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  • Mark Lavie

Ethiopian-Israeli protests: what did we expect?

Updated: Jul 4, 2019

Like many others, I was caught in a traffic snarl because of the protests by Ethiopian-Israelis, blocking roads after an off-duty Israeli police officer shot and killed an Ethiopian-Israeli teenager. Luckily, I'm retired, so I'm rarely in a hurry anymore. That gave me time to think. Here's what I think:

Ethiopian-Israelis have been victims of police violence repeatedly for decades. Activists from the community have organized dozens, maybe hundreds, of peaceful demonstrations in front of the Knesset and elsewhere. No one seems to care. So can we really blame them for taking it up a notch?

Here's my suggestion: The Cabinet should mandate that each and every police officer in this country must not only undergo sensitivity training--they must all pass a test to make sure they actually participated instead of sitting in a classroom, snorting in derision and texting. I hope that would be a step toward gaining the trust of these badly treated Israelis. Not "regaining," mind you--gaining. They have never had a reason to trust the police.

I speak as one who's been knocked around by police many times while doing my job as a reporter. In one notable incident, a commander fired a tear gas grenade at a group of 14 reporters who were standing at the top of a road leading to a Palestinian village, after the police refused to let us enter. That's to say, we were just standing there, and there was nothing going on, yet we were tear-gassed. Coughing, I turned on my tape recorder, climbed over rocks to the officer and asked him, "Why did you do that?" His answer: "Because I felt like it." Within minutes of that recording airing on CBC Radio, the Israeli Foreign Ministry called me and asked for details. I am proud to say that the promotion of that particular asshole was delayed for 20 years because of my report. I would have preferred that he be fired, of course.

So what we have here is a pattern of violent abuse by police. Not all of them, of course, but enough of them. Ethiopian-Israelis are frequent targets. So sensitivity training for everyone who's on the force, from the lowliest desk jockey right up to the chief, is what's needed. Every one.

That won't correct, overnight, the racism that is present in Israeli society. I heard an explanation this morning--a native-born Israeli noted that people here are brought up with the idea that white is good, and black is bad. He gave some examples of Hebrew expressions that back that up. And in fact, Ethiopians began arriving in Israel in large numbers only a few decades ago, so the stereotypes of black and white had a long time to fester.

I have to say, though, that the same images reverberate from my childhood, six-plus decades ago, far away from here in Indiana. So we all have work to do here.

For years I've been donating clothes, appliances, and toys to the local Ethiopian-Israeli community through the community center in the neighborhood where many of them live. A volunteer comes to my house, loads the articles into his small truck, and drives them over there. I've wondered what else I can do. Now would be a good time to find out. I'll let you know what I come up with. All of us need to do more.

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