Analysis: A first step against discrimination

Olmert's statements about discrimination faced daily by Ethiopians were a long time in coming.

Ethiopian 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ethiopian 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's statements to the cabinet on Sunday morning about the discrimination faced daily by hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants and their families were a long time in coming, and hopefully will put this country on the path to righting the wrongs that have been committed against an entire community for the past 30 or so years. Olmert also announced that the government would approve a wide-ranging program aimed at resolving some of the issues facing Ethiopian immigrants. According to various sources, a national plan for improved integration of Ethiopian immigrants has already been drafted and is awaiting only the financial approval of the government. It would be wise for that plan to include a clause that calls on the state religious authorities to ease the religious school requirement for Ethiopian families, and there should also be a plan for employment training for the new immigrants, with an enforcement of the affirmative action plan approved by the government earlier this year. It would be helpful, too, if there were some type of program to teach the Israeli public that separation for any reason is wrong and that creating stigmas and sub-par populations does not paint a pleasant picture of the Jewish state. Last week's revelation by Yediot Aharonot of a Petah Tikva school keeping four Ethiopian schoolgirls separate from the rest of its pupils is only the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, everywhere one turns there are similar cases of xenophobia, with no one making any effort to hide it. Hopefully, bringing this incident out into the public forum will have challenged perceptions and spurred some level of social change. If not, then the negative implications of the way the current wave of Ethiopian immigration has been handled will continue to eat away at the core of Israeli society for generations to come. Overall, the absorption process of the Jews of Ethiopia has been shoddy at best and outright racist at worst, with much of the focus being on catering to the religious parties who have not given much thought to the long-term social implications of the conversion framework they helped set up. Add to that the very significant hurdles involved in bringing people from the backwaters of Africa to a (fairly) modern Jewish state and the usual trials of any new immigrant, and you have a recipe for disaster. Let's start with the religious demands. While living in absorption centers‚ the current batch of Ethiopian immigrants or Falash Mura (Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity under duress over a century ago) are forced to undergo a conversion process to renew their covenant with Judaism. During the conversion period, the children must be enrolled in the national religious school system and usually, even after they have finished the conversion process, the immigrants opt to continue sending their children to those schools. This demand stems back to when former prime minister Ariel Sharon agreed to allow the remaining Ethiopian Jews to come here in 2003 under an amendment to the Law of Entry. While on the surface, this requirement appears to be a positive step, in allowing these immigrants, who were mostly followers of Christianity in Ethiopia, to learn the basic principles of this country's national religion and to increase their Jewish knowledge - giving them the tools to understand many of the cultural idiosyncrasies of this Jewish state - in practice, it limits their choices and forces them into one type of community. This means that in places where there are large concentrations of recently arrived immigrants from Ethiopia, the local religious state schools are overburdened with immigrant children struggling with patchy education and the personal upheaval they've just gone through, not to mention the stress of learning a new language, culture and religion. Next, we should look at employment. Focused on studying Hebrew and busy learning the ropes of Judaism during the early stages of their immigration, these newcomers are not afforded time to develop essential skills necessary for finding employment once they leave the absorption center greenhouse. Once they have left the safety of the absorption center, usually after a period of up to two years, the families are dropped into Israeli society and told to manage. Why not use the time they are in a framework to retrain them or place them into an agricultural setting, such as a kibbutz or moshav, for a few more years in order to soften the blow? After all, many of them come from agricultural backgrounds and although the level of industry in Ethiopia is far behind here, who says they could not learn the new skills quite easily? The list of problems goes on and on, from the lack of trained social workers to the general public's limited knowledge of the community, to the difficulties of Ethiopian professionals trying to find work in their fields of training. It is time that the government listen to the people in the field, listen to the community and refocus its efforts to deal properly with this wave of immigration before it is too late.