Ethiopian-Israeli community leader Michal Avera-Samuel seems to lack for nothing: She’s an academic and an executive who resides in the upscale city of Hod Hasharon in central Israel.
The organization she heads, the Fidel Association for the Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, does not focus on social protest, but rather on youth centers, youth leadership programs, parenting workshops, teaching the heritage of Ethiopian Jewry, assisting Ethiopian at-risk youngsters, and improving the integration and education of the community.
But Avera-Samuel took to the streets last week, joining thousands of Ethiopian-Israelis protesting police violence nationwide.
Ethiopian Jews, who trace their lineage to the ancient Israelite tribe of Dan, first arrived in Israel in large numbers in the 1980s, when Israel secretly airlifted them to the Jewish state to save them from war and famine in the Horn of Africa.
The new arrivals struggled with the transition from a developing African country to the increasingly high-tech Israel. Over time, many in the community, which today numbers around 150,000 out of the Jewish state’s 9 million citizens, have been able to make their way into mainstream Israeli society, serving in the military and police and making inroads in politics, sports and entertainment. But the community continues to suffer from widespread poverty and what many decry as racism, discrimination, and routine police harassment.
‘The younger generation won’t be silenced’
The fatal shooting of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah on June 30 by an off-duty police officer ignited the latest wave of protests. The demonstrations quickly turned violent as hundreds of protesters clashed with police, burned tires and blocked major roads in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. Dozens of police officers were injured and over 100 protesters were arrested.
Still, Avera-Samuel maintains that she joined the protest not as an act of solidarity with someone else’s plight, but for herself.
Speaking with The Times of Israel, she explained that the everyday reality of the Ethiopian community in Israel is one that “outsiders can’t even fathom. There’s horrible, daily racism that takes place right under your nose.”
“When I walk around in my own neighborhood, not a month goes by without a few times that women driving SUVs stop me and offer me jobs as a cleaner. If someone is looking for a cleaning lady, I’m the obvious candidate, right?” she said.
“If my nephews, who come from a good family, say so much as one word to a policeman, they get smacked around. How would you react if someone slapped your child? Why is it that anything an Ethiopian kid does ends up with a police record? Why should I be afraid of any encounter my children may have with the police?” said Avera-Samuel.
Avera-Samuel’s organization — whose name, Fidel, means “alphabet” in Amharic — works with schools, “including those with a large number of Ethiopian students and schools in affluent sectors, and we can see the difference,” she said.
Parents who are empowered and connected can get the teachers and principals they want, even in the public education system, she said, adding that teachers and principals who are assigned to Ethiopian schools consider themselves exiled, or see it as a stop en route to retirement.
“I see how the entire system keeps failing the Pygmalion test,” Avera-Samuel said, referring to the phenomenon whereby others’ expectations of an individual have an impact on the individual’s performance.
According to Avera-Samuel, this affects test scores, scholastic achievements, the teachers’ attitude, and the country’s standardized Meitzav tests themselves.
“We live in a self-fulfilling pit of low expectations,” she said.
The Meitzav achievement exam, administered to fifth and eighth graders in Israeli schools, tests language, math, and science skills.
“Like all of us, I’m subjected [to insults], and I take it, and ignore it. We all do, until we can’t take it anymore,” Avera-Samuel said. “My parents’ generation suffered in silence. My generation suffered in silence until we couldn’t remain silent anymore. The younger generation that grew up here with this unjust reality won’t be silenced.”
“Police brutality is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s real, it exists, but it’s just part of what’s pushing us to protest again and again. It’s literally just a symptom of the overall mindset,” she said.
Slow and steady
Avera-Samuel said that the protesters’ demands are simple.
“We demand that the police investigate themselves, do some soul searching and draw the necessary conclusions,” she said, adding that law enforcement should ultimately completely stop the “over-policing” of Ethiopians and Ethiopian youth.
“[We want] policemen dealing with a suspect, a criminal, or just an Ethiopian citizen to exercise the exact same discretion they would if they were dealing with anyone else. That is not the case today,” Avera-Samuel said.
Israel’s Ethiopian community is arguably one of the most outspoken in the country, and has campaigned and held public protests about a number of issues over the last 34 years. Though progress has been slow, Avera-Samuel said that the demonstrations do yield results.
Invoking a series of protests that took place in the early 1990s, Avera-Samuel said that as a 9-year-old she joined demonstrations against Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. The ultra-Orthodox establishment was questioning Ethiopian Jews’ lineage and demanding they undergo a rigorous conversion process.
“Sometimes I do have disparaging thoughts,” she said. “We’ve been protesting for so long and reality stays the same. But yes, it helps. Some things have changed thanks to previous protests. The Rabbinate eased its conversion demands after the protest, and the horrible procedure regarding blood donations stopped, for the most part, as a result of the protests.”
In 1996 the public found out that Israeli hospitals were secretly disposing of blood donations from Ethiopian-Israelis over fears of diseases contracted in Africa. The revelation outraged the community and some 10,000 people demonstrated across from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. It was, at the time, the largest protest by the Ethiopian community in Israel.
The public outcry over the revelation also led to the formation of a state commission of inquiry. Its findings ended the practice, but its assertion that the disposal of the blood was not motivated by racism remains controversial.
Avera-Samuel noted that in the past four years, “We’ve been focusing our protests on the situation in schools, and the government has been inclined to change things. We can see some change there. It’s very slow, because changes in education take time, but things are changing.
“The only [state] body that won’t hear of it, that won’t revise its practices, is the police. They act like they know everything and that’s why the current protest is focused on the police,” she said.
‘A rock and a hard place’
Avera-Samuel said that the large proportion of Ethiopian-Israelis serving in the police force — double their ratio in the civilian population — further complicates matters.
“I have friends and relatives who serve in the police and they’re having a very difficult time,” she said. “They’re caught between a rock and a hard place. They are part of the system, but they also know all too well how the other side feels. They know how the system works from the inside, and they see the failures, the arrogance, and the refusal to listen and think.
“It’s important to stress that there is a world of difference between the attitude of Ethiopian policemen on the ground and how they communicate with us, and the way other police officers conduct themselves,” she said.
“An Ethiopian policeman listens to the members of his community and treats them completely differently,” said Avera-Samuel. “He tries to minimize the damage and solve problems differently. Ethiopian teens involved in a brawl or any other incident are also more likely to show respect and listen to a policeman from the community.”
However, Avera-Samuel said, it was not feasible to deploy policemen from the Ethiopian community to confront protesters last week.
“The [police force] couldn’t put them in that position,” she said. “They have enough of a hard time as it is. The average ‘Ferengi’ experienced the protests as a nightmare. Their routine was interrupted and there was violence,” she said, using the Amharic term for Westerner.
Ethiopian protesters in Tel Aviv blocked a major junction on Highway 20 and the ensuing gridlock left thousands of drivers stranded for over five hours. Moreover, when protesters clashed with the police, several cars were set on fire.
The community as a whole does not condone violence, Avera-Samuel said.
“I denounce these acts and I’m actually working around the clock, talking with teens in an effort to prevent such violent incidents,” she said. “But these were a handful of vandalism incidents in a reality where thousands protested out of pain and anger, instead of enjoying their summer vacation, so obviously that’s what made headlines.”
“The comments online are also infuriating. We’re not waging an election campaign and we don’t care whether the public does or doesn’t ‘support’ us,” she said, referring to the upcoming snap general elections set for September 17. “It’s not like I felt any massive ‘public support’ until now. As far as I’m concerned, don’t ‘support’ us, just change your attitude.”
This article was adapted from a version published on Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.