“Baltimore Is Here”: Ethiopian Israelis Protest Police Brutality in Jerusalem

This article is published in Mondoweiss.

Ethiopian Israelis took to the streets of Jerusalem on the evening of April 30 to protest police brutality and systemic racism. Haaretz reports that approximately 1,000 protesters gathered, principally from the Ethiopian Jewish community.

The citizens condemned racism and police brutality toward the Ethiopian Jewish community, calling for the end of impunity for cops who harass them.

Ethiopian Israelis protest police brutality, in Jerusalem on April 30 CREDIT: Haaretz

Ethiopian Israelis protest police brutality, in Jerusalem on April 30
CREDIT: Haaretz

A video released of a white Israeli police officer attacking a black Israeli soldier in Tel Aviv on April 26 angered many in the Ethiopian Israeli community, which is disproportionately targeted by Israeli police. The video shows officers pushing Demas Fekadeh, an Ethiopian Israeli soldier, to the ground and beating him.

Zionist Union Member of Knesset Shelly Yachimovich remarked in a Facebook post “It wouldn’t be far-fetched to expect that if [Demas Fekadeh], the soldier who was hit, was a light-skin soldier, preferably with an Ashkenazi appearance, he would not have sustained harsh blows without consideration from police.”

This is by no means an isolated incident. In March 2014, an Ethiopian Israeli by the name of Yosef Salamseh was in a public park with his friends when police approached him. They accused him of breaking into a house, a claim he adamantly denied. The cops then attacked him with a Taser gun, kicked him, handcuffed him, shackled his legs, threw him in a police car, and detained him in a nearby police station. His family later found him unconscious and tied-up. A few months later, he died. Police claimed it was a suicide.

An Ethiopian Israeli blocking a police vehicle in a protest against police brutality, in Jerusalem on April 30 CREDIT: Lior Mizrahi)

An Ethiopian Israeli blocking a police vehicle in a protest against police brutality, in Jerusalem on April 30
CREDIT: Lior Mizrahi

In the wake of the incident, Salamseh came to be known by many as “Israel’s Michael Brown,” referring to an 18-year-old black American man who was walking down the street with a friend in Ferguson, Missouri when white police officer Darren Wilson shot him nine times, three times in the head.

Numerous journalists reported that the Ethiopian Jewish protesters in Jerusalem were chanting “Baltimore is here!”, connecting their struggle against racist brutality in Israel to the struggle of black Americans against racist brutality in the US.

Civil unrest emerged in Baltimore on April 25, in response to the police killing of Freddie Gray, an innocent, unarmed black man who was arrested for looking at a police officer in the face and then running away. While in police custody, Gray’s voice box was crushed and his spine was 80% severed. Baltimore police later accused him of injuring himself, although video footage was released of cops pummeling Gray. In the video, Gray can be heard asking for his inhaler, as he had trouble breathing, and appears to be incapable of walking, because of the brutal beating he suffered. (Police also harassed and later arrested the man who captured the attack on camera.) A medical expert revealed that it is virtually impossible that Gray injured himself.

Black Israelis have tied their own struggle to that of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US—a civil and human rights movement that emerged in response to the constant police murders of unarmed, innocent black Americans at the hands of white police—not just by drawing connections between Baltimore and Jerusalem, but furthermore by launching an Israeli offshoot of the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” campaign.

Ethiopian Israelis protesting police brutality outside of Netanyahu's house, in Jerusalem on April 30 CREDIT: Keren Simons

Ethiopian Israelis protesting police brutality outside of Netanyahu’s house, in Jerusalem on April 30
CREDIT: Keren Simons

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews reportedly also gathered outside of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s house, in protest of racist police violence.

Israeli police sprayed protesters with “skunk water” to break up the protests. Israeli forces do the same to peaceful Palestinian protesters in the occupied West Bank. There are also numerous recorded instances of occupation forces spraying skunk water into Palestinian homes.

According to police, some Ethiopian Israeli protesters in the largely peaceful demonstrations were also throwing stones—a protest tactic in which Palestinians living under military occupation in the occupied territories also engage.

The intense racism people of African descent face in Israel is well-documented. Many journalists have written of “Israel’s Disgustingly Racist Behavior Towards Ethiopian Jews.” The self-proclaimed Jewish state has forcibly sterilized Ethiopian Jews, refused to take blood donations from Ethiopian Members of Knesset (referring to it as “the special kind of Jewish-Ethiopian blood” they avoid), and even refused to wed Ethiopian Jews, expressing doubts that they are “truly” Jewish.

An Israeli police officer uses his baton to attack a protester lying on the ground at a demonstration against police brutality, in Jerusalem on April 30, 2015.  CREDIT: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org

An Israeli police officer uses his baton to attack a protester lying on the ground at a demonstration against police brutality, in Jerusalem on April 30, 2015.
CREDIT: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org

2/3rds of Ethiopian Jewish children in Israel live in poverty. Many Ethiopian Jews are forced to live either in ghettos or illegal settlements. These gaping disparities and this structural racism have led to critics calling Israel an Ashkenazi-supremacist state and Zionism a white-supremacist movement, one that is itself anti-Semitic in its oppression of non-Ashkenazi Jews.

Scholar Hanan Chehata describes Israel as the “promised land for Jews… as long as they’re not black.”

Jews of African descent are not the only ones to suffer from the Ashkenazi supremacy of Zionism. Since its earliest days, Mizrahi Jews (those of Middle Eastern descent) have faced systematic discrimination in Israeli society. In the 1950s, Israel forced Mizrahi Jews to live in poverty in tents in shantytown-like transit camps while Ashkenazim were given hotels.

In the decades since, Mizrahim have continued to endure systemic racism. This intense oppression led to the creation of the Israeli Black Panthers, in parallel to the revolutionary socialist Black Panther Party in the US. Former Israeli Black Panthers still protest Israeli racism against Mizrahi Jews today.

Naeim Giladi, an Iraqi Jew and former Zionist who risked his life for Israel in its early days, and a founding member of the Israeli Black Panthers, was disenchanted by the extreme racism he experienced in the country. In the introduction to his article “The Jews of Iraq,” Giladi wrote

I write this article for the same reason I wrote my book: to tell the American people, and especially American Jews, that Jews from Islamic lands did not emigrate willingly to Israel; that, to force them to leave, Jews killed Jews; and that, to buy time to confiscate ever more Arab lands, Jews on numerous occasions rejected genuine peace initiatives from their Arab neighbors. I write about what the first prime minister of Israel called ‘cruel Zionism’. I write about it because I was part of it.