Baltimore meets Holon: Police brutality against Ethiopian-Israeli caught on tape

Published on Haaretz

If a police assault on an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier had not been caught on camera, the victim would likely be in jail now and the officers would still be out there, ‘protecting’ our streets.

Demas Fekadeh, an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in uniform, was beaten up by police on Sunday in what appeared to be an unprovoked attack. But had the incident not by chance been videotaped, we would never have found out. Only because the shocking footage made its way to network news channels and websites – and, let’s not fool ourselves, this was because the violent visuals made for exciting television – did the incident result in the dismissal of the two officers, rather than the further penalization of Fekadeh, who was held in jail overnight.

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In the recording, Fekadeh can be seen standing with his bicycle, busy with his cell phone when the incident begins. A police officer appears to tell him to move (we later find out that this was because the area, in Holon, had been closed off due to an investigation of a suspicious object), but, when he does not immediately do so, the officer throws the soldier to the ground and starts hitting him. The other officer soon joins in the pummeling. When Fekadeh gets away and picks up a large stone to wield in his defense, the policemen call for backup and two additional officers are summoned.

Fekadeh received an award from former President Shimon Peres in recognition of his distinguished military service, and the Ramon Award for excellence and leadership in his high school studies. Yet, regardless of what an upstanding citizen he may be, had there been no videotape, it would be have been the young man’s word against the officers’, and there is little doubt whose version the Israeli justice system would have believed. Without the videotape, Fekadeh would likely have been charged with causing a public disturbance, resisting arrest and assaulting police officers.

Unfortunately, police mistreatment of young Ethiopian-Israeli men is not uncommon. The most tragic case was that of Yosef Salamseh, who was reportedly fired with a Taser gun by police officers in a public park last year, and left manacled and unconscious in the parking lot outside the Zichron Yaakov police station for hours. Salamseh died a few months later. Police ruled it a suicide, but his family does not buy it. The 22-year-old had never been charged with any criminal offenses.

Video of the incident

The case of Demas Fekadeh should sound disturbingly familiar to anyone following the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, and the subsequent riots in Baltimore, Maryland, or headlines from across the United States this past year about young black men who posed no immediate threat but lost their lives while being detained by police or while in police custody.

The incidents have sparked deep soul-searching in the United States, with US President Barack Obama saying the events in Baltimore call attention to the urgent need throughout the country to build trust between communities and their police. The similarity between the incidents there and in Israel should prompt us – Israeli citizens, our security forces and our leaders – to ask what is going on with the police and the Ethiopian-Israeli community.

Unlike the United States, Israel does not have a history of black-white racial tensions, despite our society’s share of prejudice and discrimination. Unlike the historic bone the African-American community has to pick with white America, the Ethiopian-Israeli immigration has always been seen as a great – even romantic – venture. Successive Israeli governments and world Jewry expended massive resources to bring tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. While their social integration has been bumpy, the state celebrates the success stories of individual Ethiopian-Israelis, like Fekadeh, at every opportunity.

Ethiopian-Israelis have traditionally shown strong faith in the police, according to Guy Ben Porat, professor of public policy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and, even today, tend to ascribe incidents of alleged brutality to “bad apples,” rather than departmental antipathy toward Ethiopians, or racial profiling.

Yet, Ethiopian-Israelis can not help but stand out in Israel because of their skin color. Combined with their concentration in impoverished neighborhoods, this can lead to “over-policing,” according to Ben-Porat, in which locals feel they are the targets rather than the beneficiaries of an intrusive police presence.

Whatever the cause of this troubling pattern, confidence in the police is eroding among young Ethiopian-Israelis, according to Ziva Mekonnen, director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. Mekonnen reports receiving a growing number of complaints of police harassment of young Ethiopian men – to the point where it seems to be becoming routine. She cited the example of fights between Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian gangs, in which only the Ethiopian-Israelis are detained by police.

It’s not too late to reverse the course, but it’s going to take concerted action and, above all, a clear message from the top police brass and government leaders declaring and implementing a zero-tolerance policy of police brutality and harassment of Ethiopian-Israelis.

This needs to happen before there are more Salamsehs, because if the attack on Demas Fekadeh has not been filmed, he would be in jail and you wouldn’t be reading this story.

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