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Toveet Radcliffe Was the First African-American Woman to Die in the Israeli Military; Her Death Was Ruled a Suicide But Her Family Isn’t Buying It

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David Sheen

In America, we’ve become painfully used to the idea that to the police, the Jeff Sessions-led justice Department and, in many cases, the military, black lives don’t matter. Donald Trump’s handling of the death of Army Sgt. LaDavid Johnson; the White House’s silence on the killing of Army 2nd Lt. Richard Collins III by a white supremacist; the deafening silence about racism at the U.S. Air Force Academy, are just a few examples in the last year.

It is often worse for black women in the armed forces, who are victims of racial and sexual violence. Consider the case of LaVena Johnson, who, at 19 years old, was found dead of a gunshot wound in a tent in Balad, Iraq. Yet despite her body being found with a broken nose, a black eye, loose teeth and corrosive chemicals found on her genitals, the Army determined her death was a suicide. Where else in the world are black women’s bodies, even when dedicated to the protection of a nation, so degraded or devalued? Apparently, the Israeli government isn’t far behind America.

Feb. 21 will mark the three-year anniversary of 19-year-old Corporal Toveet Radcliffe’s death, the first African-American woman to die in the Israeli Defense Forces. Radcliffe was found dead at Palmachim Airbase just south of Tel Aviv, Israel, from a gunshot wound to the head. In early February, the IDF ruled that Radcliffe’s case will not be reopened. Investigators ruled that the gunshot that went through her forehead and came out the back was a result of an accidental or intentional suicide. However, Radcliffe’s family and members of the African Hebrew Israelite community aren’t so sure.

African Hebrew Israelites await the verdict in the case of Toveet Radcliffe in a courtroom at the Bar Lev Base on January 18. (David Sheen)

Toveet Radcliffe was born in Israel, to African-American parents who moved to there to practice as Hebrew Israelites, an Afrocentric form of Old Testament Judaism. She grew up happy and popular in the southern Israeli city of Dimona, where about 10 percent of the population are Hebrew Israelites, and she was known for her beauty and gregarious personality.

Despite being born in Israel, Radcliffe was not a practicing Hebrew Israelite nor was she an Israeli citizen. In fact, Hebrew Israelites are not automatically granted Israeli citizenship; the Israeli government had tried to kick them out of the country for years (part of a larger problem of the Israeli government discrimination against African and African-American Jews) until eventually granting them a tenuous residency status. Hebrew Israelites often live as second-class citizens, denied public education and state health care because their practice of Judaism isn’t “orthodox.”

Nevertheless, children can earn citizenship for themselves and their families can become eligible to apply for full citizenship after serving a tour in the armed forces. Radcliffe joined the military in October 2013 and died less than a year into her service—not from terrorists or criminals but from a bullet wound to the head while sitting in a guard booth.

She was found just after midnight, bleeding from a head wound, by the soldier that was to replace her on duty; she was declared dead by a military doctor less than half an hour later.

After almost three years of legal wrangling, Judge Major Meir Vigiser ruled it was “highly likely” that no other person was with Radcliffe when she was shot. Vigiser rejected several experts presented by the Radcliffe family suggesting foul play, instead placing the young woman’s death in her own hands.

About 30 members of the Hebrew Israelite community, all wearing white, sat in the courtroom for over an hour, listening as Judge Vigiser’s ruling. Radcliffe’s mother, Khydijah Gray, refused to attend the final hearing because she doubted that justice would come. While the verdict clearly disappointed the Radcliffe family and its supporters, it did not shock them.

“I am absolutely not surprised. I would have been surprised if they had done the right thing,” Shayarah Baht Yisrael said to The Root.

“I think the whole investigation was flawed from the beginning. And that alone is jail time, as far as I’m concerned. The fact that they tried to sweep it under the rug so quickly, I’m very, very frustrated by that,” added Ketreyah Fouch.

As supporters from the community trailed out of the Bar Lev Base, one young woman told The Root: “Toveet was too good to serve in the Israeli army, in general. Like all of us, we’re just too good to serve in this army.”

Hours after attending the court session, African Hebrew activist Ashriel Ben-Israel uploaded a video to Facebook calling the verdict “a big embarrassment”: “We do not accept it, this decision! We no longer believe any army representative regarding this case,” Ben-Israel bellowed in Hebrew, overcome with emotion. “We will not allow this decision to pass in silence,” he added.

Discrepancies in the IDF’s account of her death disturbed Radcliffe’s family and friends from the start. On January 18, 2016, nearly a year after the fatal incident, the IDF published the results of its internal investigation into Radliffe’s death—essentially suicide. At the most basic level, it is hard to believe that 5-foot, 2-inch Toveet Radcliffe managed to shoot herself through the forehead with an M4 (demonstrated below with a paper replica by her sister).

Toveet Radcliffe’s sister demonstrates with a paper gun the angle the would have had to be place to recreate the shot in her sister’s forehead. (David Sheen)

Given that the Israeli government offered to pay the Radcliffe family a lifelong stipend (for a solider who committed suicide), the questionable investigation (significant physical evidence was never examined), and the dismissal of key witnesses and testimony, Radcliffe’s family sought the truth. The Hebrew Israelite community raised funds for a legal appeal that bore fruit a year later. On March 17, 2017, the president of the IDF Court of Appeals, Major Gen. Doron Feiles, ordered a reinvestigation of Radcliffe’s death. In his decision, Feiles conceded that the IDF had not definitively demonstrated that Radcliffe had committed suicide and had not even bothered to seriously consider any other possible explanation for her death.

“It could be that the IDF felt that Toveet’s life wasn’t of value on the scale of social importance. Maybe in its opinion, she was just a girl from a black community in Dimona, just some unimportant girl,” the community leadership said the day after the Vigiser verdict in a press release. “Taking into account the apathy, arrogance and total lack of transparency on the part of the IDF, it must be seen as suspect No. 1.”

Israeli soldiers from the African Hebrew Israelite community turn their backs to the camera in silent protest against the army’s determination that Toveet Radcliffe took her own life. (David Sheen)

Radcliffe’s case had become a national story in Israel over the last few year; it was featured in several CSI/First-48 style TV investigative shows. Yet despite the historic nature of a black girl with African-American parents dying mysteriously in the IDF, it received little or no coverage in the United States. No major news stories, no #SayHerName hashtags. A Change.org petition to President Barack Obama in 2016 on her behalf couldn’t muster 1,000 signatures.

With the case officially over, members of the Hebrew Israelite community vow that they will continue the fight even if it’s unclear how that will occur. The Israeli government can delay, deny or possibly void the citizenship of community members who push back too hard. Furthermore, with little or no international attention or pressure, ala #BringBackOurGirls, there’s no reason to believe the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu government would even care. That doesn’t mean her case doesn’t matter, it only means that if black lives truly matter across the globe, we must add Toveet Radcliffe’s name to the sadly growing list of black people betrayed, abandoned and possibly killed by their governments.

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