This past May, hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants demonstrated in the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ashkelon, and Haifa to protest the ongoing discrimination and racism they feel directed against them. The demonstrations broke out following a documented incident that took place on April 27, during which an Israel Police officer and a police volunteer beat an Ethiopian soldier who, as they saw it, refused to listen to their directives. A video documenting the incident brought allegations of discrimination against Ethiopian-Israelis by the police in particular, and Israeli society in general, to the top of the national agenda. The many allegations voiced at the time, and the events described in the media, present a sad picture of intolerance, discrimination, and sometimes even serious physical violence against this community.
This wave of demonstrations, and the media headlines screaming “racism” were a direct follow up to a wide range of violent incidents – physical and verbal – that had produced similar headlines, damaging the delicate fabric of Israeli society over the past year. At the end of June 2014 three young Israeli boys were kidnapped and murdered in Gush Etzion. The kidnap and murder, and the chain of events that followed, were seen by many as an earthquake or fault line in Israeli society. At the beginning of July, when the bodies were found, incitement and violence (on the part of both Jews and Arabs) spread among broad sections of the public: starting with the websites and social networks, through riots by extremists – mainly in the streets of Jerusalem, expressions by public figures, and continuing on to physical attacks. This wave came to a climax (but not an end) on July 2, when three young Jewish men kidnapped and murdered Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian from the village of Shuafat.1 The events of the summer, including Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, continued to inflame spirits and led to additional injuries. (Police figures show that during July 2014 alone 150 cases were opened in connection with disorderly conduct and Jewish ultra-nationalist crimes, as compared with 50 cases in June 2014, and 44 in July 2013. The figures regarding Arab disorderly conduct and ultra-nationalist crime also shot up during the same period: in July 2014, 1186 cases were opened for rioting and Arab ultra-nationalist crimes, as compared with 682 in June 2014, and 531 in July 2013). The general feeling that spread throughout the public, and was expressed (some would even say inflamed) by the traditional and digital media, was that racism, which has existed here since the establishment of the state, had reached unprecedented heights.
Later on, after the war in the south had died down, a further number of serious incidents were recorded (many of them – although not all – led by members of the extreme right wing organization Lehava, whose name stands for ‘Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land’ and whose official mission is preventing intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews), including violent rioting following the highly publicized and stormy wedding between a Jewish woman and Arab man in August 2014; arson at the Hand in Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem in November 2014; the escalation of violence against public transport drivers (Jews and Muslims), discussed in the Labor, Welfare and Health Knesset committee in December 2014; the “Taxi Affair” (the demand that the drivers of ordered taxis should not be Arab) in January 2015, and so on.
After having gone to press, during the last week in July, two horrific violent hate crimes occurred: The stabbing of six people, including the murder of 16 year old Shira Banki at the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem and the arson of the Dawabshe family house in the Palestinian village Duma, which resulted in the death of the infant Ali and his father Saad. In regard to the incident in the Palestinian village of Duma, since the perpetrators have not been caught, (though they were apparently Jewish terrorists), we cannot establish with certainty the reasons for the crime, however we cannot rule out the possibility of an attack of racist or ultra-nationalist background. Regarding the murder at the Gay Pride Parade, according to the alleged murderer, he acted on the basis of hatred of the other and homophobia. The alleged murderer, Yishai Schlissel, was freed from prison three weeks before the attack, after serving a ten-year sentence for perpetrating a similar attack in 2005. Following the incident, the chief of police appointed a commission of inquiry to examine how the police force operated in relation to this incident. It appears that the Report of the Commission recommended taking disciplinary steps against senior police officers.2
These events led a wide range of organizations and agencies – state and private – to try and find some way to reduce these phenomena, if not do away with them altogether. Among other things, specific programs initiated by the Ministry of Education (for example, “The Other is Me,” “Key to the Heart – coping with tolerance, preventing racism, and living together in the education system”);3 the opening of a special complaints call center at the Ministry of Justice, and a joint digital campaign of the Ministry of Justice and the outgoing president called “Look Me in the Eye”; public expressions by the incoming and outgoing presidents at a variety of events; initiatives by Knesset members and political parties;4 special discussions in Knesset committees,5 and more.