Right of Reply: It's not about racial discrimination

Ethiopian integration is a slower process than that of any other immigration, due to the vast cultural gaps.

ethiopian school protest 248.88 (photo credit: Aloni  Mor/Israel Post)
ethiopian school protest 248.88
(photo credit: Aloni Mor/Israel Post)
Pnina Radai's article "Petah Tikva's 'shanda,'" on September 2 in The Jerusalem Post, was apparently meant, coming from a member of the Ethiopian community, to redirect attention away from the political fallout of the Petah Tikva schools and back to what should be considered the main point: addressing racial discrimination in Israeli society. However, her words manage to serve, both intentionally and unknowingly, as a concrete if unfortunate illustration of the way that interested parties can hurt the interests and well-being of a certain denominational group, even if those parties include representatives from within said group. Radai points out that the public outcry provided unnecessary and inaccurate ammunition for Israel's international critics and enemies. What the author fails to realize is that she herself has allowed hype and sensationalism to distort the actual facts of the story, thus precluding people from actually helping those they purport to - that is, the immigrant children themselves. The article tries to provide some perspective on the whole picture - to wit, the public outcry proves that Israeli society actually opposes racism. But in the very attempt to downplay fears of racism, Radai has fudged something far more basic and important - the schools' decision wasn't racially motivated either! As has been clearly reported in this paper and others (when one bothers to read the entire stories, and not just feed off the headlines and sound bites), these very schools do, in fact, have Ethiopian students that were freely accepted - when they met the academic and religious criteria. THE ACTUAL issue at hand was not the ethnicity or race of the students, but rather the ability of these specific students, fresh from an absorption center, with little to no basic education, to successfully integrate in a high-achieving, high-pressure private school (without even addressing the issue of a strictly Orthodox atmosphere that the students are unfamiliar with). In my elementary school (in one of the state-religious schools in Petah Tikva) in the '80s, there were a few Ethiopian boys. I was not particularly close to them, but they had a reputation for being troublemakers, no doubt due to the problems of integration into quite a different society than they or their parents came from - much harder than my own relatively smooth insertion from the US. In both my yeshiva and academic studies there were again a few Ethiopian boys and girls - those who despite hardship managed to get through the system and integrate well enough to succeed in high-level academic institutions, to become rabbis and scientists. I was happy to recently see one of my undergraduate classmates - an Ethiopian girl whom I spent many hours studying with - working on her doctorate in biology. These people have succeeded in overcoming many social and cultural obstacles to properly integrate into Israeli society - and in none of these places did anyone try to impede them from that success when they showed they could make it. In my generation such success stories are still relatively rare, but all of them seem to hail from the first aliya of Ethiopian Jews (Operation Moses). Ethiopian integration is a slower process than that of other immigrations, possibly because of the vast cultural gaps. What the new immigrants need most is time and patience, as well as a system prepared to accept anyone who is ready in an unbiased manner - and that system is already in place and active! But time is one of the things that politicians and others don't feel they have enough of to give. It was the government, as well as possibly well-meaning social activists like Radai herself, who vehemently opposed any solution involving separate tutoring, even when this is aimed at helping those students rise up to the level of their peers. For all these pundits, the principle of immediate forced integration supersedes the goal of helping the students acclimate at their own pace, even as these very pundits bemoan the sorry academic plight of these children. Indeed, it was one of these very schools in Petah Tikva which was pilloried (if not downright libeled) last year for "segregating" Ethiopian students (whom the school had accepted) by giving them private tutoring sessions. This last fact illustrates another problem with the line adopted by so-called advocates of the immigrant communities. Far from "leaving the immigrants behind" or "rejecting them," it is these religious schools which take in the Ethiopian students and at least try to help them take their first steps toward integration in Israeli society. The hesder yeshiva I learned in established an award-winning "yeshiva prep" program for Ethiopian high-school students, run jointly by Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian alumni. Yes, it involves Ethiopians in a separate program, but the goal to help them along to the point that they can integrate - and it works. In Kiryat Malachi, mentioned by Radai, where I lived for a year and a half, it is again those religious schools, all staffed by fellow yeshiva alumni, who are giving their all to improving the education of all students in the schools, and of the Ethiopians in particular. INSTEAD OF decrying an Education Ministry and system that forces all Ethiopians into one branch of the school system (conveniently leaving the rest "pure"), regardless of their own religious choices and preferences (this newspaper recently provided a voice for parents in Shlomi bemoaning the "religious coercion" of a state school with a religious staff), the media, politicians and "social activists" attack that one singled-out branch, the religious schools, for imagined "racism." How can that motivate any institution to take up the task? How can crying "racism" do anything but distract from the real problems of the immigrants and obstruct honest attempts to help them integrate at a healthy and productive pace, albeit a slower one than today's "instant" culture, not to mention politicians, might want? Radai is right that making what she calls "disgusting acts and less-than-admirable behavior" into political fodder should be avoided. What she gets wrong is that the issue of "discrimination," especially in the context of the Petah Tikva schools, and using such derogatory terms and inflammatory rhetoric is itself nothing but political fodder, used by a mighty array of interested parties: sensationalizing media, sound-bite-seeking national politicians, agenda-pushing local and Ethiopian politicians (let's be honest here) and unfortunately even internal strife among rival religious education institutions. What should really concern Israeli society as a whole, and advocates of Ethiopian olim in particular, is avoiding, and opposing, the confusion - let alone the substitution - of political interests and principles with the actual best interests and welfare of real people. The writer is a PhD student at the Volcani Institute in Beit Dagan. He was involved in a number of special programs with Ethiopian olim at various absorption centers.