Israel’s most senior police officer has provoked outrage by suggesting it is “natural” for officers to suspect Israelis of Ethiopian origin – as well as Arabs – of being more involved in crime than other Jews.
Roni Alsheich, Israel’s police commissioner, made the comments in response to a question at a conference of the Israeli bar association, suggesting more widely that research worldwide showed that “young people and immigrants” were disproportionately involved in crime.
His remarks come against a growing background of complaints by Ethiopian Jewsover policing of their community – including accusations of crude profiling – which has led to recent street protests.
Asked about allegations of Israeli police violence against Ethiopians, Alsheich said: “In all criminological studies around the world it is proven that immigrants are more involved in crime than others, and this should not surprise us.
“In addition, all studies prove that young people are more involved in crime. When these two things converge, a situation is created in which a particular community is involved in crime.
“This was the case in all the waves of immigration [to Israel]. When there is a community that is more involved in crime – also with regard to Arabs or East Jerusalem, and the statistics are known – when a police officer meets a suspect, naturally enough his mind suspects him more than if he were someone else. That is natural.”
Alsheich was immediately condemned by leading figures in Israel’s Ethiopian community as well as prominent Israeli political figures.
Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, the head of Tebeka, a group that has highlighted police abuses, called for an apology and accused Alsheich of “effectively calling [Ethiopians] a criminal community, giving legitimacy and a seal of approval to the racist behaviour of the police against Ethiopian Israelis and other groups”.
The issue of over-policing of the Israeli Ethiopian community boiled over last year after video emerged of police assaulting an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier, Demas Fikadey, in an apparently unprovoked attack.
Gadi Yevarkan, an activist involved in organising protests against that incident, said Alsheich was “not particularly smart for openly saying that Israel was a racist country”.
“We are not migrant workers, we are Jews who returned to their country after some 2,500 years in exile,” he said, adding that it was now “understandable that police officers deal violently with black people and Arabs”.
Alsheich’s comments were also criticised by the leader of Israel’s opposition, Isaac Herzog, who called on the police commissioner to “correct and clarify his statements, because it’s intolerable that anyone understand that it’s legitimate to place Ethiopian or Arab citizens under heavier scrutiny”.
Alsheich’s claim that immigrants worldwide are overrepresented in criminal behaviour is contradicted by numerous studies suggesting that the claimed link between immigration and crime is a myth.
A report last year by the American Immigration Council found, to the contrary, that immigrants to the US were historically less likely to be involved in crime.
The issue of racism in Israel – in particular institutional racism – has become more prominent recently, underlined earlier this summer by comments from the prominent Ethiopian-Israeli model and actress Tahunia Rubel, who in June described Israel as “one of the most racist countries in the world”, adding: “People in Israel find it strange to see an Ethiopian woman who behaves like an Israeli.”
Rubel’s comments followed racist remarks aimed at her that were broadcast on the Israeli version of Big Brother.
Following the row over Alsheich’s comments, Israel’s police service released a statement saying it had not been his intention to offend and that he had admitted that Israel’s Ethiopian community had been “over-policed”.
“To remove any doubt, the statements made by the police commissioner had no intention to offend Ethiopian Israelis,” the statement said.
Israel’s public security minister, Gilad Erdan, defended Alsheich, saying his comments did not defend “over-policing” or racial profiling of Ethiopian-Israelis.
“He did exactly the opposite and courageously said that there is a problem that the police are addressing,” Erdan said. “We are working with members of the community and their leaders to address the errors of the past.”
Police spokeswoman Meirav Lapidot, however, told army radio that the sensitive topic “should have been explained differently.”