Responding to recent calls by young Ethiopian-Israeli activists for overseas Jews to push the government to tackle widespread discrimination against the immigrant community, a senior American Jewish leader told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that it was not the place of the Diaspora to intervene on a political level in Israel’s social problems.
“The relationship between American Jewry and Israel is very delicate,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. He was in Israel last week after spending four days in Ethiopia visiting Jews waiting there to immigrate.
“Our role is not to lobby the Israeli government but to create and support initiatives that indicate a commitment to a particular issue,” Ruskay said.
“The difference may be subtle and nuanced, but we are cautious about getting involved in internal issues such as these, just as we would not want the Israeli government to get involved in the internal issues of the organized Jewish community in America.”
Last month, several incidents of racism came to light against members of the 115,000- strong Ethiopian-Israeli community, including residents of an apartment building in Kiryat Gat who had signed a contract stating they would not sell or rent their homes to Ethiopian families.
Following those incidents and resultant anti-racism protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, young activists said they planned to turn to Diaspora Jewry, especially in the US, in search of support that would pressure the government into tackling discrimination on a more serious level.
Activist Binyamin Aklom, who often serves as an ambassador for Israel on Ethiopian issues, said that while the organized Jewish community abroad might be hesitant to get involved politically, the images of Israel as a racist country could be very damaging on a global level.
“The foreign media has already picked up on this discrimination and it is very bad that the world is seeing the kind of extreme racism we have here,” he said. It is time for US Jewry, which has donated huge sums to facilitate the aliya and absorption of Ethiopian Jews, to start asking “where all that money has gone,” Aklom said.
“US Jews have donated so much money to the community and still there is so little progress. Perhaps they should be asking why there are so many social problems,” said Elias Inbram, another young activist.
It might be time for those who really want to help the Ethiopians in Israel to ask directly what its needs are, he said. “If they do not want to get involved in politics, then we would urge them to help us set up projects that help us to tackle the elimination of Ethiopians from mainstream Israeli society,” Inbram said.
The community faces widespread poverty and social problems, including high levels of domestic violence. Recent figures published by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry show that a disproportionally high number of Ethiopian immigrants receive treatment from social services.
Ruskay said that American Jews were well aware of the social problems faced by Ethiopian- Israelis and that his federation donates roughly $3 million annually for their aliya and absorption here, as well as for medical and educational services for those still in Ethiopia.
“I come from a city and a country, the US, that has wrestled with the issue of race and inequality for centuries,” he said.
Discrimination and related social problems are long-term issues that take time to resolve, Ruskay said.
“I empathize with members of that community who want more and I can totally understand why they see our role is to see this process accelerated,” he added.
Ruskay, whose delegation arrived in Israel with 82 new olim from Ethiopia, also said that he would not intervene in a recent cabinet decision to reduce the monthly intake of immigrants, despite commitments over a year ago to allow 200 people a month to arrive from the East African country.
“The Federations of North America were all under the impression that the aliya from Ethiopia would be completed by March 2014,” he said. “We have been repeatedly reassured by the Jewish Agency for Israel that it will be complete by then and we will leave it to them to get this job done.”