Rivka Yeshayhu is a 21 year old Jewish Ethiopian, a dedicated daughter and sister who works hard to support her family. Rivka lost her father at a young age and her mother was in a serious car accident that left her permanently disabled. Being the oldest sibling, Rivka had to grow up quickly to ensure the family’s needs were met. While most girls her age were occupied with school, friends, and hobbies, Rivka was fulfilling responsibilities that were well beyond her years. She worked full time to support her mother and siblings and accompanied her mother to all of her appointments. Rivka’s mother is not fluent in Hebrew and is often ignored by the staff at government offices. Rivka accompanies her to ensure that she is taken care of and can continue to collect her disability benefits.
As a black Israeli Rivka and her family have often been the victims of discrimination since they moved to Israel over 10 years ago. As Jews they automatically qualified for Israeli citizenship under the country’s “Law of Return”. In theory they enjoy the same rights and benefits as white Israelis but in practice they are often subjected to institutionalized racism, lower wages, public ridicule, and police brutality.
In late 2016 Rivka received a draft notice from the IDF (Israeli military) informing her that she was being called upon for mandatory duty and that she was to report to an absorption center. Considering her family situation, coupled with the fact that she is religious, Rivka knew that she would not have to serve. She obtained the necessary paperwork to receive an exemption but found the forms to be extremely complicated and was not able to submit them before the deadline. Shortly after that she received another draft notice and this time she appeared at the absorption center and explained her situation to an IDF official. The official told her that she would have to go to Israel’s Central Rabbinate for a document stating that she is religious and therefore qualities for an exemption. Rivka went through the necessary steps and submitted the paperwork. After not hearing back for several weeks she became nervous and mailed in the forms again. Finally she received a notice to appear at IDF headquarters. She hoped that this time she would finally get her official exemption.
On April 3rd, 2017 Rivka appeared at IDF headquarters with her mother but instead of being given an exemption she was arrested on the spot and sent to military prison for the crime of Draft Evasion. Israeli officials had not received her exemption paperwork. They apparently considered a bureaucratic mishap on their part to be equivalent to willful draft dodging even though she had appeared at army headquarters of her own volition.
Rivka has no criminal record and she works hard to support her mother and siblings. Now that she is in prison her family has no means of supporting themselves and her mother is worried that she will lose her meager disability benefits with her daughter not there to translate. The family is on the verge of being evicted from their apartment and they are struggling to put food on the table.
It’s been over a month since Rivka was taken to prison and she has yet to stand trial or even receive a bail hearing. The Israeli judicial system is notorious for delays, with bail hearings and trials often being postponed multiple times without explanation. She was forced to spend the Jewish holiday of Passover in prison due to the fact that the court has not yet given her the opportunity to enter a plea. If convicted, Rivka will likely receive several additional months of jail time along with mandatory military service. Such a situation would leave her family destitute with no means to provide for themselves.
Israeli Army officials refuse to comment on the situation. The Israeli Rabbinate has called for reforms to the exemption process, requesting that the Rabbinate have the ability to directly send letters affirming religious status to the IDF. This would cut out the step of the exemption candidate having to mail in additional paperwork themselves, reducing the amount of forms lost in transit. In the meantime Rivka remains in prison, forced to endure hours of military exercise and to stand at attention several times a day while she is screamed at and ridiculed. This otherwise happy and bubbly girl has become a shell of her former self.
Rivka’s story has received absolutely no coverage in the Israeli press.
Considering that the country is known for it’s problem with racial discrimination against the Ethiopian community, the lack of coverage comes as no surprise. Ethiopian Israelis are statistically twice as likely to be arrested for crimes they didn’t commit. Israel has a long history of institutionalized racism against its Ethiopian citizens, a community of around 150,000. Many Ethiopian Israelis are refusing to serve in the IDF, acting as conscientious objectors to protest institutionalized racism and police brutality. Rivka definitely believes that racism played a major factor in her arrest. Other Israeli girls who have been arrested for draft evasion in the past were speedily released with a mere warning. Those cases grabbed more attention and the government felt pressured to grant clemency quickly. Barely anyone is speaking up on Rivka’s behalf.
The IDF has the ability to release Rivka from prison immediately. It is clear that she never intended to evade the draft as she reported to Military Headquarters whenever she was summoned. The religious committee confirmed that she qualifies for an official exemption. Her family needs her home. Rivka’s release will be an important victory for Israel’s Ethiopian community as well, showing them that their struggles are not being ignored.
Your voice matters, let’s speak out and stand up against racial and religious discrimination in Israel and return Rivka to her family who desperately needs her.