An eye-opening visit

When Ruth Lorisso visited Ethiopia, she gained a newfound pride in her heritage.

RUTH LORISSO: Bridging cultural gaps. (photo credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)
RUTH LORISSO: Bridging cultural gaps.
(photo credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)
‘Before I went to Ethiopia for my post-army trip,” says Ruth Lorisso, smiling, “I considered myself an Israeli – not an Ethiopian. After I returned, I realized that I have a proud combination of both my Israeli upbringing and my Ethiopian roots.”
Born in Haifa to Ethiopian immigrants, Ruth Lorisso grew up in Rehovot with her parents and older sister and served in an elite IDF intelligence unit. After completing her army service, she decided to travel to Africa, planning stopovers in various countries, including a monthlong stay in Ethiopia.
“I wasn’t thinking of making it into a ‘roots’ tour,” says Lorisso. Once she arrived, her perspective changed. Lorisso remained in Ethiopia for four months and left with an improved command of Amharic and a strengthened sense of her Ethiopian background. “I am still very Israeli, but I see the differences between Ethiopian culture – its respect, manners, and deference, and the Israeli way of life, which can be more assertive. I love the combination between the two cultures.”
Today, Lorisso 25, a second-year medical student at Hebrew University, is helping to bridge the gap between different cultures and groups in Israel through her work at the Civil Service Commission’s Employment Diversity Division. The office was created in March 2018 with the goal of ensuring appropriate representation of groups in Israeli society within the governmental workforce. The Israeli government is the country’s largest employer, with almost 79,000 people in its employ.
“We work with five population groups,” she explains, “Arabs, haredim (ultra-Orthodox), new immigrants, people with disabilities, and Ethiopians.” By law, she explains, each group must be represented with a minimum number of workers within the government workforce. For example, the Arab population, which comprises 20% of Israel’s overall population, should comprise at least 10% of the workers in government offices. The Ethiopians, who make up 1.7% of the total population, need to be represented by at least that amount. Individuals with special needs should make up 5% of government employees, and haredim should be 7% of the total government workforce. While some groups, such as the Arab sector and the Ethiopian sector, have reached the minimum amounts required by law, other groups, says Lorisso, such as the disabled, are not yet adequately represented in the government.
Lorisso notes that for the most part, the quotas that are being met are for more menial jobs. “There is relatively little diversity in the mid-level and higher-level jobs,” she says. “This is the issue that we are dealing with at the moment.” Some government offices assign a staff member to monitor quotas, she explains, to make sure that minority groups are adequately represented within government offices. “There are 60 people in government offices whose job is to monitor representation. Ideally, we should have 80 monitors,” she says. “We try to teach people assigned with monitoring the difference between hiring quotas and occupational diversity. Hiring quotas for minority groups have been in effect since 2005, Lorisso explains. The Employment Diversity Division teaches the advantage and importance of occupational diversity, which, she says, “is fairness, equality, and doing the right thing.” Occupational diversity means hiring someone because they are well-suited for the position, and because they can provide a different outlook, by virtue of their different background. “We want members of minority groups to know that they are being hired not because they make up a certain number from a certain group, but because they are wanted, and because they are a part of Israeli society,” says Lorisso.
Lorisso says that the Diversity Division and the Civil Service Commission wants to increase trust, professionalism and fairness. “The example that we use for trust,” she explains, “is that of a courtroom. If I enter a courtroom, I will have greater faith in the court system if I see someone like me.”
INTERESTINGLY, SHE says, Israel ranks high on the list of employment diversity among member countries of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). Lorisso explains that this is due to the fact that Israel has been dealing with a diverse and varied population since its birth. Nevertheless, she cautions, tensions exist between different sectors of the Israeli population, with different groups espousing different values and sometimes speaking different languages. “Today, the haredim and Arabs together – who as a group are under the poverty line – make up 50% of the students in first grade. It is a national mission for the Israeli economy to answer this challenge.” Lorisso says making the Israeli workforce more diverse is the best solution.
Lorisso adds that the separate educational systems add to their separation in society.
“It is very rare to see a certain teacher in a specific school,” she says. “Arab students are usually taught by Arab teachers. Haredi students have haredi teachers and national religious students have national religious teachers.” She adds that even seminars given for mathematics teachers are given to teachers separately, within their own group.
Lorisso’s experience growing up as a member of a minority group makes her uniquely qualified for her quest for diversity. Her parents, both of whom taught mathematics in Ethiopia, came to Israel in 1994, six months before she was born.
“No one talks about it much,” she says, “but the Jews were persecuted in Ethiopia. They wanted to come to the land that they always spoke about. Throughout the years of exile, they spoke about Israel as part of their history.” Her father became a math teacher in Israel, and was very involved in her studies, as well as those of her sister, who now studies design in Tel Aviv. Lorisso was always attracted to the sciences, and she has always had a natural interest in being with others. “I have always enjoyed working with people,” she says, “and I was always interested in how things work.” She finds medical school very challenging, but says, “I like challenges very much.” She was the first Ethiopian to serve in her army intelligence unit and is one of the few Ethiopians in her medical school class. Lorisso wants to combine her medical skills with her “people” skills. “There is a lack of communication between patients and doctors,” she explains, “and even more so, in cases where Hebrew is not the patient’s mother tongue. I want to be involved in this area, which is why it was so important for me to improve my command of Amharic. It is important for me to be an Ethiopian doctor.”
LORISSO EXPRESSES her feelings about discrimination that she and her family have faced as Ethiopians.
“It is painful that Ethiopians died attempting to make aliyah to Israel, and then you hear people say, ‘You are not Jewish enough,’ or not religious enough. I worked in a restaurant and a man wearing a kippah suspected that the restaurant was not kosher because I worked there.”
“I feel a responsibility to do something for the Ethiopian community because I have been very fortunate,” says Ruth. “The visit to Ethiopia opened my eyes to the Ethiopian community.”
As part of her efforts within the Ethiopian community, Lorisso talks with young Ethiopians about careers in medicine.
“Recently, I spoke with three girls who are interested in medicine, but they don’t think that they are capable enough,” she says. “If people don’t expect anything from you, then you don’t expect anything from yourself.” Recalling her past, she says, “I feel that I have a special responsibility because my parents always believed in me and told me that I could succeed.” She views her work with the Civil Service Commission as a positive step in influencing society. “I encourage people to work for the Civil Service Commission, to change things from the inside,” she says.
Lorisso says she is optimistic that ultimately, Israel will be more supportive of diversity, equality and integrating different groups into its society.
“There are people who care, that are trying to change things,” she says. “It is relevant for the country and the values of the country, to have diversity.”