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(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The roads leading to the Knesset yesterday were the scene of unfortunate clashes
between police and around 100 Ethiopian Jewish protesters. Demonstrators banged
on metal containers and blocked several streets, leading to police dispersing
them with horses and water cannons.
Nine protesters were arrested and two
police officers lightly injured, even though the demonstration had been
coordinated in advance.
Protesters claim that the housing provided them
upon immigration has been inadequate, and that they have no solution for better
accommodations, despite government promises. They maintain that thousands are
trapped in cycles of poverty in absorption centers, housed in cramped conditions
with little hope of moving on.
With more Ethiopians arriving as the
Immigrant Absorption Ministry seeks to wrap up the final phase of Ethiopian
aliya, there is pressure to move those living in the absorption centers out. In
2012, according to the government data, 2,492 olim came from Ethiopia; as we
approach the end of 2013, 1,378 have come.
The ministry, in partnership
with the Jewish Agency, runs 17 absorption centers across Israel that house
In August, Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who
has passionately supported Ethiopian aliya over the years, stressed: “We will
work tirelessly to make sure these new immigrants receive the loan and mortgage
benefits to which they are entitled.”
Yet Ethiopians remain
poverty-stricken: Around 52 percent live below the poverty line, compared to 16%
of the general population; and they are underemployed, at 65% vs. 74% among the
wider Jewish population.
The protesters complain that because of the
low-paying jobs where they are housed, they cannot afford to move into new
apartments or purchase accommodations for their families, especially with
housing prices in Israel at an all-time high. In response, the Immigrant
Absorption Ministry released a statement that claimed olim receive many benefits
and various types of unspecified aid at the absorption centers, including
programs for those seeking work and education. “They receive grants for housing
This depends on the number of people in the family and the
year of immigration, and ranges from NIS 300,000 to NIS 700,000. Single
individuals can receive rent subsidies of 1,500 NIS per month for five years, or
NIS 90,000 in total; they also receive loans with special
But the immigrants argue that these grants and loans are not
enough. In places like Mevaseret Zion, where there is an absorption center, most
housing prices start at NIS 1 million.
With many of them making minimum
wage or just above it, this puts housing beyond their grasp.
several important issues. First, it is important to address the way the protest
was handled by the police.
Other housing protests, such as the famous
2011 social justice protests in Tel Aviv, were rarely met with the level of
police dispersal methods used near the Knesset. Using horses to disperse poor
Jewish immigrants seems excessive.
This leads to the second issue: that
the Ethiopian immigrants who were protesting Tuesday should not make this an
Ethiopian issue. Everyone in Israel is suffering from high housing prices, which
put owning a home out of reach for many young people and those from the middle
and lower class. In 2013, the median price of a new home has risen to NIS 1.38
million. Data shows that it takes 130 salaries to purchase a home, but this
figure is misleading; a person making the median wage of around NIS 6,200 a
month will never be able to purchase a home, because they must put down around
30%-40% of the price (NIS 300,000-NIS 400,000).
The vast majority of
Israelis simply cannot save enough.
The housing protests two years ago
were supposed to bring this issue to the forefront. Ironically two of the
leading activists in that protest are today in the Knesset, yet the government
has not put forward clear proposals for solving the crisis.
assistance to new immigrants is a good thing, but it alone is not enough to
solve the problem that affects almost everyone. Housing aid is often hard to
obtain, and doesn’t seem to actually meet the needs of those buying a home –
either because banks do not provide loans once the immigrants receive the
grants, or for other reasons.
The root of the problem is affordable
housing itself. Israel’s government, in partnership with the business sector,
must provide solutions, either via wage increases or housing price reductions –
which will provide olim with a chance to find a footing in their country, and
others to see a dignified future for themselves and their children.