TEL AVIV — Following a wave of violent incidents, political controversies and alarming sociological findings regarding the poverty-plagued immigrant community, Prime Minister Sharon has agreed to head up a campaign to boost public support for Ethiopian Israelis.
The campaign, which is being organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel, is set to launch next month. Its goal is to recruit Israeli citizens, organizations and companies to volunteer in facilitating the absorption of Ethiopians into Israeli society. According to senior officials at the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental body charged with promoting and facilitating immigration to Israel, the decision to launch the campaign stemmed from several violent incidents and the recent attempt by one Israeli mayor to block Ethiopian children from enrolling in his city’s schools.
One agency official told the Forward that there are many signs pointing to the “sad reality” that Israel is failing to integrate many members of the 100,000-person Ethiopian community, including rising rates in poverty and in juvenile crime.
The alarming statistics and rash of political controversies stand in stark contrast to the euphoria that surrounded the airlifts in 1984 and 1985 — dubbed Operation Moses — which brought the first wave of 8,000 Ethiopians to Israel. Operation Solomon, which brought another 14,000 Ethiopians in May 1991, also was cheered. Israelis again celebrated the notion that Zionism was a color-blind ideology committed to bringing to Israel Jews of all races. But in the decade-and-a-half since, with the arrival of tens of thousands of more immigrants and the mounting evidence of absorption failures, the sense of universal support for Ethiopian immigration has been destroyed.
Increasingly, Ethiopian activists and their allies claim that they have been met with racism and discrimination. “The problem is not only the public’s image of Ethiopian immigrants but also the government’s attitude toward them,” one of the Ethiopian community’s political leaders said last week. The leader, who asked not to be identified, told the Forward, “Right now, all we get is a very unpleasant experience of racism and discrimination by government and local officials.”
Many observers counter that the Israeli government’s intentions have been good, but not good enough to overcome the challenges posed by the Ethiopian immigration. Several recent studies show that unlike Russian immigrants, many of whom came to Israel with high-level job skills, the Ethiopians came from a subsistence economy and were ill prepared to work in a modern, industrialized country. Furthermore, it has been hard for some Ethiopians who had spent years as refugees before coming to Israel to adapt to life as independent citizens. Children receiving a modern Israeli education found themselves alienated from their own parents. Elderly people who had been respected community members in Ethiopia found their wisdom of little use in their new society.
In the end, some observers said, despite all of Israel’s good intentions, the government and the Jewish Agency effectively transformed a community that had been functional and independent in Ethiopia into a community that is now dependent on the social-service network in Israel. Complicating matters even further, the economic gaps in Israeli society in general are widening as government benefits to the poor are being cut — and Ethiopians, like other immigrant groups, have been especially hard hit.
The mounting problems drew national attention last month when Yitzhak Bokovza, mayor of the Israeli town Or Yehuda, refused to admit 42 Ethiopian children into class at the start of the school year.
The media also seized on an incident last month in which Ethiopian students in a Haifa high school were attacked by their fellow students — all veteran Russian immigrants — during recess. A similar incident took place in Arad last year. And in the beginning of 2005, two Ethiopian girls were attacked without provocation in a Tel Aviv dance club by other Israeli girls. Both of the Ethiopians ended up in the hospital with serious injuries.
In response to the controversy in Or Yehuda, the Tebeka Center for Legal Aid and Advocacy for Ethiopian Jews in Israel petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to force the mayor to register the Ethiopian children. The petitioners said the mayor’s actions were infected with callous discrimination and racism toward the Ethiopian community. They also accused Education Minister Limor Livnat of ignoring the mayor’s decision, and they criticized her for failing to intervene in the affair.
Under the threat of criminal charges, and following a meeting with the Knesset committee that follows up on reports from the state comptroller, Bokovza announced that he was lifting the ban.
During the Knesset meeting, Bokovza insisted that his goal was to protest a set of government policies that effectively force Ethiopian immigrants to settle in municipalities — like Or Yehuda — that already were burdened with high levels of low-income residents. In particular, observers said, the housing allowance of up to $100,000 given to immigrant families by the government is only enough to cover apartments in poorer cities.
