Police Violence Erupts As Thousands of Israelis Protest Racism

JERUSALEM — A protest by Israelis against police brutality and racism turned violent Sunday after thousands blocked a main thoroughfare in Tel Aviv for three hours and later clashed with police in a central square.

The protest, which started at the height of the evening rush hour and saw clashes with police as the night wore on, comes just days after a similar demonstration in Jerusalem also erupted into violence.

At Thursday's demonstration, protesters threw rocks and glass bottles at police officers trying to prevent them from marching to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence. The crowd was dispersed with tear gas and stun grenades. Thirteen protesters and three officers were lightly injured.

Many compared the protests in Israel to those that erupted last week in Baltimore and other cities in the United States. As in Baltimore, the anger voiced by Ethiopian Jews was sparked by an incident of police brutality. Although no one died in police custody in Israel, unlike in the Baltimore case, security cameras caught an assault on an Ethiopian Israeli soldier who was in uniform. The footage shows two police officers beating the young man seemingly unprovoked.

The CCTV video captured an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier being thrown to the ground and beaten by two white policemen. In the video we see the policemen accost the soldier and push him, who then pushes back, and then the two men throw him to the ground and kick him.

“After being beaten up, after being violated again and again and being discriminated against, many Ethiopians wind up in jails,” says activist Fentahun Assefa-Dawit. He notes that 40% of minors in the Israeli correction system are of Ethiopian descent. “What’s different this time is the footage. And all the youngsters who might have been through this something like this, now they have proof that it occurs.”

Assefa-Dawit is the executive director of Tebeka–Advocacy for Equality and Justice for Ethiopian Israelis, an organization that receives more than 1,000 complaints of discrimination and abuse a year. It takes up the strongest cases of Ethiopians who have suffered discrimination, some of which have gone to Israel’s Supreme Court. But for young people outraged by what they’ve experienced, change is coming far too slowly.

“When an Ethiopian applies for a job, as qualified as he might be, as impressive as his CV might be, he is not going to be invited for the interview because he has an Ethiopian name,” Assefa-Dawit told journalists on Monday in a conference call before heading to a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is conferring with Ethiopian community leaders in an effort to calm the outrage. “When a local rabbinate office refuses to register a couple who wants to get married because they’re Ethiopian, when you see a school that says we cannot take more children because they have a quota of how many Ethiopians they will enroll, you can imagine what the feeling of young people will be,” he says.

Shimon Solomon, who came to Israel from Ethiopia in 1980 at the age of 12, was a member of the Israeli parliament in the last government with the Yesh Atid party. He says that although he has repeatedly brought the issue of police brutality towards Ethiopians to the authorities for several years, nothing has been done.

“What we saw in the video is nothing compared to what goes on, in fact it was less shocking that what happens to people in our community at the hands of police,” Solomon tells TIME. “When we speak to people in their neighborhoods, we hear that it’s happening all the time, that the police allow themselves to act brutally and take people aside and beat them for no reason. We turned to the police and ask them to fix this situation, but it just continued like nothing happened.”

Solomon says that the protest on Sunday started with peaceful intentions, but a small group of “anarchists — some Ethiopian and some not” wanted to push things in a more radical direction. “We wanted an aggressive demonstration, not a violent one,” says Solomon. “The point of a protest is to bring attention to a situation, not to make the situation worse.” Solomon says he was disappointed that as the anger across the Ethiopian community grew, there was silence from Israel’s leaders. “It’s too bad that he didn’t come out immediately to decry the violence and hatred.”

The protests are “the price of years of neglect and racism. Our young people are desperate, and if the government doesn’t act, this will just be the beginning,” said Gadi Yevarkan, director of the Center for Social Equality for Ethiopian Jews, the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported.

Despite attempts by Netanyahu, who will meet with community representatives on Monday, and police chief Yohanan Danino, who on Thursday established a special commission to investigate cases of police brutality, Ethiopian Jews say the racism they experience is institutionalized and ongoing.

“People see our protest as limited to police violence against the Ethiopian community. The truth is that this is just the tip of the iceberg: the violence and the racism against us are not only from the police,” Ethiopian-born journalist Danny Adino Abebe wrote Sunday in Yedioth Ahronoth.

This is not the first time the community has turned out in large numbers to protest racism. In 2012, the refusal by a tenants association in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi to rent to an Ethiopian family sparked similar protests.

The government has made some efforts in the past decade to improve the integration and economic standing of Ethiopian immigrants, investing millions of dollars to boost the community. However, a 2013 report by the state comptroller found that Ethiopian Israelis were still underrepresented in higher education and in the public-service sector. Additionally, their desertion rate in compulsory military service, mostly due to economic factors, was three times as high as the general population.