TEL AVIV – The recent street protests by Ethiopian-Israelis gave voice to an anguished cry against the unjust death of 18-year-old Solomon Tekah, of blessed memory, a young man who lost his life to unrestrained police fire. His death was the second time in the last six months that a young Ethiopian-Israeli was killed by a police officer.
These spontaneous demonstrations throughout Israel express the horror of the wrongful losses of human lives and decades-long systemic injustices against Ethiopian-Israelis. All people who oppose discrimination and racism and believe in the rule of law share the sacred obligation to demand justice. Police officers with an easy hand on the trigger must be called to account before the law.
This is the rallying call of Tebeka, the Israeli nonprofit established in 2000 that advocates for justice and equality for Ethiopian-Israelis. Since the brutal and unwarranted beating of Demas Fekada, the Israel Defense Forces officer of Ethiopian descent who was in uniform when police pummeled him in 2015, Tebeka has been engaged in a highly challenging dialogue with the prime minister, government officials, legal and justice officials, and police authorities.
As executive director of Tebeka, I have made the case for equality in scores of forums, from the prime minister’s Inter-Ministerial Committee to encounters with police chiefs, law enforcement authorities, and police officers in the field. In fact, police violence is the symptom of a deeper prejudice encountered by Ethiopian-Israelis on a daily basis. It reflects discrimination that is too often built into the system, in spheres of education, the religious establishment, work places, and other settings. More often than not, Ethiopian-Israelis are judged on their origin rather than their ability and qualifications. Over the years, my experiences have led me to feel both hope and deep despair.
Yet, despite the challenges, growing numbers of Ethiopian-Israelis are slowly paving their own way to upper echelons of success and greater integration into the mainstream of Israeli society. Over the last four years, we have seen progress – among the glimmers of hope was our role in urging the police to define their own code of conduct. Officers are now required to carry a copy of that code in their front pockets. Ironically, that code calls for restraint of force and caring community relations.
Tebeka led the demand that the police force implement the use of body cameras. In 2019, the plan calls for 10,000 officers to carry body cameras in districts throughout Israel. Tebeka encourages and monitors the enrollment of greater numbers of Ethiopian-Israeli police cadets and the promotion of qualified professional Ethiopian-Israeli officers to senior posts. Tebeka’s demand to educate police officers and improve their code of conduct toward citizens led to the incorporation of new elements such as multiculturalism in a democratic Israel into the curriculum of the Israeli police academy.
Yet, despite these advances, we are confronted by the unjustifiable deaths of Yehuda Biadga, Solomon Tekah, and too many other young people of blessed memory. They lost their lives to police officers who took the law into their own hands without restraint.
They are causing a new generation of young Ethiopian-Israelis to lose their faith in a system of justice in which police investigators are entrusted to act independently – yet fail to file charges in cases against officers who commit acts of discriminatory violence.
There must be deterrence in order to prevent the next tragic act of disproportionate police violence against specific groups of Israelis. Israel, as the nation of the Jewish people, is meant to be “the light unto the nations,” and it is our duty to bring those words to life. The 150,000 strong Ethiopian-Israelis are leading the vital struggle to safeguard Israeli democracy and promote the values of the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty. This is the foundation for a just, tolerant, and equal society.
Israelis, Jews throughout the world, and all people who care and support Israel should join hands with us to bring about the change so crucial for our being as Jews and Israelis.
Fentahun Assefa-Dawit is executive director of Tebeka. Tebeka, which means advocate in Amharic, is the only Ethiopian-Israeli nonprofit that provides free legal counsel to Ethiopian-Israelis, advances policies to promote equality before the law, and empowers and cultivates young leadership.