Which way for Ethiopian-Israelis?

The great potential of this community is far from being realized.

ethiopian students 88.29 (photo credit: )
ethiopian students 88.29
(photo credit: )
More than two decades have passed since the first wave of Jewish immigration from Ethiopia to the "Promised Land" began. Coming on aliya fulfilled half of Ethiopian Jewry's centuries-old dream of returning to Zion, but intolerance and discrimination encountered since arriving in Israel have crushed the other half. This spring the Jewish Agency, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, and the Joint Distribution Committee all commemorated Ethiopian Jewish immigration. Such celebrations are somewhat ironic given that the Ethiopian community is not exactly in a celebratory mood. To understand why Ethiopian-Israelis have not joined the festivities, one need only look at the news headlines: "Ethiopians Are Again Not Wanted in Or Yehuda" (Ma'ariv), or in Haifa "Veteran Residents Can't Be Made into a Minority" (Israel Television, Channel 10). The more than two decades that have elapsed since Operation Moses, and 15 years since Operation Solomon, have proven that Israel still does not know how to absorb immigrants, despite the tremendous experience accrued in this field. Israeli society continues to functionally shunt certain immigrant communities to its geographic, political, social and economic periphery, just as was done with immigrants from Middle Eastern countries in the 1950s. THE CONTINUING saga of the mistreatment of the Ethiopian immigrant community in Or Yehuda by the town's mayor, Yitzhak Bokovza, is a microcosm of the Ethiopian-Israeli predicament. Bokovza does not want Ethiopian-Israelis in "his town" and has resorted to base racist tactics to drive them out. Foremost among these are his repeated attempts to prevent Ethiopian-Israeli children from registering for local schools. Despite explicit orders from the Education Ministry and an outraged state inspector-general to find a suitable local educational framework for Ethiopian immigrant children in Or Yehuda, he continues to seek ways to banish them from the local school district. By repeatedly succeeding in thumbing his nose at the law, Bokovza has become a source of emulation for other cities, such as Ashdod a year ago, and Haifa this month. While at one time derogatory racist remarks would have provoked revulsion, today intolerance has become tolerated, a norm. The Ethiopian-Israeli community today numbers 105,000 people, but its members are conspicuously absent from almost every center of influence in Israeli society. We repeatedly hear of schools refusing to accept Ethiopian students, whose only "sin" is their appearance. "New immigrants lower the academic level of the school," we hear, as if Ethiopian kids were supposed to learn Hebrew, Western etiquette and Israeli mentality on the plane from Ethiopia to Israel. If the different starting points between immigrants and veteran residents are treated as Ethiopian children's "fault" at this formative stage of their lives in Israel, then what can be expected of a child who grows up in this reality? IT IS TIME to tell the truth! Adult Ethiopian-Israelis have difficulty integrating into the Israeli job market, and repeatedly face the same laconic, pre-prepared text box: "Position Not Relevant." This sort of discrimination is no way to build a healthy society. It is very difficult to make demands of the private sector, however, when the state fails to serve as an example of equitable employment practices, and has not genuinely opened the ranks of the civil service despite cabinet decisions and the passage of the Equal Opportunity Law, which supposedly guarantees fair representation of ethnic minorities in the public sector. Many Ethiopian-Israeli college graduates experience discrimination in their job searches, despite having studied at the same institutions of higher learning as Israel's leading elites. The government has chosen a bizarre approach to the challenge of multiculturalism posed by Ethiopian Jews. Instead of embracing this community as an asset, it has viewed it as a burden. Today the Ethiopian-Israeli community faces huge problems, which threaten Israeli society as a whole. These problems are rooted simultaneously in both the past and the present. OUR RELIGIOUS institutions, for example, continue to cast aspersions on the Jewish identity of Ethiopian Jews. While their Judaism is recognized collectively under the Law of Return, it is not applied on an individual basis. For example, an Ethiopian-Israeli couple cannot get married in Israel like any other Jewish couple, even if they are Israeli-born. Many Israelis live in a social bubble in which they view anyone different from themselves, especially in language and skin color, as alien. They avoid social contact with them and isolate their children in school, especially since it is still easy to differentiate Ethiopian-Israelis, even after one or two generations in the country. Too often this stigmatization is excused by saying "That's the way the Moroccans were treated," as if that made it legitimate. Suicides, a rising divorce rate, high unemployment among college graduates and a negative public image are the natural by-products of the tremendous distress and frustration within the Ethiopian-Israeli community; these are further fueled by the lack of recognition of the qualities and values that sustained over 2,000 years of Jewish life in Ethiopia without loss of hope or identity. However, the notion that these problems all derive from the community's poor public image is an illusion which has resulted in only partial treatment of the symptoms, while avoiding the real issues. Continued ignoring of the real problems facing Ethiopian-Israelis, both by the community itself and greater Israeli society, only legitimizes the anti-social behavior of fringe elements. TURNING THE situation around must begin with understanding the problem and recognizing mistakes that have been made. Anti-discrimination laws need to be enforced without double standards and racism banished from all public institutions. Israel's diverse ethnic mosaic must be viewed as a valuable social asset, and not as a burden. Educational and employment opportunities must be available to all Israelis according to their skills and not just their connections. In the past various government institutions have made decisions that could have altered the plight of the Ethiopian-Israeli community; but roughly every two years governments change, all too often sweeping away the buds of positive change. Decision-makers must be committed to continuing successful social policies begun by their predecessors, otherwise the Ethiopian-Israeli community and other weaker elements of society will be relegated to the status of permanent underclass. The Ethiopian-Israeli community has given Israel many talented sons and daughters who want to contribute to our nation's future. Integrating these young people into meaningful positions in the broader society is a critical first step. Our community, for its part, needs to learn to better use democracy's tools, and also that assigning blame cannot, by itself, affect social change. The writer is the executive director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (www.iaej.co.il).