Ethiopian leaders call for affirmative action

20 years after Operation Solomon, leaders of Israel's Ethiopian community, which numbers 116,000, called for anti-discrimination laws.

Ethiopian children 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski (illustrative))
Ethiopian children 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski (illustrative))
Twenty years after Israeli commandos accomplished the daring mission of transporting some 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in less than 36 hours during Operation Solomon, leaders of the 116,000 strong community called on the government Monday to institute a series of affirmative action laws to address discrimination against Ethiopians.
One such measure would increase representation of Ethiopians in the media, the public sector and academia.
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“It is time to make a change. It is time to see a color other than white on Israeli television,” said Ethiopian-born actress Meskie Shibru, one of a handful of immigrants who has found success on the Israeli stage.
“There needs to be more efforts made here and, at least [the government-owned] Channel 1 could find a space for more diversity,” she said.
Shibru’s call was echoed throughout a three-hour long meeting of the Knesset’s Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Committee, chaired by MK Danny Danon (Likud).
The meeting was called to evaluate and recognize the significance of Operation Solomon, which took place May 24-25, 1991.
“I never forget the excitement in this country when the planes arrived bringing the new immigrants to Israel,” MK Ofer Akunis (Likud) said.
“Some say that the goal of Israel is to make peace, but I believe that the true goal of Zionism is to bring Jews from all over the world to here.”
Akunis said he recognized the discrimination faced by Ethiopian immigrants in society and vowed to push affirmative action legislation “until we reach full equality and a there is not need for such a law.”
Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver, who also attended Monday’s hearing, told The Jerusalem Post that her office was committed to raising the profile and improving the conditions of the Ethiopian community.
“There is a real problem in Israeli society and every chance that I have, I try to talk about this issue [of discrimination],” she told the Post, highlighting the wide range of festivals and official ceremonies that have taken place in recent years to promote Ethiopian culture and traditions.
Next week the government will mark the first mass immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel – Operation Moses – in a ceremony at Mount Herzl to remember those who lost their lives on the journey from Ethiopia to Israel via Sudan.
“I have been to Ethiopia and I realize how far the community has come,” said Landver, who last year became the first immigrant absorption minister to tour Addis Ababa and Gondar.
During the tour, she met with the Falash Mura Ethiopians of Jewish descent whose ancestors converted to Christianity more than 150 years ago, and who are waiting for the government to approve them for aliya.
“I saw how much they are suffering in Ethiopia and how far they travel [in terms of modernity] from there to here,” Landver said, adding that upon arrival in Israel, community members undergo huge hurdles to integrate into society.
According to a report released last January by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs, an unusually high number of Ethiopian immigrants receive treatment from the country’s welfare services and a large percentage of families live below the poverty line.
Rabbi Yafet Alemu, head of the umbrella organization of Ethiopian Jews that represents 32 non-profits working within the community, said the overwhelming poverty faced by Ethiopians was symptomatic of the local society.
“How can it be that people who work so hard, who study and gain degrees, but cannot even afford their rent or to buy a house?” he asked at Monday’s hearing, which also included presentations from Ethiopian Chief Rabbi Yoseph Adana and many of the officials involved in Operation Solomon, such as Micha Feldman, Jewish Agency for Israel operative.
“Poverty does not fall from the sky. There are two things that cause poverty: One is a person who refuses to work and earn a living and the other cause is a society that does not accept different people,” Alemu said.
He added that despite the wide range of services and investments in the community, the funds are not reaching the correct places.
David Meharet, head of the Education Ministry’s steering committee on Ethiopian immigrants, said, the last 20 years had seen some great successes.
Meharet pointed to the education sector, where he said roughly 40 percent of Ethiopian youth now graduate from high school.
“We can look back over the last 20 years and see successes, but in order for us to be successful in the next 20 years, we must also see where we went wrong and what we can learn from this,” Meharet said.
“There are some real problems and there needs to be a change in the approach.”
The Knesset’s only Ethiopian member, MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima), called for affirmative action legislation in the education and public sector.
Molla said it was time for the country to establish a commemorative center for the Ethiopian community, to celebrate its culture and traditions, and pay tribute to the intricate history that brought them to the Jewish state.