More than two decades after Ethiopian Jewry began immigrating to Israel, the government approved Sunday a NIS 870 million affirmative action plan - the first of its kind - designed to combat the community's chronic unemployment and low pay and to encourage education and integration in mainstream society. A total of NIS 82.5m. will be invested in the first year of the five-year program, which was conceived and planned in conjunction with members of the Ethiopian community. "Past piecemeal attempts to help Ethiopians later failed," said Gadi Yavarkon, chairman of Ethiopian Jewry's Resistance Headquarters. Yavarkon, an activist that has organized demonstrations protesting racial discrimination against Ethiopians, was part of the team that prepared the blueprint for the plan. "This proves that the patronizing attitude of 'we know what's best' [and of] exclusion of Ethiopians from the planning and implementation was totally misguided." The Immigration and Absorption Ministry will be responsible for implementing and overseeing the plan, which aims to "right some of the wrongs suffered by Ethiopian Jewry over the years," said Immigration and Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri. Edri also took the opportunity to attack the Jewish Agency for what he called "running away" from its obligation to fund NIS 180m. of the program, which was originally conceived as a NIS 1.05b. five-year plan. "It is too bad that the Jewish Agency abandoned ship," said Edri. "I hope in the future they will join us." "The Jewish Agency has placed itself at the forefront of the effort to help in the immigration and absorption of Ethiopia Jewry," said the agency's spokesman's office in response. "In the last decade the Jewish Agency invested NIS 1b. in a variety of educational and vocational programs and programs aimed at integration of Ethiopians in Israeli society. Funding was also provided by the UJC. "We praise the government for its decision to put together a new program for Ethiopian Jewry. The Jewish Agency intends to continue to be active together with the Jewish communities of the world in raising significant funds and to be part of the effort to help Ethiopians acclimate and integrate themselves in Israeli society." Sources in the agency called Edri's accusations "preposterous" and added that the accusations had also aroused indignation within the agency. The sources said that the Jewish Agency's responsibility for immigration absorption normally covers two years starting with the immigrant's date of arrival, therefore it wasn't plausible that anyone in the Jewish Agency would have promised to help fund the affirmative action plan. Most Ethiopians were either born in Israel or have been here for longer than the 10-year period during which new citizens enjoy "new immigrant" status, and are therefore no longer technically under the purview of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry. However, the major difficulties Ethiopians have faced in integrating into society have led to the extension of their "new immigrant" status to 15 years. The affirmative action plan is the latest attempt to help Ethiopians improve their socioeconomic status. Barbara Swerski, director-general of Adva, a left-leaning think tank that focuses on socioeconomic issues, criticized the basic concept of the program which singled out Ethiopians for special attention. Swerski, who has studied the Ethiopian community, said that while she was not familiar with the details of the ministry program, its premise that Ethiopians, especially youth, needed special treatment was wrongheaded. "Most young Ethiopians were born here and are more Israeli than Ethiopian," said Swerski. Attorney Pnina Tamano, spokeswoman for the Resistance Headquarters, rejected Swerski's comments. She said that Ethiopian Jews faced special problems that needed to be addressed in a program tailored to their needs. "Go to Rehovot, Netanya, Netivot and see firsthand the slums, the ghettos where most Ethiopians live," said Tamano. The affirmative action plan is aimed specifically, almost exclusively, at the younger generation. Some of the goals include:
Increasing the number of Ethiopians who obtain higher education via state-sponsored tutoring.
Increasing the number of high school graduates with matriculation. Presently, only 38 percent of Ethiopian high school graduates receive full matriculation.
Increasing housing aid to young couples so as to help them find housing in socioeconomically desirable neighborhoods. Today, a quarter of Ethiopian Jewry is concentrated in 15 cities. Housing grants will be increased by 40% from the present average of NIS 300,000.
Providing vocational training to Ethiopians. Employment among Ethiopians aged 18 to 35 is 49.6%, much lower than the national average of 59%.
Encouraging military service. Although a disproportionately high percentage of Ethiopian youth enlists in the IDF, there is also a high dropout rate.
There are a total of 110,000 Ethiopians living in Israel, 31% of whom were born here. About half of the community is aged 19 or under. Some two-thirds of Ethiopians are living under the poverty line, compared to 21% among former Soviet Union immigrants.