It started with angry words on a hot June evening. An off-duty police officer, in the park with his family, tried to stop a bunch of rowdy teenagers from fighting. Rocks were hurled, and then, according to an initial police investigation, the officer pulled his gun, firing a warning shot at the ground that ricocheted upward, killing an 18-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, Solomon Teka.
Teka’s death sparked an outpouring of anger and frustration, a rare display of acrimony by Israel’s 150,000-member Ethiopian Jewish community. The tragedy has also shed a spotlight on police prejudices and widespread racism that Jews of Ethiopian origin say they experience daily.
Two days after Teka’s death, in the hours after his family laid him to rest, tens of thousands of Israelis of Ethiopian heritage poured onto the streets, chanting “He was murdered only because his skin is black!” and holding banners drawing a parallel to the Black Lives Matter movement. Some protesters blocked main arteries, causing havoc on the roads, and cars were set alight. In the July 2 protests, 60 people were arrested and nearly 50 police officers injured.
Data provided by the Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews, known as Fidel, shows that 11 young Ethiopian men have been fatally shot by the police over the past 20 years, six of them in the past five years. The most recent, before Teka, was 24-year-old Yehuda Biadga, who was killed in January in the coastal city of Bat Yam.
No officers have been brought to trial for those killings.
“We live in a country where the police feel comfortable to resolve a situation that is not particularly dramatic not with an arrest but with a shooting,” said Rina Ayalin Gorelik, a lawyer at the Clinic for the Advancement of Equality at Bar-Ilan University. The center is providing Teka’s family with legal advice.
Officials have expressed sympathy over the tragedy, but the violent protests have also drawn sharp rebuke. In a meeting with representatives of the Ethiopian community, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said he shared their pain over Teka’s death and promised to establish a process within the police to tackle racism and improper behavior. But, he added, “violence and anarchy” would not be tolerated.
The protests have waned in recent days, but many in the Ethiopian community see the fight as far from over.
“Last week’s protests were spontaneous, but the young people have said they will not let this pass silently,” said Michal Avera Samuel, Fidel’s director. “Our parent’s generation were quiet, but after 35 years in Israel, we can’t continue being quiet about this. There is no other community in which the police raise their guns in this way.”
She said that many young Ethiopians cross the street when they see police approaching them.
“The police are supposed to help everyone, but sadly we have to think carefully before we call them,” Samuel said.
In the wake of Teka’s death, Ethiopian Israelis have taken to social media to share stories of discrimination. In posts on Facebook, with the hashtag #Face_It, they describe racist experiences in every sphere of life — at the workplace, in the education system, on the street and even in stores.
One woman, who did not reveal her name, recalled inquiring as to the price of a pair of shoes in a Jerusalem store only to be told, “This is not the same for people like you!” Another wrote about overhearing a conversation in her local grocery store, with comments such as “Israel should never have allowed the Ethiopians to come,” “they’re animals” and “they should all be sent back to Africa.”
Most Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel in secret immigration operations that took place in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. In Operation Moses, during the 1980s, about 8,000 people were smuggled out of Ethiopia via Sudan and taken to Israel on clandestine flights organized by the Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service. In Operation Solomon, in 1991, about 14,500 people were airlifted to Israel in less than 36 hours.
In more recent years, Israel has allowed additional immigrants to arrive, mainly as part of a program to reunite families. Teka came with his family seven years ago. Yet hundreds, if not thousands, of people who identify as Jewish in the East African nation are still waiting and hoping the Israeli government will approve their immigration, too.
While Israel’s operations rescued thousands of Ethiopian Jews from poverty, famine and war, the country has struggled to integrate the immigrants into its society. Successive government and private panels have found serious flaws in the absorption process, uncovering policies of forced segregation in schools, unfair housing plans that sent many Ethiopian families to live in ghetto-like neighborhoods, mistreatment in the health-care system and deep-rooted suspicion of their Jewishness by Israel’s strict ultra-Orthodox rabbis.
“I think one of the main problems is that we have never properly dealt with these issues,” said Shula Mola, the former chairwoman of the Association of Ethiopian Jews. “Many people in the community thought it was just a matter of time and if we tried to be like everyone else, not to focus on the differences but on the similarities, then it would pass. But we always got the message from the other side that we were different.”
In the neighborhood where Teka lived and died, candles and drying flowers are arranged at a small, makeshift memorial. Tacked to a lamppost is a single Israeli flag and his smiling image.
“Solomon was very kind and respectful,” said Sami Baraku, 36, who manages the youth club that Teka used to attend. “He was well loved by his friends and liked to come here to play soccer.”
Baraku, also an immigrant from Ethiopia, was called to the park on the night of June 30. He said none of the teenagers were armed.
“All the children are in shock and still very angry,” he said. “They are confused. We tell them this is their country and they want to serve in the army, but the police label them as problematic.”
Less than a mile from the park where Teka was killed, his parents sat in the traditional Jewish mourning tent this week for the seven days of shiva.
“We came to Israel because of our faith as Jews,” said Worka Teka, 57, Solomon’s father.
“My son was killed in cold blood for no reason, and I want the state of Israel to ensure he gets justice,” he said. “The murderer must not just be released like they have done in other cases. I am waiting for our day in court.”