For many immigrants to Israel, the road to Zion was a vale of tears.

Ethiopian Jewry’s harrowing trek via Sudan is part of this same narrative. Approximately 4,000 men, women and children – including infants born along the way – died in their attempt to reach Israel. This is about a fifth of those who managed to make it to Israel by foot through Sudan during the 1980s and 1990s.

The burial places of most remain unknown. These people were remembered on Sunday, Jerusalem Day, at the memorial site established seven years ago in their honor on Mount Herzl. The centrality of Jerusalem in the Ethiopian Jewry’s theology, liturgy and special form of Zionism explains the choice of Jerusalem Day as a day of remembrance. Yearning for Jerusalem as both an idea and a physical place was a beacon for Ethiopian Jewry in their darkest hours. The ceremony was graced by the presence of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Like other immigrants who had a difficult journey to Israel, Ethiopians face serious difficulties integrating into society.

In 2008, for instance, just 21 percent 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 joining the most elite units. And a significantly higher proportion ends up in military prison – many for going AWOL to help support their families.

Ethiopians are less likely to finish an academic degree or 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.) Still, 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, or around 1.5% of the population. Organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Israel 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 various initiatives.

And just last week, a five-year plan begun in 2008 was reactivated.

However, the difficulties are formidable. Out of a desire to maintain close ties with relatives, Ethiopian families tend to live together in close-knit neighborhoods. Sometimes this makes sense as a way of fostering community cohesion. But often the decision to move to predominantly Ethiopian neighborhoods ignores needs such as quality education and positive societal influences. 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 at least 25% of the population. And this carries through to the school system. A recent report compiled by the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews found more than 10 schools countrywide in which the number of Ethiopian pupils is more than 80% of the student body and a further 40 schools in which Ethiopians constitute 40%.

Exacerbating the situation is the feeling among many Ethiopians that the government has adopted a patronizing attitude toward the community. For instance, last week’s cabinet decision to renew the 2008 five-year plan was met with stiff opposition by numerous Ethiopian leaders, principally because they felt that they were not made a part of the planning process and their meetings with Netanyahu and other government officials before the relaunching of the program were solely pro forma.

The prime minister’s appearance at this year’s memorial ceremony was an important gesture. But if the government truly wants to reach out it should taken more concrete steps. The Ethiopian community has many talented, educated and articulate leaders. They should be incorporated into the decision-making and planning stages as full partners.

If the plan succeeds, they will share in the success. And if results fail to meet expectations they will share the responsibility for making the necessary improvements.

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