“MK Naguise: I will aim to solve problem of police violence against Ethiopians”
—The Jerusalem Post
Should I cry or should I write? Maybe a little of both…
Racial upheaval in Baltimore, Maryland, on the heels of similar events in the Ferguson suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, has precipitated a state fraught with tension. Such episodes were supposed to be a thing of the past. We had been working long and hard as a nation to mend the rips in the social fabric. The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency was to be the final act in consigning racial conflict to the history books. Instead those books are burning and their subjects are on display in a ghetto theater near you.
Scarily, the crisis has now expanded to the international arena. The streets of Jerusalem were closed to traffic Thursday when an anti-racism protest turned violent. The protesters had begun marching from downtown toward the Prime Minister’s residence. Before long the police were shooting tear gas and the marchers were throwing rocks. Amid the anarchy that followed, several officers and several civilians were admitted to hospital with injuries.
The protests in Israel were not scheduled to express solidarity with Baltimore but they evolved into that role. Much like several incendiary videos of police brutality in the United States taken by cell phone, a 2-minute 45-second clip shot in Israel enraged the Ethiopian-Israeli “black” community. Israel as a nation made a project of saving the Ethiopian Jews in the late 1980s and absorbing them into the existing culture, but sometimes they feel like a colored minority victimized by white racists.
During my brief stint in the Israeli Army in 1991-2, I observed very kindly treatment of Ethiopian soldiers. As a group, they were smiley and easygoing, and everyone seemed to get along well. In my unit, there was a sweet Ethiopian man who had no sense of direction. He had been brought up in some kind of tent and had never lived in square rooms; even after moving to Israel he could not understand right and left, forward and backward. He was excused from exercises that required marching in single file and turning, but otherwise he was a capable soldier.
In a recent documentary, Under the Helmet, the camera follows a group of Israeli soldiers training for an elite paratrooper unit, the Givati Brigade. One of them is an Ethiopian who at first is lagging and mopey. His commanders and peers discover he lives with a single mother and some younger siblings, and his income from odd jobs is a key to the family’s livelihood. The months of army training have prevented him from working and now he is deep in credit card debt. He asks to be discharged from the unit so he can return to work.
Instead the commanders join him in a visit to his mother’s home. They explain that if her son completes his military tour he will return with enhanced economic opportunities. Then they give her an envelope full of cash; they have raised the money to pay off the family’s indebtedness. The young man stays on, proudly graduating near the top of the class and being admitted to officer training.
Apparently this type of treatment is not universal. In the cell phone video we see an Ethiopian Jew in army uniform wearing a backpack. He goes to wheel his bicycle away from the fence post where it had been parked. A police officer begins to hassle him, perhaps because he should not have left the bike in that spot. The ensuing conversation is inaudible but we see the officer becoming heated and suddenly slugging the soldier. He throws the soldier to the ground, at which point another officer joins the fray to land a few solid blows. There is no visual evidence of any provocation on the part of the soldier; it looks like Cops Gone Wild.
This came at a bad time — perhaps there can be no good time — coinciding with similar videos in the United States. There is a growing sense that the police are doing less protecting and more hassling, particularly when the suspects are darker-skinned. Thus Jerusalem rioting with Baltimore, blocks from the Prime Minister’s residence. Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the senseless police beating but he cautioned against devolving into anarchy in response.
We are in a tinder box moment, abroad no less than at home. If this blows up into an international pandemic of race riots, damage to life and property and security will be incalculable.
Whites and blacks everywhere must return to the vision of the Torah, that we are all children of one man. There are no separate “races,” only one inclusive human race. We must remember always the words of the Talmud: “Why was Adam created alone? So no man can say to his friend that my father is better than your father…”
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