year, Ethiopians report on police brutality on a regular basis, and while Ethiopians are 2-3% of Israeli population, 40% of the juvenile prison population are Ethiopian.
Years of overt racism accompanied by the settlement of Ethiopians in neglected absorption centers (78% of the population of these centers are Ethiopian). These centers are supposed to be a temporary solution for new immigrants to Israel, but today host over 2,300 Ethiopians that have been there for over 2 years. 51% of the Ethiopian population, and 65% of Ethiopian children, live under the poverty line, and 56% of the community is dependent on welfare services.
The protestors started chanting against police brutality, “A violent cop should be put inside [prison],” while more and more buses with protestors from around the country showed up. People arrived from Ashkelon, Dimona, Holon, Hadera, in bus after bus. More and more youngsters, mostly in their late teens or early 20’s, gathered around the police station.
The chants shifted, no longer just about police violence, but about years of discrimination, about structural racism. The small drive-in of the station was over-packed when protestors decided to walk up to the main road, blocking traffic of one of the main roads of Jerusalem during a Thursday afternoon rush-hour. The riot police showed up, some galloping into the crowd on their horses, trying to disperse the protestors who just kept coming back, more and more joining, until hundreds of youth blocked the road and light rail tracks. “I’m proud to be black” they chant while some throw Shiru (an Ethiopian hot spice) on police officers.
While blocking the tram, a policeman taps on the shoulder of one of the protestors, who turns, and hugs him with a huge smile on his face. They served together in the military. A young woman stands not far away with a shirt that reads “Our blood is only good enough for war.” Ethiopians are a greatly over-represented population in combat units (25%), mostly the front line units, and yet between 30% and 50% (depending on the year) of the Ethiopian soldiers are imprisoned at some point during their military service. Most of these are imprisoned for deserting from the military in order to work and contribute to the income of their families.
Another young woman frowns, and the police officer turns to her and says “I have a family to feed, but if you tell me it will help, I’ll take off the uniform right now. Will it help?”
After almost two hours, the protest moved towards city center – hundreds of Ethiopians with a few extreme left and extreme right white activists joining them, blocked half the city while making their way towards the Prime Minister’s house. It seemed the police orders were clear: try to avoid confrontation; police brutality in a protest against police brutality doesn’t look good on camera.
But even those orders couldn’t hold for long, and as the protest got close to the Prime Minster’s house and years of oppression mixed with an overwhelming feeling of empowerment by that march and by making the entire city stop and be forced to listen, turned into rage, and stones started flying towards the police. The police reacted.
Tear gas in East Jerusalem is a weekly, if not a daily, occurrence, but in West Jerusalem I have never witnessed it – not until black protestors arrived at protests.
The police pulled out sound bombs, water cannons, skunk water, teargas, and batons. Someone gave the order, and the police demonstrated the brutality the protestors were protesting.
Two days later, in the center of Tel Aviv, the images repeated themselves: thousands of Ethiopian protestors, roads blocked for hours, and the police finally deciding to put an end to it, arresting 40 people, hospitalizing dozens. Ten officers were hospitalized, a police car was turned over, windows were broken, and the famous protest square of Tel Aviv, used to quiet authorized peace rallies no one cares about, was taken apart for its stones to be thrown at the police that stormed the area.
On the Friday between the protest in Jerusalem and the one in Tel Aviv, the Palestinian weekly protests against the wall and settlements took place as always.
In Al-Ma’asara, a small village to the south of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, the weekly protest was held in solidarity with the Ethiopian protestors. The leader of the village’s popular committee spoke to a line of soldiers blocking his way: “This racism your country is based on, that occupation is based on, it hurts you…. Today they attack us, yesterday they attacked Ethiopians, even if you’re a soldier like the Ethiopian soldier that was attacked, racists will still beat you up…The same is true for the Druze: Be careful, don’t speak Arabic loudly in the streets. Just last month a Druze soldier was beaten up in Haifa for speaking Arabic…. None of you are safe from this racism.”
Al-Ma’asara has seen a lot of teargas throughout the years, and the protestors there know all too well what law enforcement violence looks like. But to be able to see the resemblance between one oppression and another - the core racism at the base of it – that is where solidarity can be seen and unlikely alliances form. While police continue to be violent from Baltimore to Jerusalem to Al-Ma’asara, we can only hope that these connections will be made and people oppressed by the government can work together for liberation and justice.