Fighting in defence of Israel’s Ethiopian Jews

Tebeka, which campaigns for justice and equality for a 150,000-strong community, was given a human rights award by the New Israel Fund’s UK branch on Sunday


Earlier this year, Netflix released the film The Red Sea Diving Resort, telling the story of a covert Mossad mission to rescue Ethiopian Jews.

That and the subsequent airlifts in the 1990s — Operations Moses, Solomon and Joshua — seemed to embody the best of Zionism, gathering the exiles from wherever they may be and bringing them to the Jewish homeland.

Israel’s Ethiopians now comprise a community of around 150,000. But something else this year gave a different and altogether more troubling picture of their experience in Israel.

Four months ago demonstrations erupted after an 18-year-old Ethiopian youth Solomon Teka was shot dead by an off-duty policeman in a Haifa suburb. Even now, protests continue on a smaller scale.

“Unfortunately, it is not the first time we have had big problems,” said Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, executive director of Tebeka, the organisation founded in 2000 to campaign for justice and equality for Israeli Ethiopians. “Historically, there have been too many protests. Each protest has been a wake-up call for the government. I hope this is going to be the last.”

Mr Assefa-Dawit was in London at the weekend with Tebeka’s legal head Tomer Marsha to receive the UK branch of the New Israel Fund’s annual human rights award on behalf of the organisation. It was presented at a dinner attended by 450 people including the Labour grandee Dame Margaret Hodge, historian Sir Simon Schama and novelist Howard Jacobson.

The earliest upset for Ethiopian Israelis was the refusal of the Israeli rabbinate to accept them as Jewish without undergoing a symbolic conversion. While some went through conversion, Mr Asssefa-Dawit said, others felt, “we have been keeping the religion for thousands of years, we have suffered for it and now after we have fulfilled our dream of coming to Jerusalem and being together with out brothers and sisters, we are asked to convert.” Ethiopians took to the streets again when they discovered that blood they had donated was not being stored for medical use but had been discarded.

Then came an incident in 2015 when footage of Damas Pakada, an Ethiopian Israeli soldier, being beaten up by police emerged on social media. It highlighted one of the community’s main grievances, that they were victims of unfair targeting and heavy-handed treatment by the police.

Many young Ethiopians could “see themselves in that film”, he said. “It happens so often. It is not an isolated case, it is a phenomenon and it needs to be eradicated.” When it seemed the officer behind the assault would escape justice, Tebeka lobbied for him to be held to account.

When the organisation was initially told that the authorities were not going to press charges because it would have “a chilling effect on other police officers”, it refused to accept the status quo.

“We said we would like that chilling effect to be in place because it will create some deterrence,” Mr Assefa-Dawit said. “If that police officer is brought to justice, others will refrain from doing the same thing. Today that officer is in the court process.”

Over the past five years, Tebeka has been giving legal help to close to 1,100 people a year. One example of success was gaining compensation for a young nurse who had been racially abused by the relative of a patient. It has overturned the criminal records of some 30 young men it believed had been unjustly prosecuted. For recently demobbed soldiers, one job option is to work as a security guard. “Security guards need to have guns. But because of their criminal records, they are not allowed to have guns. We managed to scrap the criminal record and enable these young Ethiopian Israelis to begin a new life without any record,” Mr Assefa-Dawit said.

It has intervened, too, on issues of housing or education. Some more recent arrivals from Ethiopia may have entered their Israeli school without sufficient knowledge of Hebrew — but instead of receiving the additional language help , they are referred to classes for children with special needs.

On the religious front, it is working to establish the rights of the kessim, the traditional spiritual leaders of Ethiopian Jewry currently denied recognition by the official rabbinate to conduct religious ceremonies such as marriage.

“We were isolated for thousands of years, we didn’t have the Gemara, we didn’t have the Mishnah — all of those additional materials the rest of the world had,” he explained. “Therefore, we kept that very religion which is based on the Bible.”

The changes Tebeka has fought for have an impact beyond the Ethiopian community. “The beneficiaries are the entire Israeli society,” he said. “For example, we said the police should be wearing body cameras. When I raised this with the Prime Minister, he said there might be some privacy issues. I said: ‘you have youngsters whose lives have been destroyed by some police officers. When you weigh that against privacy, what do you say?’”

Since the beginning of the year, some 5,000 police officers have begun wearing cameras and the plan is to extend this to the rest of the force.

Tebeka’s lobbying has also resulted in a new code of ethics for police which emphasise the restraint from force where possible. It has also persuaded the police to recruit more widely: over the past four years, three per cent of trainee officers have come from the Ethiopian community, who make up 1.8 per cent of the Israeli population.

Following the 2015 incident, an inter-ministerial committee was established to address the concerns of Ethiopian Jews and the following year a Justice Ministry report made more than 50 recommendations to tackle racism. Only a few days ago the police set up a new gender and multiculturalism unit to foster more sensitive policing.

“Bringing discriminators to justice is important — but it is not enough,” Mr Assefa-Dawit said. “If discrimination is endemic to the system, there is a need to change the system. We work hard for ground-breaking change.”

Having first lived in Canada after leaving Ethiopia and later having served as a shaliach in Australia, he knows life might personally be comfortable elsewhere. But when people broach the idea, he responds, “In Israel, despite all the issues that are happening, you feel you are at home. You feel responsible.”

The meetings he and his Tebeka colleagues have had with the Prime Minister, ministers, officials and the Chief of Police are delivering progress. “It is a big privilege. I don’t think there is any other country where a minority like ours has the influence we have.”

Israel may have its negative side but “even more [is] the positive side”. Tebeka and its supporters are helping to write the “next chapter” of Israeli society. “I think we are on the right track.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive