In the six decades since its founding, the State of Israel has prided itself on
the successful integration of diverse populations from around the globe. The
nearly insurmountable endeavor of bringing together immigrants from such
radically different cultural backgrounds was given direction and purpose by the
knowledge that all were members of a single Jewish people bound by a shared
The “ingathering of the exiles” foreseen by the prophets seemed to
be unfolding after nearly two millennia of yearning.
revelations of racial discrimination faced by the Ethiopian-Israeli community
continue to remind us that the national challenge of absorption and integration
has yet to be completed.
These include a grassroots initiative by
residents of a Kiryat Malachi neighborhood to keep out Ethiopian olim they
referred to as “cockroaches”; a bus driver in Mevaseret Zion telling Ethiopian
schoolchildren that they smell bad; racial segregation of kindergartens in Beit
Shemesh; and a decision by the Israel Broadcasting Authority not to renew the
contract of an Ethiopian-born executive.
Even a murder and suicide in
Rishon Lezion in which an Ethiopian immigrant stabbed his wife to death and then
took his own life were reported in the media against the backdrop of the
Ethiopian community’s difficulties in making the transition from life in a
patriarchal, traditional, Third World society to a highly developed Jewish state
striving for gender equality.
It would be unfair to claim that Israel and
Diaspora Jewry have ignored the plight of the Ethiopian community, which now
numbers about 120,000. Organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North
America, the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and
Keren Hayesod-UIA in conjunction with the State of Israel have invested hundreds
of millions of dollars over the past decade or so in initiatives such as the
Ethiopian National Project, Parents and Children Together (PACT) and a five-year
interministerial plan launched in 2008 to improve Ethiopian-Israelis’ academic
achievement, job training and socioeconomic conditions.
In 2005, the
Knesset passed an amendment to the Civil Service Law that obligates government
offices to hire Ethiopians in accordance with their representation in the
general population (1.5 percent). In March 2011, the law was expanded to include
state-owned companies and municipalities. However, while there appears to be a
lot of goodwill on the part of Diaspora Jewry and consecutive governments,
implementation on the ground has been lacking, according to Efrat Yarday,
spokeswoman for Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.
says Yarday, is a counter-productive government policy of providing generous
housing grants to Ethiopians on condition apartments are purchased in designated
As a result, Ethiopian ghettos have been created in cities
such as Netanya, Rehovot, Beersheba, Ashkelon, Hadera and Ashdod. There are 23
neighborhoods in which Ethiopians make up at least 25% of the population,
according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Schools in which
Ethiopians make up a significant minority if not the majority, well beyond the
recommended limit of 25% of the student body, tend to perpetuate a cycle of
poverty (over half of all Ethiopian- Israelis live under the poverty line) and
low academic achievement.
In 2008, just 21% of Ethiopians finished
high-school matriculation at a university-entry level compared to a national
average of 48%. Ethiopian children are twice as likely to be referred to special
education and to drop out.
Though 91% of 18-year-old Ethiopian males born
in Israel enlisted in the IDF in 2009 – significantly higher than the national
average of 75% – they arrived with educational, cultural and socioeconomic
deficits that prevented them from becoming officers or joining the most elite
units. And a significantly higher than average proportion end up in military
prison – many for going AWOL to help support their families.
are less likely to finish an academic degree or to find a job and are more
likely to be on welfare and commit suicide (48 per 100,000 compared to a
national average of seven per 100,000). It is abundantly clear that the endeavor
of fully integrating Ethiopians is a work in process. Combating the debilitating
effects of Ethiopian ghettos is the first order of business.