The Israel Air Force (IAF) will set another record in Israeli society when Lt. Y. becomes its first combat navigator of Ethiopian origin, completing the prestigious pilots’ course this week, IDF Radio reported.
After the three-year course, the most prestigious and intensive in the IDF, Lt. Y will serve as a navigator on IAF jets, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit confirmed to The Jerusalem Post.
Former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tweeted earlier this week that “the IDF is the melting pot of Israeli society, and the success of Lt. Y. proves this once again. I wish him and his friends to soar as high as possible – and most importantly, to always return safely.”
Close to 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, most having been flown to Israel in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. But Ethiopian Israelis have struggled to integrate into Israeli society.
The community has long accused the state and the military of racism, neglect, brutality and abuse against members of its community, who have been slow to rise through the military ranks.
In 2016, Lt.-Col. Dr. Avraham Yitzhak became the highest-ranking Ethiopian in the military, when he was appointed the chief medical officer of the army’s Southern Command. Yitzhak was also the first Ethiopian Israeli to serve as a combat doctor, both in the Paratroop Brigade as well as in the Maglan unit.
In 2015, a series of rallies was held in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem against police brutality, after the brutal beating of an Ethiopian soldier in Holon was caught on camera. Three years later, the victim, 24-year-old Damas Pakada, became a decorated officer in the cyber unit of the IDF’s technology branch.
While 89% of Ethiopian boys and 62% of Ethiopian girls join the IDF, one third of them end up in IDF prisons, making up 13% of the military prison population, despite making up only 3% of IDF soldiers.
Following harsh criticism regarding the high rate of Ethiopian soldiers sent to prison, the IDF has taken measures in recent years to reduce these figures. In July, Brig.-Gen. Eran Shani, head of the Human Resource Planning and Managing Division in the IDF Personnel Directorate, was quoted by Haaretz as saying that there were 630 Ethiopians in prison in 2017 compared to 795 in 2014.
But while there are fewer Ethiopian soldiers in prison, there are fewer soldiers in prison altogether, making their number still substantially higher than their proportion in society. Dishonorable discharge rates for Ethiopian Israeli soldiers is also well above the national average, with 22.8% for men (compared to 16.5%) and 10.6% for women (compared to 7.5%).
Last year, hundreds of Ethiopian-Israeli combat reserve soldiers declared that they would refuse to report for reserve duty, because of institutionalized racism, with signatories to the letter including combat fighters in the Golani, Givati and Paratroop brigades as well as from the Maglan unit.
Also last week, the head of the governmental unit for coordinating the struggle against racism, attorney Oka (Kobi) Zana, asked Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot to appoint an officer to prevent discrimination and racism in the military, following several incidents where soldiers were injured or humiliated following racially based incidents.
“I invite the IDF to appoint an official who will lead, along with us, measures to prevent racism and discrimination,” Zana wrote to Eisenkot.