‘A dialogue of black and white’

Ethiopian Israelis are entitled to the same rights as other citizens, but they say their social mobility is determined by the color of their skin.

Discrimination against Ethiopians 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Discrimination against Ethiopians 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
If the government ever wants a poster boy to tout its successful absorption of Ethiopian immigrants, it need look no further than Ziv Robal. His life story – and that of his family – seem lifted right out a Zionist legend.
Robal’s mother left her native Ethiopia to embark on a year-long journey by foot to Sudan, during which she gave birth to her eldest son. Her arduous odyssey finally came to end when Israel launched Operation Moses, the secret airlift that brought Ethiopian Jews to the Holy Land in 1984.
After growing up in the northern Negev working-class town of Kiryat Gat, Robal went on to receive an education, serve as a squad commander in the Paratrooper Brigade, and fight Palestinian terrorism during Operation Defensive Shield. Now he is a 27-year-old student pursuing a degree in industrial management from Sapir College. His brother is currently following in his Ziv’s footsteps by serving his compulsory duty in the same brigade.
Still, Robal can’t help but discern a glass ceiling that has kept Ethiopian immigrants from continuing their upward climb through society after their release from the IDF.
“My family got acclimated, but I still feel the racism directed at me,” he says while taking part in the massive protest staged by immigrants near the Knesset last week. The community has been up in arms in recent weeks over a series of highly publicized incidents of discrimination, most prominently the collusion among property owners in the Bar-Yehuda neighborhood of Kiryat Malachi aimed at denying Ethiopian immigrants an opportunity to rent or purchase apartments.
“My last name sounds Israeli, even somewhat Ashkenazi. So people would see ‘Robal’ on my resumé and not think anything of it. But when I would go to a job interview, people would look at me with surprise and disbelief, as if to say, ‘You’re Ziv Robal?’”
“I would tell them, ‘Don’t look at my skin color. Look at me as a person. I served in a combat unit.’” Robal says that while his own experience had been relatively smooth, recent arrivals from Ethiopia have a much more difficult road ahead of them.
“We lived in a normal neighborhood, and they didn’t put my family in a ghetto, so somehow we managed to connect to society,” Robal explains. “It was as if we were in a real melting pot, like the army. Now, what’s happening is not good. They are putting [Ethiopian immigrants] into ghettoes, which makes it impossible to advance from there. These are crime-ridden areas. Then, when we try to get out, we are not okay, because we are in the lower middle class. We’re unable to get out of this predicament, because we don’t have the opportunities.”
Robal’s observations seem to be supported by the latest statistics.
According to a report commissioned last year by the Brookdale Institute, an organization affiliated with the Joint Distribution Committee, the average unemployment rate in the past decade among Ethiopian-born Jews stands at 14 percent, which is twice that of the general Jewish population. The study’s authors also found that just 55% of Ethiopian immigrants have joined the workforce, a sharp contrast to the 72.5% of the Jewish population that found jobs in the past decade.
The study also reports that Ethiopian immigrants are crowded into smaller living quarters relative to the larger Jewish population in Israel. On average, for every room in a household inhabited by Ethiopian immigrants, there are two occupants, while the ratio of rooms to occupants among all Jews in Israel is 1:1.
Ethiopian immigrants have also been disadvantaged in academia. Statistics released by the Knesset’s Research and Information Center last year showed that just 8% of Ethiopians were enrolled in a college or university in the 2008-2009 academic year.
According to the RIC study, just 1,921 students of Ethiopian origin graduated from Israeli institutions of higher education, a figure representing a paltry 0.9% of the total student population nationwide.
Though the number of Ethiopianborn students with bachelors’ degrees nearly doubled between 2004 and 2009 (from 155 to 298), this demographic still represents just 0.7% of all bachelor degree holders. Of all bachelors’ earners in the 2008-2009 academic year, just 0.3% were Ethiopian immigrants, according to the RIC.
Another phenomenon that has drawn significant media attention is the refusal of parents to send their children to elementary schools that also educate Ethiopian pupils, which has spawned a culture of de-facto segregation.
According to the RIC, there are 10 kindergartens and one elementary school all of whose pupils are Ethiopian immigrants. In addition, there are 75 kindergartens, 17 elementary schools, four middle schools and seven high schools in which a majority of pupils are of Ethiopian origin.
“There is a certain amount of racism among our people that is turned inward,” says Likud activist Moshe Feiglin, who along with other politicians and leading figures from the Right and Left, including Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich, Labor MK Avishay Braverman, Meretz MK Ilan Gilon and tent protest initiator Daphni Leef, took time out of his busy schedule to attend the rally in Jerusalem. “That can’t be disputed.”
“There’s goodwill and a desire to do good, but it appears to me that there is prejudice and mistakes have been made in the way that the community is cared for [by the state]. And these mistakes are being repeated. Instead of coming to grips with and understanding this community’s internal culture, they are thrown into their own living spaces.
“My children, who grew up in the state religious education system, had Ethiopian pupils in their class,” Feiglin says. “Today, we have separate schools for Ethiopians, and this is very grave.”
GIVEN THE disparities in education and the job market, the only avenue of social mobility available to Ethiopian immigrants is the military. A recent study by the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews finds that Ethiopian immigrants enlist in the IDF at a higher rate than the general public – 88% of males, compared to 73%. Despite the higher motivation to serve, Israeli society has not reciprocated, according to community members.
