Breaking glass

The appointment of Israel’s first Ethiopian and FSU judges sheds light on the challenges and opportunities for immigrants in civil service.

Gavel [Illustrative] (photo credit: INIMAGE)
Gavel [Illustrative]
(photo credit: INIMAGE)
TWO ISRAELI women from Ethiopia and one man out of Israel’s nearly 1 million Former Soviet Union immigrants were sworn in as judges by President Reuven Rivlin in December, marking a first in the country’s history.
“They have broken the glass ceiling so others can follow suit,” Aliya and Immigration Minister Sofa Landver tells The Jerusalem Report, referring to Adenko Sabhat Haimovich, Esther Gardi and Felix Gorodestsky.
Haimovich was appointed to the Central District Magistrates’ Court, Gardi to the Haifa District Traffic Court and Gorodestsky to the Jerusalem Magistrates’ Family Court.
All three are described as sharp professionals by colleagues and members of the Judicial Selection Committee, the body that appoints judges to the courts.
“I told [Haimovich], ‘You will be the first Ethiopian judge,’” says Ilan Katz, who met Haimovich when he was the deputy chief military prosecutor and she was serving in the IDF. Haimovich later worked for Katz in his private practice. “I didn’t say it in the context of ‘You are the best of the Ethiopians, but not that good.’ If her skin had been white and not black, I would have said the same thing. She is perfect for the role.”
MK Nurit Koren, a member of the judicial committee, tells The Report that no one gave these groups a break. It then became the committee’s goal to find and fast track Ethiopian and Russian immigrants “to make history,” and fill a recently discovered and “disconcerting” gap in representation in the court system. Not one of Israel’s more than 900,000 Ethiopian immigrants – many of whom came to the country more than 30 years ago – had been appointed a judge as of October 2016. Neither had any of the nearly one million Soviet Jews who emigrated to Israel from 1989 to 2006, the period of the major Russian aliya. “It’s an amazing and inexplicable fact,” says MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), also a member of the Judicial Selection Committee.
IT WAS Ilatov who discovered the situation about a year and a half ago, when he joined the Judicial Selection Committee and was reviewing a list of Israel’s 667 judges.
When he floated the idea to colleagues, he said, everyone thought “I was surely wrong. They thought there were representatives from these populations.”
Ilatov reached out to the Knesset Research and Information Center to back up his assertion with facts. The results of the center’s query were as he expected: As of October 22, 2015, there was no black judge, and the five judges from the former Soviet Union and Russia who held positions all arrived in Israel before 1989, before the big Russian aliya. They were Russian-speaking, but not from the FSU.
“Not even one judge in all of the system,” he says.
Ilatov sent a letter to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Supreme Court President Miriam Naor to confirm that they were aware of the situation, and ask them why it was so. They were both unaware and had no explanation.
He brought up this lack of representation in an open committee meeting at which a handful of journalists were present. When the reporters addressed the issue in major Hebrew dailies, “it caused the ground to shake,” says Ilatov.
“I don’t think this was done intentionally, but no one paid attention,” says Ilatov.
“There was a glass ceiling that no one saw.”
In fact, Ilatov notes that from 1992 to 2015, only one Ethiopian lawyer and 22 lawyers from the FSU had even applied for judgeships. After the articles hit the press, Haimovich, Gardi and Gorodestsky applied.
Ilatov started inquiring as to why there had been such a minimal number of applications by these immigrants.
“I asked more than a few Ethiopian lawyers, and the general response was they felt there was no reason to apply because they had no chance of getting in,” Ilatov says.
He admits that the process for becoming a judge can be arduous.
First, lawyers must complete five years of experience and secure recommendations from Israeli judges. After submitting their applications, lawyers are vetted by a judicial subcommittee. Those who pass are sent to a five-day course to prepare for judgeship and asked to take a test. Only about half of applicants make it past this point.
Those who do advance are reviewed and selected by the Judicial Selection Committee, which is comprised of nine members: the president of the Supreme Court and two other representatives from the Supreme Court; two representatives from the Israel Bar Association; and two representatives each of the cabinet and Knesset, selected by secret ballot. The justice minster chairs the committee.
More than 25 percent of the Israeli-Jewish population are immigrants as per the last report by the Central Bureau of Statistics. In contrast, only 12.6 percent of judges were olim as of 2015, according to the Knesset Research and Information Center. A spokeswoman for the Israel Bar Association says the organization has Ethiopian members, but because it is an equal opportunity organization, it does not keep records of lawyers’ place of birth, race or religion.
“There are enough quality olim, the system should have selected them,” Ilatov says.
Appointing a diverse cadre of judges, including new immigrants, is a win-win for the judges and the system, according to Ilatov, who says representation of the various sectors helps bring the public closer to the courts and builds trust, especially at a time when public trust in the court system is dropping. According to the 2016 Israeli Democracy Index, trust in the Supreme Court stands at 56 percent down from 62 percent the previous year.
For new immigrants, becoming a member of the civil service – and certainly a senior member – can be overwhelming, says Landver. For starters, new immigrants face language barriers that make it difficult for them to pass professional certification tests and those required to enter the civil service.
