By Mijal Bitton (JTA)
JERUSALEM – Israeli society has been gripped over the past week by the killing of Solomon Tekah, an unarmed 19-year-old Ethiopian Israeli. On June 30, an off-duty Israeli police officer shot and killed Tekah under highly contested circumstances.
Walking this city’s streets and stuck in traffic jams, I am witnessing firsthand how this shooting has sparked heartbreak, protests, riots and an increasingly heated public conversation. Major Israeli public figures have commented on the racism that instigated this tragedy and debated the nature of the ensuing demonstrations.
But even as I experience this moment in Israel, I have been troubled by the knowledge that as my Israeli Jewish counterparts are fully immersed in the difficult aftermath of this shooting, my community, the American Jewish community, has little knowledge of Solomon’s killing or involvement in the massive protests sparked by the tragedy.
As someone deeply committed to values of Jewish peoplehood and to a Zionist engagement with Israel, I believe that we American Jews must confront Solomon’s death and grapple with questions of racism in Israeli society.
A moral commitment to Zionism must include narratives that are painful and inconvenient. It is not enough to speak of the startup nation and to celebrate Israel’s many triumphs. We must also explore the darker chapters in Zionism, including discrimination against Ethiopians within Israeli Jewish society.
Moreover, American Jews have a responsibility to face Solomon’s death because our community is morally implicated in the story of Ethiopian Jews. American political power and American-Jewish dollars helped support the efforts to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, including through Operations Moses and Solomon.
In America, we celebrate the Ethiopian-Israeli story as a mark of Zionist success and solidarity. But we have not grappled with Israel’s failure to fully integrate the Ethiopian community. We do not investigate the persistent gaps in educational and socioeconomic achievements of Ethiopian Israelis, the high concentration of Ethiopian residents in poor neighborhoods, systemic bias in the criminal justice system or broader social discrimination — such as Barkan Wineries’ eventually revoked practice of not allowing Ethiopian employees certain roles in their wine manufacturing in order to align with a strict kosher certification that cast doubts upon the Jewish status of Ethiopian Israelis.
Knesset member Michael Bitton (no relation) published a poignant Vidui (confessional prayer) on Facebook after Solomon’s killing. One of his confessions was an “Al Het” — we acknowledge our sin — for amazing aliyah operations followed by failed integration. This is an Al Het that we as American Jews must articulate, too.
But beyond moral responsibility, confronting Solomon’s killing will bring American Jews to engage with Israel in a more complex and nuanced way. We would have to admit that Solomon’s killing is similar to many incidents of racist police brutality in America. Recognizing that Israeli culture suffers some of the same systemic problems of racism as America should bring us to explore the similarities between American and Israeli social inequities, and lead us to resist the sometimes self-righteous impulse we tend to exhibit toward Israeli problems largely absent in America.
Lastly, questions around Ethiopian Jews and Israeli racism lead us to reconsider how American racial binaries are often superimposed onto Israel. Some wrongly assume that Israeli Jews are akin to white Americans and Palestinian Arabs (and Ethiopian Jews) correspond to black Americans. This imagines – falsely – a binary of a racist white Ashkenazi Israeli hegemony against all people of color in Israel.
But even as Ethiopian Jews (and to a lesser extent Mizrahi Jews) have suffered systemic discrimination, most Ethiopian and Mizrahi Jews in Israel identify as Zionist and are not aligned with the Palestinians vis-a-vis the conflict. Their realities, manifest in the current protests, help us resist the temptation to apply American racial categories to Israel and the conflict.
Solomon Tekah’s killing is a tragedy that should matter to all good people who care about questions of racism, discrimination, police brutality and inequity. But it should especially matter to Zionist Jews around the world, whose moral imagination and responsibility would expand in a deeply ethical way if confronted with his death.
And for Solomon, it would mean that his death would be mourned and protested not only by millions of Israelis, but by millions of Jews around the world of all languages and backgrounds who would join the fight to ensure his killing leads to a more equitable Israel.
Mijal Bitton, Ph.D., is a fellow in residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and the Rosh Kehilla of the Downtown Minyan.