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Hundreds of Ethiopian-Israelis Rejecting Mandatory Military Service In Protest of Institutional Racism

Israel Defense Forces – Standing Guard in Nablus
(From Wikimedia Commons)

In Israel, hundreds of citizens of Ethiopian descent are refusing to serve reserve duty in the Israel Defense Forces, citing racial discrimination by the Israeli government in various state agencies, including the police.

As David Sheen reported in the San Francisco Bay View, more than 300 Ethiopian Jews have made the decision to refuse any military order to report for duty, including soldiers from all Israel Defense Forces infantry brigades and specialized commando units. As long as the nation fails to respect their civil rights, these Black “refuseniks” say they will fail to respect their obligations to the state.

“So, let me get this straight: If my rights don’t exist, why should I have to do reserve duty?” asked Avishai Malson Tzaghon, an Ethiopian Israeli, in a video interview with the Bay View. “Our issue is not with the army. We are not saying that the army is the problem. It’s the state. The army is an arm of the state. We say to the state that we are starting off by no longer doing reserve duty.” Tzaghon said he also may stop fulfilling other obligations.

“As long as the policy of discrimination and exclusion and disparaging treatment towards Ethiopian émigrés does not change, don’t bother talking to us about doing reserve duty,” refusenik Jajaw Bimro said.

Like people of African descent in other white-dominated nations, Ethiopian Israelis experience racism in their daily lives. Tebeka, a legal aid society that provides free legal services to Ethiopian Israelis, strives to help in combating it. Racial discrimination affects all Israelis of Ethiopian origin, says Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, Tebeka’s executive director, particularly those who were born and/or raised in Israel, served in the army and now want to be an equal part of Israeli society.

Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, Executive Director, Tebeka

“And with that, there was some grievance, discontent and even anger about why these young people who served in the army should be treated differently than any others,” Assefa-Dawit told Atlanta Black Star, “because in the army, they are committed, they serve the country and fulfill their duties as citizens here In Israel.” He said only a “small number” of Ethiopian Israelis have refused to serve.

In Israel, all able-bodied 18-year-olds are required to serve in the military, men serving for three years and women for two, though there are religious exemptions. While there were very few secular draft dodgers in years past, in recent years, the number of Israelis declining to serve has increased to 28 percent among men and 42 percent among women, according to the Bay View.

Some of those rejecting further service are in fact already in the military. According to the Israeli nongovernmental organization Breaking the Silence, some combat veterans who were stationed in the Occupied Territories and charged with controlling the daily lives of the Palestinian population have refused to return to duty. In an effort to end the racist occupation, the organization has compiled testimony from 1,000 veterans who have witnessed the human-rights abuses that have resulted because of it.

“Soldiers who serve in the Territories witness and participate in military actions that change them immensely. Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting and destruction of property have been the norm for years but are still explained as extreme and unique cases,” the group says on its website. “While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye and to deny what is done in its name.”

Assefa-Dawit said that the institutional racism facing Israel’s Black Ethiopian population as a whole “includes discrimination, violence, racism in policing and excessive policing. It includes discrimination in public places, in universities and colleges, and everywhere.” He did say, however, that there has been heightened awareness of racism and discrimination toward Ethiopian Israelis and movement to improve the situation over the past few years.

Tahunia Rubel, an Ethiopian-born Israeli model and actress, put it bluntly: “Israel is one of the most racist countries in the world,” Rubel said in an article in the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, where she criticized Israeli society, government and police. “People in Israel find it strange to see an Ethiopian woman who behaves like an Israeli.”

Ethiopian-Israeli journalist Revital Iyov echoed Rubel’s sentiment in a commentary in the newspaper Haaretz. She made particular note of the dual oppression Ethiopian women face in Israel, pointing out that Rubel herself has received racist comments from white Israelis who called her “a disgusting African” and told her to “Go back to Ethiopia.”

The journalist condemned the rampant racism in Israel, stating that minorities are accepted only if they remain quiet, stop complaining and show gratitude. “Israel commits racist crimes” Iyov said. “A prominent example is the police violence during the demonstrations by young Ethiopian men and women a year ago. Another example is the investigation that revealed the pressure on Ethiopian women to receive shots of the birth control hormone Depo-Provera before immigrating.”

In addition to facing discrimination in employment, housing and other facets of daily life — even having their blood thrown in the trash when they donate, as the Bay View reported — Ethiopian Israelis also experience harassment from law enforcement. In August, Israeli Police Chief Roni Alsheich claimed publicly that it is natural for police to be more suspicious of Ethiopians because immigrants commit more crimes, according to Haaretz.

Ethiopian-Israelis protest (Wikimedia Commons)

The trigger that led to a wave of mass demonstrations among Black Israelis was the unprovoked attack and detention by two white police officers of Damas Pakada, a Black IDF soldier, in April 2015, Fssefa-Dawit told ABS. Calling it the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” Assefa-Dawit said that single incident mobilized the Ethiopian community, leading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form an inter-ministerial committee. The committee, of which Assefa-Dawit is a member, made 53 recommendations to eradicate racism in Israel, 17 of which were directly related to police violence.

“We started another process with the police themselves where we demanded the police go out and announce that there is racism and discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis, that there is police violence against Ethiopian Israelis,” Assefa-Dawit said. “The police chief acknowledged that and we came forward with a list of demands to the chief of police.”

Those demands included introducing body cameras to the police force (15,000 Israeli police officers will wear them), controlling and monitoring the use of tasers by police, mass recruitment of Ethiopian-Israelis to the police force and among higher-ranking police officers, and language accessibility during interrogation.

“When teenagers are being interrogated, the parents have to be present. But what good will it do if the parents do not understand the language?” Assefa-Dawit said, noting that during interrogations involving Ethiopian Israelis, police must now have an interpreter or a bilingual officer present who speaks Amharic. Police also have agreed to begin the process of writing a code of conduct for officers to improve trust with the community.

While Assefa-Dawit said change is taking place — the number of Black police officers is increasing, the police force is recruiting lawyers and academics, and Ethiopian Israelis are now among those training police officers — much more must be done. Yet, he believes the police have reached a “point of no return” in understanding they must address the public’s mistrust of police, increase their cultural sensitivity and improve their image, which is low among the Ethiopian Israeli, Haredi (Orthodox) and Palestinian communities.

“I want to hold accountable the Israeli government, the Israeli society for the values they say they have,” Assefa-Dawit said. “I want them to look in the mirror and know what they are doing is wrong, and stand up for their declared values.” He also said that the reforms stemming from the Ethiopian Israeli community will ultimately benefit the entire society.

In the meantime, Assefa-Dawit wants his people to believe in themselves. He wants them to take action, make the system responsive and know that they are as good as — if not better than — any white person.

“Yes, there is racism and discrimination. Yes, we have to come up with a solution to eradicate it, and we do that by being stronger,” Assefa-Dawit said, urging Ethiopian Israelis to project strength and confidence, as they will be treated accordingly.

Ultimately, Assefa-Dawit said the Ethiopian Israeli community wants less violence against them and more Black people serving on the police force and as high-ranking officers. “Demonstrations are important to reach a solution, but demonstrations are not going to be an aim,” he said. “They are a tool to achieve an end, to make life better, to reach justice and equality.”

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