Ethiopian olim plan bashed in Knesset

NIS 870 million plan was first-of-its-kind in the fight against welfare in Ethiopian communities.

Ethiopians sigd 224.88 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash [file])
Ethiopians sigd 224.88
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash [file])
The fanfare over the government's first-of-its-kind, all-encompassing plan to provide emergency education, housing and welfare assistance to Ethiopian immigrant communities came to an abrupt end Monday, as Knesset members, Ethiopian community leaders and government officials pointed out the weaknesses in the NIS 870 million initiative, which was approved last month by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office. "The program will not provide solutions to all the problems facing the Ethiopian community," admitted Erez Halfon, director-general of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which will oversee the program. He was presenting the five-year plan at a meeting of the Knesset Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. "However, we sat down with representatives of the Ethiopian community and outlined together the most pressing and urgent issues that need addressing," he said. But while those present at the meeting, including Ethiopian MK Shlomo Mula (Kadima), welcomed the effort to establish such a program more than 30 years after Ethiopian immigration first began, complaints about its shortcomings came from across the board. Among the most urgent criticisms raised at the meeting was that the Finance Ministry had refused to guarantee the program for the hoped-for five years and had cut back from the slated NIS 1 billion for five years to promising NIS 82.5 million for the first year. "This means we will have to battle with the treasury every year to secure the funds for these programs," said Ariella Ravdal-Nadkov, director of neighborhood renewal at the Ministry of Housing and Construction. She also pointed out that it had left the various ministries - Labor, Trade and Industry, Welfare and Social Services, Health and Education - charged with outsourcing the work to private companies or hiring additional staff at a loss on how to proceed. Halfon agreed that the situation was not ideal but said that he now had no choice but to work within the confines of the Finance Ministry's decision. Ravdal-Nadkov added that because the program had been scaled back by the Finance Ministry, her ministry's portion of the program - providing mortgages to young couples and physical renovations in the 15 neighborhoods earmarked for assistance - had not been properly budgeted. "The NIS 30 million laid out in the plan for mortgages for young couples has not been budgeted by the ministry," she claimed, adding that Minister of Housing and Construction Ze'ev Boim was aware of the problem and had even raised it with the Prime Minister's Office. A representative of the Finance Ministry argued, however, that part of the annual budget for each ministry had been already slated for the five-year Ethiopian plan. Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee Chairman MK Professor Michael Nudelman (Kadima) and Director of the Ethiopian National Project Dr. Negist Mengashe called on the parties involved to resolve the matter as soon as possible. "Mortgages for young couples should be made a top priority," said Mengashe, pointing out that even those from the community who had succeeded in improving their lives educationally could still not afford to move out of their parents' homes. Representatives of nongovernment organizations working within the Ethiopian community, many of whom had been involved in drafting the plan, expressed their concern that development and execution of the various elements were being held up by bureaucracy. "We have to make sure this program starts before there is another change over in the government," pointed out Avraham Neguise, director of the advocacy group South Wing to Zion. "It is essential that we start this program as soon as possible." Mula also pointed out his disappointment that the Jewish Agency was not involved in the development and execution of the program, which will benefit more than 25,000 new and former immigrants currently living in Rehovot, Kiryat Malachi, Netanya, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Afula and Hadera, among other places. There is a total of 110,000 Ethiopians living in Israel; 31% were born here. Three hundred new Ethiopian immigrants arrive in Israel every month. About half of the community is aged 19 or under. Some two-thirds of Ethiopians currently live below the poverty line, compared to 21% among former Soviet Union immigrants.