“We want to progress and move forward and succeed,” Robal said. “Look at how many Ethiopian officers there are in the army. This is because there isn’t as much discrimination [there]. But what happens once they leave the army? There’s a subtle discrimination at work, and my friends who graduate from college and can’t find jobs experience this every day.”
Community members say there are generational and cultural factors that have also complicated matters for olim.
Aside from the language difficulties and prejudice, older Ethiopian immigrants who arrive in the country find it much more difficult to acclimate to the gruffness and informality of Israeli dayto- day discourse.
“There’s a lot of patronizing treatment from Israelis toward Ethiopians,” says Neta Balai, a 26-year-old laundry room attendant from Yavne. “Whenever my parents or other Ethiopians walk into a health maintenance organization office and they can barely speak Hebrew, they get treated badly by the clerks there. This creates a lot of frustration on their part, seeing an Ethiopian who can’t speak the language fluently.”
“Our behavior as a community is very different [than that of the average Israeli],” Balai says. “Let’s just say that we are much gentler, more polite. When you come to a country where everybody does whatever they want and says whatever they want, whenever they want, and however they want, then you are consumed by this conflict within you because you want to be yourself and behave as you see fit. This creates a lot of difficulties psychologically.”
Those who have studied the phenomenon of anti-immigrant racism say that what is most disconcerting is the manner in which attitudes toward Ethiopian immigrants have evolved in the past three decades. If their initial entry into Israeli society was met with doubts as to the authenticity of their Jewishness, now the pretense for the disenfranchisement of Ethiopian Jews can be boiled down to their appearance, a scenario that naturally creates a nexus with the ongoing struggle of African refugees and migrant workers who are in danger of deportation.
“The discourse is changing,” says Hananya Vanda, an activist and cofounder of Young Ethiopian Students, an Internet blog dedicated to critical thought and analysis of the plight of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. “Despite what people may be chanting [during demonstrations], it’s no longer an issue of ‘We are Jews, we are Israelis.’ If you hear the voices coming out of Kiryat Malachi, it is more along the lines of ‘We are black, we are proud.’ Our case and that of the refugees is exactly the same thing. It’s a question of [being] black.”
“Initially, the fusion of Ethiopian immigrants and white society created some doubt surrounding the question of Jewishness,” said Vanda. “People asked, ‘Are the Ethiopians Jewish?’ Now this has changed. People who have grown up here and lived here for 30 years suddenly find that after serving in the army and proving their loyalty to Judaism, they are hit with the realization that they have no social mobility. They see that their children are being denied entry into schools and they can’t buy homes wherever they want. These are universal rights that are enjoyed by people everywhere.
“We are going back to the situation that was present in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States,” he says. “These people are demanding social justice that is universal to all. Forget about the fact that we are black, and treat us like human beings. This is a dialogue of black and white.
“Whoever tries to depict it differently simply isn’t ready to deal with this issue head-on,” Vanda says.
EITAN BARUCH is a resident of Kiryat Malachi, the poverty-ridden township that grabbed headlines in recent weeks.
A 41-year-old father of four children, Baruch, the self-described “best pipe welder in the country,” has worked for 12 years at a national infrastructure company.
Sipping a beer outside an immigrantrun coffee shop in a run-down commercial center in northern Kiryat Malachi, Baruch vents his frustration over what he says is the company’s decision to pass him over for tenure.
During his time with the company, Baruch says that he has watched over a dozen other employees who were there less time than he receive preferential status, while he has been forced to accept year-to-year contracts that grant his bosses the legal right to terminate his employment if they see fit.
“It’s like the Italian mafia,” Baruch says of his employer. “They don’t look at you as a human being. Not just [there], but throughout the entire country. We get a lot of negativity from all directions, especially in civilian life.
It isn’t like that in the army, where everything is positive. Why is this so? Because when the state needs something from us, you are the best thing there and your problems are taken care of immediately. But in civilian life, you are cast aside, and nobody bothers to glance in your direction. It is as if we are being pushed into a corner.”
“How is it that 16 people who joined the company after me received tenure, while I’ve been working there for 12 years and didn’t?” he says. “Is this not racism? This isn’t being treated as second-class citizens. This is fourth or fifth class.”
Baruch says that he took the matter up with the regional director, but was told to “take it or leave it.”
“It’s not your ability that matters in this country,” he says bitterly, his voice rising with anger. “It’s how many connections you have.”
In a nearby coffee shop, Danny Malaku recalls witnessing firsthand how the pervasive racism has touched his life and those around him. A truck driver for a packaging and marketing company, he says that management cut off business contacts with client companies who objected to the relatively high number of Ethiopian immigrants who work as drivers.
Malaku, 28, also tells Metro that his sister was told that an apartment she wanted to buy in Rishon Lezion was suddenly unavailable after she met faceto- face with the real-estate agent. He says that his wife has given up on her lifelong career dream after she spent two unsuccessful years applying for a job, despite earning a relevant college degree.
“The woman who interviewed my wife was in shock that she even had a degree,” Malaku says. “After the interview, we repeatedly called to see if she had gotten the job, but they acted as if she had never even submitted an application. Finally, she just threw her hands up and decided that she would be a housewife. She just broke.”