Is anyone listening?

It is 29 years since Operation Moses brought the first mass aliya from Ethiopia. Have we addressed the challenging reality of what it is to come from a country that is so very different from Israel?

Ethiopian girls make aliya 370 (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Ethiopian girls make aliya 370
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
 The Immigration and Absorp- tion Ministry in February announced the launch of a new program whose stated aim is, finally, to successful- ly absorb our Ethiopian brethren into Israeli society.
Seeking information as to the number of programs hitherto produced by the ministry has proved to be mission impossible – but we do know that in 2010, the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute examined 26 ministry programs that focused on the community’s main problems. The study found that in the 1990s, significant progress was recorded in education and employment. However, from the 2000s, matters in most areas either stabilized or even regressed.
So what of this new attempt? One of the drawbacks is that it is to be managed by no fewer than 12 government ministries – a bureaucratic minefield. Another is the lack of consultation between the government and the leadership of the Ethiopian community.
Indeed, a recent op-ed in The Jerusalem Post by a spokeswoman of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, Orit Issachar, slams the manner in which these program seemingly ignore the very community they are setting out to help. Perhaps the most telling fact is that while 70 percent of the Israeli Ethiopian community was either born here or came to Israel 15 to 30 years ago, it is the Absorption Ministry which remains in charge.
The Ethiopian community is, by nature, refined and gentle. Last month, the indisputably beautiful Yityish “Titi” Aynaw – Miss Israel 2013 – handed over her crown to this year’s winner of the competition. Aynaw was the first Ethiopian-born woman to win this title. On receiving her crown, she pledged to show that her community has many beautiful qualities, which are not always represented in the media.
Yet sadly, it is the tragic murder of a woman by her husband, who subsequently commits suicide, that we hear too often about. The statistics of suicide by Ethiopians in relation to other Israelis is frighteningly high. Out of 100,000 Israelis, some seven commit suicide – but out of 100,000 Ethiopians, 48 commit suicide. These startling statistics should be a wake-up call for all of us working with this community.
It is 29 years since Operation Moses brought the first mass aliya from Ethiopia.
Have we addressed the challenging reality of what it is to come from a country that is so very different from Israel? Can we begin to imagine how it must have been, at the end of 1984, when 12,000 Ethiopian Jews started their trek – walking all the way from Ethiopia to Sudan – to come home to Israel? Only 8,000 survived this grueling journey – with 4,000 literally falling by the wayside in their desperate attempt to reach Sudan.
What of the men in the community – cultivating their piece of land in Ethiopia, being very much the head of the household to whom the family turned? Suddenly, here in Israel, both their livelihood and their family status have dissipated.
The Western-style society in which the Ethiopian family arrives – where women are encouraged to develop their potential, are MKs, serve on municipal councils and are to be found in all professions – is alien to them.
Yet what has evolved, with the help of many NGOs, including my own, is the beginning of emancipation for the Ethiopian woman. Her artistic attributes are developed, so that her gift of embroidery and sewing results in the opportunity to earn money for the family.
In Netanya, home to 15,000 Ethiopians, ESRA operates a computer class for adults in Heftziba, an area which has an almost 100% Ethiopian population.
Here, the majority of students are women. As the woman develops her independence, often becoming the breadwinner, the man feels sidelined.
This feeling intensifies as, all too often, the former “master of the house” is unable to find work. The resulting sense of inadequacy and failure breeds violence.
The 2013 state comptroller’s annual report on Israel’s absorption of Ethiopian immigrants states that 51.7% of Israel’s immigrant families and 65% of the community’s children still live in poverty.
In 2010, more than 20% of IDF conscripts of Ethiopian origin were discharged before completing their mandatory service, most of them for “extremely bad conduct.”
The comptroller found that programs aimed at assisting integration were part of a five-year plan approved by the cabinet in 2008, which received state funding only in 2010. These findings reflect a failure on the part of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, in not making the integration of Ethiopian olim the success story it deserves to be.
Conversely, on a positive note, it is the NGOs – especially those working with the municipalities – that are providing appropriate and meaningful support where it is most needed. One example is the partnership between ESRA and the Netanya Municipality. In addition to important programs for adults is the vital assistance given to the younger generation, through the Right Track Centers, based in five areas, and the Students Build a Neighborhood projects, based in two areas.
The experience of two sisters who participated in these projects illustrates their success. Asneka and Negista are the youngest of 13 children, who were born in Israel but whose 11 siblings and parents arrived here through Operation Solomon in 1991. The two girls joined the Right Track Center in Heftziba as teenagers. The center not only provides after-school social activities for at-risk teenagers, but also tutoring and help with homework five days a week. Geared to assist in the passing of the matriculation examination, additional activities also include army preparation, counseling and access to computers.
Asneka and Negista were successful in their matriculation, with Asneka becoming an officer in the IDF. Today she is studying for a BA in banking and financial markets, while her younger sister chose to do national service at a medical center close to her home. She knew many in her community were using the clinic but could not speak Hebrew, and that without being able to express themselves correctly would not receive the appropriate treatment.
Through her fluency in both Amharic and Hebrew, Negista was able to assist greatly. Currently, she is studying business management at the Ruppin Academic Center.
Today, thanks to these projects, the sisters are giving back to their community.
Part of the Students Build a Neighborhood project, they receive, through the ESRA/Municipality partnership, a rent-free apartment in an area of deprivation.
In return, they mentor local children who are in need of extra help with their schoolwork. “Living on the job,” they are available to their children over and above their official working hours and are, understandably, wonderful role models.
There are many success stories that emanate from the NGO sector. Rather than the government continuing to present programs that perhaps are doomed to failure, it should instead directly fund these NGOs, which appear better equipped to know what works.
With additional funding, many more at-risk youngsters could become contributing members of their community.
Twenty-nine years on from Operation Moses, the time has come to recognize the difference between success and failure.
Let’s hope someone is listening. ■
The writer is the chair of ESRA and has been active in Public Affairs and Status of Women issues.
It is 29 years since Operation Moses brought the first mass aliya from Ethiopia. Have we addressed the challenging reality of what it is to come from a co