Release Rivka: Young Ethiopian Immigrant Held in Israeli Prison Without Trial

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Rivka Yeshayhu is a 21 year old Ethiopian-Israeli, 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. She worked full time to support her mother and siblings and accompanied her mother on 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.

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 figured 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. Nervous after not hearing back for several weeks she mailed in the forms again. Finally she received a notice to appear at the IDF headquarters. She hoped that this time she would finally be receiving 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. The officials had not received her paperwork.  They apparently considered a bureaucratic mixup 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 Rivka 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 Rivka not there to translate for her. The family is on the verge of being evicted from there 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. 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 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.  Given Israel’s notorious bad postal service, it makes sense. In the meantime Rivka remains in prison, forced to complete 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 little to 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 twice as likely to be arrested, often accused of crimes they didn’t commit. Israel has a long history of institutionalized racism against its Ethiopian citizens, a community of over 100,000. Many Ethiopian Israelis are refusing to serve in the IDF 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.

Please sign our petition to pressure Benjamin Netanyahu, IDF officials, and the Israeli government to release Rivka from prison immediately. It is clear that Rivka never intended to evade the draft as she reported to Military Headquarters whenever she was summoned. Her family desperately needs her home. Rivka’s release will also 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 up and stand up against racial and religious discrimination in Israel and return Rivka to her family who desperately needs her.

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