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After Ethiopian Israeli Is Killed by Police, Protesters Face a Few Inconvenient Truths

Those accusing the Jewish state of systemic racism have little to say about the orchestrated and massively successful efforts of the past decade

Liel Leibovitz
July 11, 2019
Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Last month, an Israeli off-duty police officer shot and killed an 18-year-old named Solomon Tekah. The incident is still under investigation, but initial ballistic reports seem to support the officer’s account that he was breaking up a fight between Tekah and other teens and that he felt threatened and fired once into the ground after Tekah began pelting him with rocks. Still, many Israelis felt disinclined to wait for the police to file its final report: Tekah was an Ethiopian Israeli, and almost immediately thousands of protesters began blocking major roads throughout the country and shouting that Tekah’s death was caused by blatant racism. Some of these protesters were Ethiopian Israelis; many others were progressive activists who argued that Israel was oppressing its Ethiopian citizens just as it was its Palestinian neighbors. More than a few of these protesters held signs with a slogan imported from overseas—Black Lives Matter—and a parade of pundits and progressive politicians took to the air to decry what they argued was an unbearable, systemic bigotry against Ethiopian Israelis.

The facts tell a very different story.

Leaving aside Tekah’s tragic death—several weeks in, the investigation appears to be both robust and transparent—all available data suggests that the story of Ethiopian Israelis is, increasingly, a cheerful one. Brought to Israel in two intricate military operations—1984’s Operation Moses, and 1991’s Operation Solomon—Ethiopian Israelis, like most mass migration movements, faced considerable challenges upon arrival. As a result, the community found itself near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, with Ethiopian Israelis earning far less than their non-Ethiopian peers, dropping out of school in greater numbers, and having more difficulty fitting into institutions like the Israel Defense Forces. In addition, many complained of outright discrimination. That, too, is regrettable but not extraordinary: Israel has absorbed other large waves of immigration before, and all of them—from the Moroccans who arrived in the late 1940s and early 1950s to the Russians who came in the 1990s—faced uphill battles to overcome prejudices and cultural barriers. This dynamic was the subject of one of Israeli comedy’s most famous skits, in which group after group of newly arrived olim climb ashore only to turn around and accuse the immigrants who came just a moment later of being savages who’d soon destroy the nation.

Joking aside, when it came to Ethiopian Israelis, the government took concrete steps to close the considerable gaps that separated them from the rest of the population, establishing an official committee for that purpose in 2016. The committee issued a comprehensive report, recommending everything from greater representation for Ethiopian Israelis on television to concentrated efforts to boost their numbers in institutions of higher learning to setting up special task forces to make sure law enforcement officials show greater sensitivity when working with the Ethiopian Israeli community. These recommendations were taken seriously: According to the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, a progressive nonprofit, a substantial portion of the committee’s proposals have been turned into policy. A report this week by Israel’s Ministry of Justice was even more concrete, saying that 84% of the committee’s recommendations were adopted. In addition, after a handful of other incidents in the last five years—including the fatal shooting of Yehuda Biadga, a mentally unstable young man who charged a police officer with a knife—the Israeli police made improving relations with the Ethiopian community a priority, conducting 80 workshops on the subject last year alone in its national training academy. In addition, the police Department for Internal Investigation released data in 2016 that shows that complaints related to allegations of police brutality against Ethiopian Israelis resulted in the accused officers facing charges in 22% of cases, a comparable rate to complaints involving other Israeli communities.

But if you want to see the full scope of change when it comes to Israel’s Ethiopian community, consider the following: After the Council for Higher Education, the umbrella group of all Israeli universities and colleges, pledged $22 million to help Ethiopian Israelis pursue academic degrees, their numbers among the country’s overall bachelor’s degree recipients skyrocketed. In 2000, only 704 Ethiopians received a B.A.; by 2018, that number grew fourfold, and the number of Ethiopian Israelis pursuing their master’s degree grew sevenfold. This means that while Ethiopian Israelis are still underrepresented in colleges and universities, the education gap has narrowed dramatically: A group that makes up 1.7% of the college-age population, now accounts for 1.3% of the actual college student population. Naturally, with better education came better jobs: In the two decades between 1997 and 2016, the average salary for Ethiopian men, for example, increased by a whopping 44%, bringing it much closer to the overall national average. Similar statistics, all indicating substantial and deep-seated improvement, are evident across any number of other endeavors. So is encouraging anecdotal evidence, such as the first Ethiopian Israeli recently graduating the Israel Air Force’s prestigious Flight Academy. There’s still much work to be done—from training teachers to making sure Ethiopian Israeli artists enjoy greater visibility—but if you look at day-to-day observable reality rather than the most egregious headlines, you should be feeling strongly optimistic.

Many Israelis, sadly, have no interest in observable reality.

The Tekah case is fascinating in part because it exposes a deepening foundational divide that has yet to be fully reflected in political discourse but is becoming more significant than traditional divisions like left versus right and secular versus religious that were for long thought to order Israeli society. On one side of this chasm are those for whom inequality and discrimination are problems to be addressed with effective policies that set up attainable goals measurable by concrete yardsticks. On the other are those for whom inequality and discrimination are sins, unameliorable moral failures that can’t be redressed through the standard practices of politics, only absolved by means of repentance. The first group looks for solutions here on earth; the second has its eyes trained on heaven.

This divide has far-reaching implications. Most grimly, it makes dialogue impossible. Try telling those who believe Israel in 2019 to be Alabama in 1965 that the state is successfully investing tremendous resources in eradicating inequality—or, for that matter, try arguing that accusations of inherent racism are somewhat complicated by the fact that it was the state that mounted two hugely complicated military campaigns to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the first place—and you’ll be impatiently dismissed. For the true believers, observable reality is not the point. True believers have no room in their raging hearts for statistics. The change they seek is cataclysmic, otherworldly. Hence their decision to resort to violence, attack police cars, and mire thousands of Israelis in endless traffic jams. A divinely sanctioned cause often finds a way to justify its means.

A modern, mindful democracy can grapple with even the most daunting challenges, but only if it keeps the conversation firmly tethered to reality. Once it begins to speak in absolute terms, once it replaces mundane metrics like college graduation rates and average salaries with immaculate and unfalsifiable accusations of racism, once it demands that change come all at once, like an act of God, and not piecemeal, like any other human construct—it’s in deep, deep trouble.

For now, Israel seems to be resisting the call of the crazed. There’s no better way to continue to do so than pursuing the policies that make the lives of Ethiopian Israelis markedly better.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.