Fundamentally Freund: Address the challenges facing Ethiopian immigrants

Israel can rightly take pride in bringing Ethiopian Jewry back from Exile over the past few decades, thereby fulfilling the dream of generations.

Ethiopians celebrating in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Ethiopians celebrating in Jerusalem
This past Sunday night, the heart of Tel Aviv was transformed into a war zone. It was hard to watch the painful scenes from Rabin Square, where police deployed water cannons and stun grenades as a peaceful rally by Ethiopian Israelis devolved into chaos.
Nonetheless, the violence that erupted should hardly come as a surprise.
Given the failures that have characterized efforts to integrate Ethiopian Jews into the Jewish state, the turmoil that ensued was as predictable as it was lamentable.
Indeed, it was just two years ago this week that state comptroller Joseph Shapira issued his first annual report, which included a whopping 74 pages on how successive Israeli governments have botched their handling of this important issue, their efforts hampered by waste, inefficiency and lack of proper oversight.
Shapira noted, for example, that programs to assist Ethiopian high-school students with their matriculation exams were run by both the Education and Absorption Ministries without any coordination between the two. As a result, there were cases in which the two programs were run in the same school at the same time, resulting in double the overhead costs, without either government office being aware of the redundancy.
In another instance, the government launched a special initiative to help families that had immigrated from Ethiopia to obtain mortgages with favorable terms. But Shapira found that over the course of four years, a grand total of two Ethiopian families had benefited from the program.
His report also revealed that even though Ethiopians entering the IDF were highly motivated to serve, the system was failing them. In 2010, for example, over 20 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli draftees did not complete their military service and the percentage of Ethiopian soldiers who were jailed was double the national average.
But Shapira’s report was not the only warning sign that something was amiss. Plenty of others sought to sound the alarm bell, but it often fell on deaf ears.
Last November, the Central Bureau of Statistics published a report on the Ethiopian- Israeli community, noting that at the end of 2013 there were 135,500 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel but that the gaps between them and the rest of society were still enormous.
The CBS pointed out that the average monthly household income for Ethiopian families was just NIS 11,453 whereas the national average was NIS 17,711. And in 2013, only 50% of Ethiopian students were eligible to receive a matriculation certificate from high school, 13 percentage points lower than the figure for all Jewish students in the country.
With more than half of Ethiopian immigrant families living below the poverty line, including nearly twothirds of Ethiopian children, more needs to be done to empower community members and give them hope for a better future.
And there are some positive signs amid the gloom. Dropout rates among Ethiopian students have declined over the past decade while employment rates have soared.
A growing number of young Ethiopian- Israelis are pursuing advanced degrees and doctorates at Israeli colleges and universities, and Ethiopian officers have excelled in the IDF.
But change has been too slow, and not steady enough. Add to that the instances of police brutality and racism to which some Ethiopians have been subjected, and it was perhaps only a matter of time before their anger would swell into civil disobedience and possibly worse.
While violence by protesters in any form cannot be tolerated, it is essential that Sunday’s riot in Tel Aviv be used as a turning point, one that will ensure that a greater effort is made to address the challenges facing Ethiopian immigrants.
All the goodwill in the world is not going to make the anger subside or the difficulties go away.
And mindlessly throwing more money at the problem is no solution, even though that is what will most likely occur.
Instead, the government needs to establish a central coordinating body for Ethiopian integration that will oversee various programs and initiatives while ensuring efficiency and effectiveness, both of which have been sorely lacking until now.
And greater emphasis should be placed on providing Ethiopians with the tools they need to achieve economic self-sufficiency rather than continued dependency.
In the book of Amos (9:7), God asks, “Are you not like the sons of Cush,” or Ethiopia, “to Me, O Children of Israel?”, perhaps hinting that we need to ensure greater equality for our Ethiopian Jewish brethren here in the Land.
Israel can rightly take pride in bringing Ethiopian Jewry back from Exile over the past few decades, thereby fulfilling the dream of generations.
We brought Ethiopian Jews home, but now we must make them feel at home, for their sake as well as ours.