More than 200 Ethiopian-Israeli youths from outreach centers around the country packed an auditorium in Lod this Sunday in a celebration of Ethiopian culture and to hear Ethiopian- Israeli hiphop trio KGC. Yet a cloud hung over the event, for youth centers that specifically serve Ethiopians of Israeli decent will lose their funding this winter, under a policy from the Prime Minister’s Office that seeks to integrate them with heterogeneous youth centers.
“From the first of September you will hear the youth,” Michael Avera Samuel, executive director of Fidel, the Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post. “The youth are going to fight to keep their home and place.”
Fidel operates 10 youth outreach centers reaching around 1,000 youths. Three of these centers have already lost government funding, while seven of them are funded until February.
In total there are 14 Ethiopian- Israeli youth outreach centers that currently receive government funding. The centers are overseen by the Ethiopian National Project (ENP), a joint partnership program by the government and Diaspora Jewry that aims to help Israelis of Ethiopian descent integrate and succeed in Israeli society. The ENP has given responsibility for daily operations of the youth centers to two organizations, Fidel and the Israel Association of Community Centers. Fidel-managed youth centers also receive private funding.
At the root of the conflict over funding centers is a disagreement between government policy makers and some grassroots organizations on how to successfully integrate Israel’s Ethiopian community, which is largely poor, less educated and has historically faced racism.
The government holds that Ethiopian-Israeli youth centers serve only to isolate the youth from the general population, thus preventing integration, while many grassroots leaders contend that the centers are essential to support and successfully integrate the children.
The policy is a result of the New Way government initiative, which was established in February 2014 to assist integration of Israelis of Ethiopian descent. The initiative established an interministerial roundtable which sought to convene ministers and Ethiopian civil society to inform policy making. Decisions, including those affecting the youth centers, are being put into effect for the 2016-2017 school year.
According to a July statement from the PMO to Jewish Diaspora leadership, “Integration with non-Ethiopian children is one of the fundamental pillar of New Way policy and has essential value toward optimal integration into the Israeli society.”
“Everyone is talking about being a part of integration, but why are we not talking about success?” Samuel told the Post
, “The [government] thinks that Ethiopians should go to a center for everyone, but our youth centers give the youth something special.”
According to Samuel, youth centers that specifically target Ethiopian youth are better equipped than a general youth center at reaching Ethiopian-Israeli youth and putting them on a path to success. “There is Ethiopian staff that are listening and we are in the [Ethiopian] neighborhoods,” she stated.
A 2015 Ministry of Education report states that the best way to integrate Ethiopian Israelis is to promote “the integration of all aspects of life and society.” According to the ministry, separate programs are justified only if there is a “significant barrier,” like language.
ENP director Roni Akale, who participated in New Way roundtable discussions, paraphrased the government’s position. “According to the government [the youth] know the culture of Israel, they are Israelis, and they should be involved in centers not only for Ethiopians.”
Samuel agrees that the Ethiopian youth are “here to be a part of Israeli society,” yet, she contends Israel’s largely homogenous Ethiopian neighborhoods in Netanya, Ramle, Beersheba, and others need youth outreach centers that do not force children to leave their neighborhoods. “You can send them [to outside centers], but what will they do when they return home?” she asks.
As a few hundred kids sing along to the hiphop anthems Sarah Habatai, a FIDEL manager of the Beersheba youth center told the Post
that her center does more than just provide after school activities. “This is a lot more than a place to pass the time, if they have a problem in their homes or with anything they simply know that they have a place to come and to sit.”
According to Habatai, many parents have trouble steering their children through the challenges of Israeli society, challenges they never dealt with. “The greatest need is working with the parents,” said Habatai. “Many of them did not go to high school and they did not serve in the IDF.”
Samuel, who moved to Israel at the age of nine, understands the disconnect between parents and the youth of Ethiopian descent. “My parents were absent from my education because they didn’t understand it,” she remarked. In Israel, “kids see their parents as struggling and dealing with racism, and we seek to improve their self-image as Ethiopian-Israelis by teaching their history, Amharic, and keeping the traditions.”
However, in the coming school year there will be other projects that target Ethiopian- Israeli youth along with the general population. The PMO is more than doubling the ENP’s SPACE after-school education program to reach nearly 9,000 youth from around 4,000 youth last year. Some 20 percent of the youth will be of non-Ethiopian decent. Fidel is also expanding its education and social mediator program, funded by the Education Ministry. Under the program, mediators are embedded in schools to help bridge the gaps among parents, children, and the school system.
Moreover, the youth centers may be able to secure funding from municipalities or private donors. According to Samuel, NIS 2 million is needed to fund the centers for a year.
Ramle Municipality spokesman Roni Barzilai told the Post
that the municipality greatly values the Ethiopian-Israeli youth center, and will work to keep its doors open. “The municipality attaches great importance to the operation of the youth center,” Barzilai stated, “The municipality is prepared to finance and raise money for continued extensive activity taking place at the center from all the parties involved including government ministries, implementing organizations, and of course the municipality.”
Sarah Habatai believes the solution will come from the youths themselves. “This is their place. If [the center] is important to them, they will do what they need to keep it, and in the end they will succeed.”
In the meantime, the youths are enjoying the festive celebrations, but a six-month deadline awaits to see if a solution can be found to keep the centers from closing.