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Why Ethiopian Jews are protesting police violence in Israel

A protester, an Israeli Jew of Ethiopian descent, is detained by police during a May 3 demonstration in Tel Aviv. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
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Israel, like Baltimore, has recently faced widespread protests against racial discrimination. Ethiopian Jews took to the streets after a video of a young Ethiopian soldier being beaten by police officers was widely circulated. The tepid response of the authorities, clashes with police during a protest in Jerusalem and the frustrations of young Ethiopians with what they describe as continuous discrimination, sparked the demonstration in Tel-Aviv that caught the attention of many Israelis. Like African Americans in Baltimore, Ethiopians complain not only of being targeted by police but also being subjected to police violence, an experience “white” Israelis are less likely to encounter.

Do police treat minorities differently? Minorities, especially “visible” minorities, are often certain they do, while police often dismiss these allegations and claim that police violence was justified or unrepresentative. Recorded police brutality that cannot be denied is explained in terms of “bad apples” — officers that broke the rules — to be dealt with by disciplinary action.

Systemic mistreatment of minorities, or “police racism,” is difficult to prove in general as data about stops, searches and arrests is either held by the police, or does not exist. However, there is evidence from efforts at reform in the United States and Canada that minority complaints are often justified. Furthermore, perceptions of prejudice can become self-reinforcing when they deepen distrust and shape encounters between citizens and police officers.

The real or perceived mistreatment of minorities can involve both “under-policing” and “over-policing.”

In under-policing, the police neglect minorities and their needs, absenting themselves themselves from minority neighborhoods they regard as “hopeless” and leaving poor urban communities to suffer from high crime rates. While citizens of various backgrounds may feel their communities are under-policed when police services fall short of needs and expectations, minorities, rightly or wrongly, perceive this as discrimination.

Over-policing implies mistreatment of minorities by the police, either by excessive use of force against minorities or by discriminatory practices. “Racial profiling,” the most common practice of over-policing, refers to the use of generalizations based on race, ethnicity, religion or national origin as the basis for suspicion in directing law enforcement. Minorities, especially visible minorities, will be stopped and searched more often than others, and may suffer from police violence. Over and under-policing are not mutually exclusive, in some cases minorities might suffer from both, eroding their trust of police.

For the past three years, we have been using surveys and focus groups to study perceptions of minorities in Israel towards police. Our initial findings help explain the recent surge of protest. Two groups stand out in their perceptions of police and policing: Arab citizens and Ethiopian immigrants. Arab citizens complain of both under-policing and over-policing. Arab towns suffer from high crime rates, violence and reckless driving, attributed by their residents to internal crisis and intentional police neglect. While under-policing is highly important, several incidents in which police officers gunned down Arab citizens have made headlines and generated uproar among the Arab community. Arab citizens, on the one hand, demand that police provide them with a level of service equal to Jewish citizens, but, on the other hand, are often alienated from police and distrust their intentions. Ethiopians, display a different pattern of alienation and distrust related to police violence and abuse. Various reports in recent years raised complaints of Ethiopian young men mistreated by police, often subjected to violence. In both cases, however, it seems that their marginal position in Israeli society explains their mistreatment by police.

Our survey includes 2,200 respondents from five different groups: Arab citizens, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, Ultra-Orthodox Jews and a control group.

Among Arab citizens, under-policing is a major concern and seen as related to discrimination. Thus, 43 percent of the respondents believe policing in their neighborhood is of lower quality than in other neighborhoods, compared to only 13 percent of the control group who feel the same way.

Ethiopians strongly believe they are discriminated against by police, 26 percent of the respondents believe they will receive worse treatment from police than non-Ethiopians, while only 13 percent of Arab citizens and 5 percent of the control group feel the same way. Ethiopian immigrants, a meager 2 percent of the population, are 30 percent of the population in juvenile jails. Accordingly, 42 percent of Ethiopians believe that the police arrest people for no reason, while only 20 percent of Arab citizens and 15 percent of the control group feel the same way.

These perceptions plausibly reflect differences in police behavior, both in Tel Aviv and Baltimore. Police violence against minorities happens not only because these minorities are visible, and hence subject to racial profiling (e.g. negatively stereotyped minorities are likely to be stopped more by police officers for random searches). It happens also because they are vulnerable, allowing police officers sometimes to ignore required procedures, overlook citizen’s rights or, in extreme cases, use unnecessary violence.

Ethiopian citizens display a strong desire to be part of the Jewish collectivity, and often emphasize their heroic efforts to immigrate and their participation in the military. In general, they trust state institutions, including the police. However, their perception of police and policing is marred by feelings of discrimination and abuse, casting doubt on the meaning of trust and suggesting it has much to do with their desire to integrate. Many believe the police treats them harshly and that they will not receive fair treatment if they approach them.

Newspapers in the aftermath of the demonstration were full of stories describing police violence, as well as the abuse and humiliation young Ethiopians allegedly suffer at the hands of police officers. In our focus groups, police brutality was explained by the community’s weakness that does not allow them to stand up for their rights. “If a white boy is arrested by the police for no reason, his parents will come to the police station and raise hell,” explained one of the young men we interviewed. “Nobody will speak for me.”

Guy Ben-Porat is associate professor in the public policy and administration department of Ben-Gurion University.

Fany Yuval is a senior lecturer in the public policy and administration department of Ben-Gurion University.