Even those with decades of experience often fail, she says.
Further, the Israeli employment system has a reputation for operating through connections (“protectzia”) rather than merit, says Landver. Olim, who did not start in kindergarten, attend high school, and then serve in the Israeli army are at a disadvantage because they lack the network often needed to secure top positions.
Additionally, not all professional experience is easily transferable from abroad.
ADINA SCHWARTZ, manager of education and employment at Nefesh B’Nefesh, which assists Anglo olim, explains that in the case of lawyers, integrating into the field is often dependent on the type of law one practiced abroad. Lawyers who specialize in hi-tech or tax law, for example, have an easier time finding jobs than those who come with experience in legal fields particular to their country of origin.
Schwartz says the majority of olim opt to work in the private sector because it is easier to get a job there, and those jobs tend to pay better. A 2013 report by TheMarker found that beginning lawyers earn relatively little in the public sector, around 6,800 shekels a month. The monthly salary for civil service lawyers tops out at about 18,245 shekels.
“A lot of jobs in the government sector require that you have worked your way up in the system, from university to an internship and so on,” says Schwartz, noting that this is especially the case for senior positions with top salaries. A starting lawyer in the private sector could earn up to 8,400 shekels a month, according to the immigrant support website Just Landed.
Dessie (Roni) Akale, director-general of the Ethiopian National Project (ENP), which leads a variety of programs to support the Ethiopian-Israeli community, tells The Report that socioeconomic challenges and lack of education often prevent Ethiopians from exploring senior civil service jobs.
He says many Ethiopians came to Israel with no formal education, and have spent the last 30 years narrowing that gap.
Because the community tends to struggle financially – according to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, more than 35 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli families live under the poverty line – children are often forced to help support their families, and the earnings of parents are used to put food on the table, leaving little expendable income for education.
“When you put it in perspective, 30 years to make this much progress – it is not a long time,” says Akale. The Knesset Research and Information Center reported in June 2014 that only 11,599 immigrants were employed by the state, about 16 percent of total civil service employees.
“On the one hand, the Israeli public loves olim and wants to help them and talks about doing it,” says Landver. “On the other hand, the majority of Israelis have never been new immigrants and they don’t necessarily want to accept new people who are different from them.”
To help, the government amended the Civil Service Law in late 2015 to require appropriate representation through affirmative action for new immigrants. The revised law will take effect with each new tender, until the country starts to see results.
“THE IMMIGRANTS might need a little help to open the door,” says Akale. “But after they enter the room, they can show how they can contribute.”
Schwartz says all it takes is one immigrant to break the glass ceiling. Then others are inspired to follow.
Shwartz called the appointment of Haimovich, Gardi and Gorodestsky “a remarkable step” and says she expects other qualified immigrants – not just from Ethiopia and the FSU, but from England, South Africa and the United States, etc. – to pay attention and consider such a move for themselves. (As of 2015, there were 17 North American-born judges out of 677, according to the Knesset research center report.) Landver, who immigrated from Leningrad to Israel in 1979, says she remembers when Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky formed the Yisrael Ba’Aliya party in 1995 and won a seat in the Knesset in 1996. Before then, she says, no one could have imagined that Sharansky would one day be a minister. It gave all immigrants from the FSU hope for themselves.
The first Ethiopian-born Knesset member was Adisu Messele, who was elected in 1996 on the Labor Party list. The first Ethiopian- born female member of Knesset was Pnina Tamano-Shata, who served for Yesh Atid between 2013 and 2015.
The current Knesset includes 25 members who were born outside of Israel, 10 of whom were born in Africa, 12 in the Former Soviet Union and two in the US. Second-generation immigrant Knesset members are commonplace.
Landver broke the glass ceiling herself, when she ran for mayor of Ashdod in 1989.
“People were shocked to see a young woman from Russia running,” Landver recalls.
“It was not an easy process, but it was what I wanted, so that is what I did.”
Although it was a long time ago, Landver remembers how hard it is to be a new immigrant.
She says the first step is accepting “I am an Israeli” and recognizing that the government can and should help, but that the immigrant also has to work hard to achieve his or her goals.
Schwartz says that as more immigrants enter the civil service, they can serve as mentors for other new immigrants and help them navigate the civil service workplace.
For Ilatov, the appointments of Haimovich, Gardi and Gorodestsky are a win-win, and each judge brings a unique perspective and understanding that can help the judicial system be more in touch with its constituency.
Schwartz agrees.
“Immigrants bring a fresh look, especially at the public sector, and can offer viewpoints that natives cannot, which can improve the system,” she says.
While she does not believe the appointments of these new judges nor the revised Civil Service Law will create any major shifts “in a day, a week, a month or even a year,” she says, “there is some real momentum to build on.”
Ilatov, meanwhile, believes this is not the end of the line for the new judges.
“Now that they have started their careers in the justice system, they can move up in the ranks. “I think they could be the first Russian-speaking Supreme Court judge and Ethiopian-born Supreme Court judges. There is still more history to be made in Israel.”