Halting discrimination

Combating the debilitating effects of Ethiopian ghettos is the first order of business.

Ethiopian protests at Knesset 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ethiopian protests at Knesset 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In the six decades since its founding, the State of Israel has prided itself on the successful integration of diverse populations from around the globe. The nearly insurmountable endeavor of bringing together immigrants from such radically different cultural backgrounds was given direction and purpose by the knowledge that all were members of a single Jewish people bound by a shared fate.
The “ingathering of the exiles” foreseen by the prophets seemed to be unfolding after nearly two millennia of yearning.
But recent revelations of racial discrimination faced by the Ethiopian-Israeli community continue to remind us that the national challenge of absorption and integration has yet to be completed.
These include a grassroots initiative by residents of a Kiryat Malachi neighborhood to keep out Ethiopian olim they referred to as “cockroaches”; a bus driver in Mevaseret Zion telling Ethiopian schoolchildren that they smell bad; racial segregation of kindergartens in Beit Shemesh; and a decision by the Israel Broadcasting Authority not to renew the contract of an Ethiopian-born executive.
Even a murder and suicide in Rishon Lezion in which an Ethiopian immigrant stabbed his wife to death and then took his own life were reported in the media against the backdrop of the Ethiopian community’s difficulties in making the transition from life in a patriarchal, traditional, Third World society to a highly developed Jewish state striving for gender equality.
It would be unfair to claim that Israel and Diaspora Jewry have ignored the plight of the Ethiopian community, which now numbers about 120,000. Organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Keren Hayesod-UIA in conjunction with the State of Israel have invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade or so in initiatives such as the Ethiopian National Project, Parents and Children Together (PACT) and a five-year interministerial plan launched in 2008 to improve Ethiopian-Israelis’ academic achievement, job training and socioeconomic conditions.
In 2005, the Knesset passed an amendment to the Civil Service Law that obligates government offices to hire Ethiopians in accordance with their representation in the general population (1.5 percent). In March 2011, the law was expanded to include state-owned companies and municipalities. However, while there appears to be a lot of goodwill on the part of Diaspora Jewry and consecutive governments, implementation on the ground has been lacking, according to Efrat Yarday, spokeswoman for Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.
Most problematic, says Yarday, is a counter-productive government policy of providing generous housing grants to Ethiopians on condition apartments are purchased in designated neighborhoods.
As a result, Ethiopian ghettos have been created in cities such as Netanya, Rehovot, Beersheba, Ashkelon, Hadera and Ashdod. There are 23 neighborhoods in which Ethiopians make up at least 25% of the population, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Schools in which Ethiopians make up a significant minority if not the majority, well beyond the recommended limit of 25% of the student body, tend to perpetuate a cycle of poverty (over half of all Ethiopian- Israelis live under the poverty line) and low academic achievement.
In 2008, just 21% of Ethiopians finished high-school matriculation at a university-entry level compared to a national average of 48%. Ethiopian children are twice as likely to be referred to special education and to drop out.
Though 91% of 18-year-old Ethiopian males born in Israel enlisted in the IDF in 2009 – significantly higher than the national average of 75% – they arrived with educational, cultural and socioeconomic deficits that prevented them from becoming officers or joining the most elite units. And a significantly higher than average proportion end up in military prison – many for going AWOL to help support their families.
Ethiopians are less likely to finish an academic degree or to find a job and are more likely to be on welfare and commit suicide (48 per 100,000 compared to a national average of seven per 100,000). It is abundantly clear that the endeavor of fully integrating Ethiopians is a work in process. Combating the debilitating effects of Ethiopian ghettos is the first order of business.