Protests in Tel Aviv Outside the US Embassy Branch Office, June 2, 2020. Photo Credit: Ariel Schalit, AP Photo
Israel was one of many countries experiencing waves of protests decrying the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In early June, protestors surrounded the US Embassy Branch Office in Tel Aviv to join in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.1 Their ire and frustration towards police brutality paralleled the exasperation felt by many in the United States. Some activists in Israel have compared the death of George Floyd to that of Solomon Tekah, an Ethiopian-Israeli adolescent who was killed by an off-duty police officer last year.2 More recently in May 2020, a disabled Palestinian man named Eyad Hallaq was shot and killed by police after being falsely profiled as a terrorist.3 These incidents prove that police violence, particularly against Black people, is not unique to the United States; indeed, it is an issue that pervades other countries around the world.
Systemic racism in Israel came to the forefront in 2019, following the deaths of two Ethiopian-Israeli teenagers, Yehuda Biadga and Solomon Tekah, who were both shot and killed by police officers.4 Black Israelis stormed the streets after Tekah’s death to condemn the systemic racism, police brutality and racial profiling they experience in Israel. Many hoped that protests against the murder of Biadga and Tekah would force a national reckoning.5 According to the New York Times, at least four Ethiopian-Israelis have been killed by Israeli police since 1997, and another seven Ethiopian-Israelis perished following encounters with the police, but their deaths were registered as suicides or other vague causes.6 None of the officers have been charged for these teens’ deaths, and many of Israel’s 150,000 Ethiopian-Israelis still report feeling unsafe around police officers.7
The universality of Blackness should not be overlooked or underestimated, especially as it pertains to US-Israeli relations. Zahudito Yosef Seri, an Ethiopian-Israeli mother, believes “there is something global about black skin – like a war on the way Black people look in this world.”8 While the history of Black Israelis and Black Americans are different, they share commonalities in their experiences with racism. Black Israelis have, however, noted some distinct challenges they face when confronting racism compared to their American counterparts, including the small size of their community, their lack of political clout, and the Israeli media’s limited awareness about police discrimination and violence.9 Moreover, some Ethiopian-Israelis perceive US protests to be more racially diverse, as Black Lives Matter protests in Israel are predominantly comprised of Black people.10 Yet despite their differences, protests in the U.S. and Israel share a common message: Black people are being disproportionately targeted by the police, and systemic change is long overdue.
A number of policy measures could be undertaken to address police violence against Black people in the U.S. and Israel. US and Israeli institutions need to conduct more thorough reviews of their internal policing methods to identify whether their processes reinforce racial profiling and discrimination. Police departments across the U.S. have tried implementing implicit bias training, but there is no evidence that they actually work.11 Even body cameras have not proven to be a foolproof method of accountability; in reality, they are only as successful as the police departments using them.12 In addition to increased oversight bodies or channels to which the public can directly report incidences of police violence, we should consider many protestors’ calls for defunding the police. Perhaps reallocating money into Black communities via resources for mental health, public education, and affordable housing will better create safe and healthy communities that will render useless the increased police presence that has disproportionately impacted Black people in both countries.
Moreover, these shared challenges potentially present a new channel for US-Israeli cooperation, especially at the interagency or civil society level. If the U.S. and Israel recognize that police brutality is an area that requires significant institutional changes, then both countries can work together at various levels to share strategies and best practices as to how they can dismantle problematic systems and procedures, and instead, institute ones that are more equitable and just. After all, states that purport to be beacons of democracy, freedom and human rights are only as strong as their most vulnerable members and the civilians who can speak out on their behalf. For this reason, the protests that have erupted around the world over police violence and discrimination must be met with widespread systemic change and a commitment to hold those officers who committed crimes accountable.
1 Jen Kirby, “‘Black Lives Matter’ Has Become a Global Rallying Cry against Racism and Police Brutality,” Vox, June 12, 2020. https://www.vox.com/2020/6/12/21285244/black-lives-matter-global-protests-george-floyd-uk-belgium.
2 Sam Sokol, Nathan Jeffay, Jacob Magid, Patrick Galey, Judah Ari Gross and TOI staff, TOI staff, Michael Bachner, et al, “Protesting Floyd Killing, Israelis Fume over Police Violence in US and at Home,” The Times of Israel, June 3, 2020. https://www.timesofisrael.com/protesting-floyd-killing-israelis-fume-over-police-violence-at-home-and-in-us/.
3 Daniel Estrin, “Israeli Police Killing Of Palestinian Leads To Apologies And Echoes Of The U.S,” NPR, June 5, 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/06/05/870850948/israeli-police-killing-of-palestinian-leads-to-apologies-and-echoes-of-the-u-s.
4 TOI Staff and Jacob Magid, “Police Officer Arrested for Killing Ethiopian-Israeli Teen Solomon Tekah,” The Times of Israel, July 1, 2019. https://www.timesofisrael.com/police-officer-arrested-for-killing-ethiopian-israeli-solomon-tekah/.
5 David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner, “After a Police Shooting, Ethiopian Israelis Seek a ‘Black Lives Matter’ Reckoning,” The New York Times, July 13, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/13/world/middleeast/ethiopian-israeli-protests-racism.html.
7 Ruth Eglash, “Police Shooting of an Ethiopian Jew Prompts a Black Lives Matter Moment in Israel,” The Washington Post, July 12, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/police-shooting-of-an-ethiopian-jew-prompts-a-black-lives-matter-moment-in-israel/2019/07/11/93acbd94-a258-11e9-a767-d7ab84aef3e9_story.html.
8 Moran Nakar, “Black Lives Matter: Ethiopian Israelis Compare and Contrast Struggle with US,” Middle East Eye, June 11, 2020. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/black-lives-matter-israel-ethiopian-police-brutality.
11 Rhea Mahbubani, “Officers Already Get Training to Deal with Biases They May Not Know They Have, but There’s No Evidence It Actually Works,” June 16, 2020. https://www.insider.com/police-defensive-deescalation-techniques-implicit-bias-training-2020-6.
12 P.R. Lockhart, “Body Cameras Were Supposed to Help Improve Policing. They Aren’t Living up to the Hype.” Vox, March 27, 2019. https://www.vox.com/2019/3/27/18282737/body-camera-police-effectiveness-study-george-mason.