Despite improvements in how Israel has dealt with discrimination in recent years, the head of the country’s top anti-racism body believes that police aren’t yet doing enough to combat systemic racism.
Speaking with The Times of Israel recently, Aweke “Kobi” Zena, the coordinator of the Justice Ministry’s National Anti-Racism Unit, said he wished that law enforcement officials would increase their collaboration with his team, which was established three years ago on the recommendation of a commission set up by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of nationwide protests over the beating of an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier at the hands of police.
That team, which comprises just five full-time members including Zena, is in charge of identifying government policies that entrench and perpetuate racist practices and and recommending reforms to them, as well as receiving and following up on complaints by aggrieved citizens.
While the unit frequently liaises with nearly 60 officials across numerous government agencies, including the police, Zena described his relationship with law enforcement as “very complicated.”
Last year, widespread protests rocked Israel when tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews took to the streets following the shooting death of 19-year old Solomon Tekah at the hands of an off-duty police officer. Tekah’s death came six months after Yehuda Biadga, 24, a mentally ill Ethiopian-Israeli, was shot and killed by police who say he charged an officer while brandishing a knife.
“Yehuda Biadga is dead and Solomon Tekah is dead and this year we saw a lot of, I don’t want to say racist, but interactions with police and citizens [involving] violating rights, so I think we have a lot of things to do and I hope that someday the police will be ready to understand there is a problem in policing practices,” Zena said.
He noted that police last year created a Gender Equality and Cultural Diversity Unit and said, “We are ready and we want to work with them.”
But while there was “a kind of cooperation, we need to do more, and yet we didn’t succeed in convincing them to take a step for big change,” he lamented, declining to get into the nitty-gritty of interdepartmental cooperation.
Claiming he did not want to be overly critical, he did say that despite the existence of his unit, its success depends on a willingness to work together.
“I believe that they think and believe that they are doing good, but the fact is that it’s really so distant,” he said of eradicating racial disparities in law enforcement.
Announcing the formation of the new unit during a meeting with Ethiopian-Israeli community leaders last year, then-public security minister Gilad Erdan admitted that there had been “over-policing” but said that the ministry and police were “tackling” the issue.
“Obviously,” he said, “there’s a great deal more that needs fixing, but there has also been a dramatic improvement in recent years, a decline in the number of arrests and indictments, cases closed for minors, and many more initiatives are now being implemented, such as body cameras for officers.”
Asked what changes he was looking for in Israeli policing, Zena replied that he wanted police to treat all citizens equally, “to understand that their job is to serve the citizens, to defend their rights” and to end racial profiling.
“They are saying that they are not doing profiling,” yet Ethiopian citizens are still arrested at a disproportionate rate, he said.
According to a recent report by the National Anti-Racism Unit, the number of complaints of racial discrimination it received doubled in 2019, with 37 percent of such charges coming from the Ethiopian community. The report also noted that while Ethiopian Jews comprise 1.7% of the population, their arrest rate stands at 3.27%.
“I just want to see that they are ready to change, really,” he said. “It’s not just an Aweke Zena problem and I’m happy that the government decided to establish my unit to lead this change, but I need the cooperation of other departments.”
Asked to respond to Zena’s call for greater cooperation, Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that officers are “in close contact with the leaders of [Israel’s various] communities” and “in that way we prevent incidents and the second phase is responding to incidents.
“There is a special police unit in police that focuses on strengthening policing and community work. This unit is fully functioning for over a year already,” he continued. “Joint coordination with the Justice Ministry continues on all levels and will continue to expand in 2021.”
Ethiopian-Israeli politicians call for change
Zena’s concerns have been echoed by other senior figures in recent weeks, especially in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man who died in police custody after an officer in Minneapolis kneeled on his neck for several minutes, sparking worldwide protests.
In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, Immigrant Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, the country’s first Ethiopian-born cabinet member, called on acting Police Chief Motti Cohen and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana to “wake up” and start removing racist officers from the national police.
She said she planned to ensure the matter stays on the agenda of relevant cabinet ministers, in order to implement initiatives to reform policing in Israel.
After Floyd’s death, Deputy Public Security Minister Desta “Gadi” Yevarkan, himself an Ethiopian-born Jew, took to Facebook to condemn the killing, taking the opportunity to criticize racism in Israeli policing as well.
Although Israeli police are tasked with making sure that people feel secure and protected, Yevarkan wrote, often “white Israeli citizens feel safe when they see a police car in their neighborhood, while black Israeli citizens feel unsafe.”
Asked if Yevarkan’s appointment would be helpful in implementing reforms, Zena said that while he was happy to see him in his new role, “the problem is very deep” and is embedded in the country’s “culture of policing.”
What is needed is policy change and an understanding “that the problem is really something that takes time and willingness,” he said. “If there is no willingness to change you can’t change no matter who the person is in charge.”
Improvements on the ground
Despite complaints about cooperation with the police, Zena — a career prosecutor who has previously served in the IDF Military Advocate General’s Corps and the Tel Aviv District Attorney’s office — said that he has made progress on a number of fronts in the short time that his department has been operational.
For instance, he said, the Health Ministry has taken a number of steps to reduce discrimination in health care, including lifting restrictions on Ethiopians donating blood in 2017.
He also took credit for January’s decision by the Chief Rabbinate Council to reinforce the recognition of members of Ethiopia’s Beta Israel community as Jewish, after an earlier decision on the matter failed to stop some officials from continuing to question their heritage — saying that it had come about due to pressure from his office.
He also said that the Education Ministry has begun tackling racism in a way that is “very serious and very satisfying,” even if he believes that there is not enough anti-racism material in school curricula.
For instance, the recent implementation of new Education Ministry directives intended to prevent racial discrimination in educational institutions in the wake of a racial segregation case in Kiryat Gat was a cause for optimism, he said.
“The situation is improving.”
One sign of this improvement is the increasing number of complaints directed toward his office, which he described as less a sign of rising racism than an indication that people who until recently “didn’t know what to do with racism now have an address” to which they can turn.
When faced with a complaint, representatives of the National Anti-Racism Unit record it before turning to the relevant ministry to try and have the issue resolved. They then use the data they have collected to come up with proposals for new regulations and new legislation that could be used to prevent recurrences.
“So there are two stages: taking care of the problem and making sure it does not happen again,” he said.
And while Zena said that the small size of the unit and the fact that its “authority is not really defined” are limiting factors, its very existence is a significant sign.
“I think we need much more resources but with what we have we are doing a lot,” he said, adding that the unit’s establishment marked “the first time that Israel really decided to fight and combat racism” in a serious way.
“To me as an immigrant from Ethiopia, this country is very dear to me. I came back to my home, here is my home, here is the place I am raising my children and I believe that I have a responsibility in my name and in the name of my people to advance a process so my children will be able to feel at home here,” Zena said.
“My motto is that we were established to eliminate racism and not to manage the racism in Israel. So this is personal,” he said. “I believe in Israeli society. I believe that we can change.”