A leading Ethiopian-Israeli activist accused the Israeli government of “institutional racism” and “genocide” at a conference in Jaffa on Tuesday, March 8. Inbar Bugala, one of the most recognizable faces and voices of Ethiopian protests that took off in earnest in the spring of 2015, made the comments at an International Women’s Day conference at the Peres Center for Peace.
After handing a note to the event’s guest of honor, supermodel Naomi Campbell, Bugala gave a brief but scathing address in Hebrew, insisting that for Jews of sub-Saharan origin in Israel, “your humanity is in question.” Bugala invoked the names of Ethiopian-Israelis, who died in recent years after being beaten by law enforcement officials, and described their deaths as part of a larger pattern of police brutality and state racism.
“We live in an era in which black youth’s lives are constantly at risk from law enforcement. We live in a country in which bereavement has turned into one of the possibilities when an Ethiopian mother allows her son to leave the house. We are not speaking of individual exceptional cases, we are talking about institutional racism,” Bugala said. “The State of Israel has acted and continues to act in order to reduce the birth rate of Ethiopian women. Hundreds of Ethiopian women were forced to take injections that prevented them from bringing children into the world. In other words: murder. In less white‐washed words: genocide,” she continued.
In January, Israel’s Comptroller closed an official investigation into allegations of a state-sponsored eugenics program against Jews of color, and declared that, while a birth-control drug was administered to Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, it was not done against their will. Not one of the women who accused the state of coercing them to take the injections was interviewed in connection with the probe.
After Bugala’s searing remarks, which lasted only eighty seconds, she abruptly left the stage and the conference hall altogether. Bugala uploaded a shaky video of her brief address to Facebook the following day, but later told the Dimona Dispatch she fears the video will be removed soon from the social network.
Bugala’s fears are apparently not without foundation. When she posted to Facebook that she believed Israelis who beat to death a non-Jewish African asylum-seeker in October did so because he was black, police immediately messaged her, saying, “Remove the post at once, I’ll see to it that the post is removed.” The threat was apparently serious, because Bugala’s message was then deleted without her say-so.
During the large-scale protests that began ten months ago, Ethiopian-Israelis, across the country, demonstrated against police brutality and state racism. On April 30, 2015, thousands protested in front of the Jerusalem residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Three days later, in Tel Aviv, thousands more blocked ten lanes of traffic for hours on the country’s busiest thoroughfare. Israeli police used tear gas, shock grenades, and foul-smelling, pressurized water to disperse the crowds — tactics that are familiar to Palestinian protestors but rarely used on Jewish citizens of Israel.
Hoping to calm tensions, Netanyahu responded to the demonstrations by promising to address the grievances. A month later, Israeli police issued a report claiming they had conducted a thorough investigation into the charges of racist police brutalities that “did not reveal evidence of discrimination or rights abuse.”
The full text of Bugala’s remarks at the International Women’s Day conference appears below:
I was asked to appear here today in order to talk about how I, an independent black woman, led a struggle. But it’s not true. Those who led the struggle were Eli Sabhat, Avraham Damti, Aharon Mekonen, Ilan Tafara, Yair Melkamo, Raphael Yerdai, Gasho Mula and Yosef Salamsa. These are not names of other activists, but rather names of victims, who were killed by police forces. Do you understand, we live in an era in which black youth’s lives are constantly at risk from law enforcement. We live in a country in which bereavement has turned into one of the possibilities when an Ethiopian mother allows her son to leave the house. We are not speaking of individual exceptional cases, we are talking about institutional racism. The State of Israel has acted and continues to act in order to reduce the birth rate of Ethiopian women. Hundreds of Ethiopian women were forced to take injections that prevented them from bringing children into the world. In other words: murder. In less white‐washed words: genocide. We are not allowed de‐ cent education or equal employment. They don’t accept that we are Jews. Even army service – we do it separately. Ladies and gentlemen, this is race theory. We would have expected that a country that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust to strive for justice and equality. But in the current Israeli reality, if you are black, your humanness is in question, your humanity is in question, your citizenship is in question. This is the end of my participation in this event. Thank you.