Ethiopian Leader Alleges Discrimination

By Nacha Cattan

Published April 11, 2003, issue of April 11, 2003.
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A leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel is petitioning the Israeli Supreme Court, claiming the government discriminated against her by denying her a job because of her political party affiliation.

Negist Mengesha claims she was denied a job leading an internationally funded Ethiopian welfare program after she became politically active in a left-wing opposition party. Mengesha ran for Knesset on the Meretz party ticket — and lost — in January.

The welfare program, the Ethiopian National Project, is a nine-year, $600 million effort to improve the integration of Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli society by assisting with education and job training. The program is a partnership of the Israeli government and Israeli and Diaspora welfare organizations — including United Jewish Communities, the roof body of American Jewish philanthropic federations; the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; the Jewish Agency for Israel; the international Jewish fundraising network Keren Hayesod, and a group of Israeli Ethiopian organizations.

Mengesha told the Forward that she has petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to order that she be instated as the director general of the project. She claimed she was the leading candidate for the job, but was cut from the list after the Likud-led government objected to her hire. That objection came from the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Avigdor Yitzhaki, Mengesha said.

Although a copy of the petition could not be obtained by the Forward before press time, a UJC memo made available to the Forward outlined the petition’s claims. The respondents named in Mengesha’s petition include the Israeli prime minister and government, UJC, the JDC and the Jewish Agency, according to the April 1 UJC memo. The memo was signed by the senior vice president and director general of UJC’s Israel office, Nachman Shai.

A social worker and founding executive director of Fidel, an association that works to integrate Ethiopian immigrants, Mengesha is a prominent figure in Israel’s 80,000-strong Ethiopian community.

Mengesha claims that if she had run for Knesset with a non-opposition party, the government would have not raised a fuss about her brief political career. “I am in a different party so that makes the government angry,” Mengesha told the Forward from her home in Bat Ayin.

But some officials of the Ethiopian project countered that the Israeli government opposed Mengesha’s candidacy because the job was meant to be filled by someone with no political affiliations, regardless of their leanings.

“She’s trying to say it is because of her specific political party, which is not the case,” said Mike Rosenberg, director general of the immigration and absorption department of the Jewish Agency and a member of the project’s 10-person steering committee. “When we were looking for someone to head the project we didn’t want the person to be politically identified with any party. We wanted a professional.”

Mengesha said her political identification ended when she lost the race: “The election is completed, so I see no problem.”

Although the Knesset election is over, Rosenberg alleges that Mengesha is still highly active in Meretz. He claimed that Mengesha remains on her party’s Knesset roster, which would technically allow her to replace a resigning Knesset member from her party, although the likelihood of that happening is virtually nil; she was 15th on the Meretz slate, which won just six Knesset seats. Mengesha declined to delineate her present association with the party.

Rosenberg said all of the respondents cited in the petition are working on filing a joint response to the Supreme Court defending their rejection of Mengesha’s candidacy.

Mengesha has requested, and Ethiopian National Project leaders agreed, that the disputed position would remain vacant until the case is heard May 26, Rosenberg said. Each side claims that the other party is halting the important work of the organization, which has spent three years in incubation and is just getting off the ground.

“This program is critical for the Ethiopian community,” Mengesha said. “Delaying the beginning of the program hurts us very much.”

“What’s been holding us up is the selection of director and this [court battle] will hold us up more,” Rosenberg said.

The project, which has been allocated $5 million from the Israeli government for 2003 and another $5 million from the five non-governmental partners, is set to begin in six Israeli cities — Lod, Hadera, Rehovot, Kiryat Gat, Beersheva and Netanya — soon after Passover, according to Rosenberg. In the meantime, he said, project officials will hire a professional on a temporary basis to run the program.

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