Bokovza is highly critical of the Israeli government, which, he said, has failed to devise a plan for the “controlled absorption of immigrants.” This had lead to the creation of “ghettos,” as large numbers of Ethiopians settle in the same cities.
According to Bokovza, about 1.5% of Or Yehuda residents are Ethiopian — about the same as the percentage of Ethiopians in the entire Israeli population.
“If this situation continues, in two years they will be 4%” in Or Yehuda, he said.
There are other poor towns, including Kiryat Gat, Hedera and Afula, that have significantly higher percentages of Ethiopians than Or Yehuda does. And in some towns with higher percentages, like Kiryat Malachi, the social welfare problems involving the Ethiopians are more pronounced.
Bokovza said that he is only saying out loud what many other mayors think but prefer not to say out of fear of being accused of “racist behavior.”
“When someone is ready to fight, he is called a racist,” the Or Yehuda mayor said. “I am fighting the State of Israel, not the Ethiopians. I’m actually protecting them.”
A year ago, Carmi Gillon, head of the local council in Mevesseret Zion and a former chief of the Shin Bet, reportedly lashed into the Ethiopians living in his town. Gillon was quoted in media reports as saying that the Ethiopians “use our yards as their bathrooms, search through our garbage bins, and there have been complaints of sexual harassment against them.” According to Tebeka Center reports, Bokovza and Gillon are only two of several mayors who in recent years have fought to keep Ethiopian immigrants out of their cities.
Following the flap in Or Yehuda, officials at the Jewish Agency — including its new chairman, Ze’ev Bielski, former mayor of the wealthy city of Ra’anana — decided to take action.
In an October 6 meeting with Sharon, Bielski asked the prime minister to allocate money to create financial incentives for cities that would absorb more Ethiopians immigrants and offer them the best government services.
Absorption Minister Zippi Livni told the Forward that she supports Bielski’s calls for budget increases. “As I see it, the most important condition for optimal absorption is an appropriate budget for the long run,” she said. “The integration process is very delicate and complicated, and as the minister in charge I must do everything in my power to get the budget.”
In addition to trying to boost funding and public support for Ethiopians already in Israel, Sharon’s Israeli government also has reiterated its commitment to speed the arrival of about 20,000 Ethiopians still waiting to come. Known as Falash Mura, many of those still waiting to come are Ethiopians who have returned to Judaism after they or a descendant had undergone some sort of conversion to Christianity.
The Falash Mura, most of whom congregated during the past several years around two aid compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar City, now are living in squalid conditions as they wait to come to Israel.
For years, Israeli and Jewish Agency officials fought to keep them from coming, But after several defeats in front of the Israeli Supreme Court, the government has agreed to bring most of the Falash Mura. As a result, the Jewish Agency has joined Ethiopian activists in pressing the government to speed up the application and immigration process. The government agreed about five months ago to double the monthly immigration rate of the Falash Mura to 600 from 300, but has yet to implement the decision.
The Jewish Agency commissioned a report from former Finance Ministry official David Brodet that was prepared for the Jewish Agency. The report concluded that bringing the Ethiopian Jews to Israel at a quicker pace would benefit both new immigrants and Israel.
“There is a lot of logic in speeding up the rate of Ethiopian [immigration],” the report concluded. “There are economic and social benefits” to bringing them now rather than having them live longer as urban refugees in Ethiopia.
The report was one of the main reasons for the government’s decision to double the monthly rate to 600. The Jewish Agency has been ordered to take control of the transit camps in Ethiopia and to control the immigration operation.
Under the decision, the Absorption Ministry was entrusted with the task of preparing a three-year program for absorbing the immigrants, while the treasury was charged with providing budgetary backing for the operation. The Absorption Ministry’s three-year plan calls for an overall budget of $750 million. The plan’s high cost stems mainly from the decision to settle the immigrants in well-established communities, where he cost of living is higher, to avoid concentrating immigrants in low-income areas already beset by social and economic problems.
The plan already has been presented to the prime minister, but the treasury is refusing to allocate a budget for it. Treasury sources said that talks on the 2006 budget have included a decision to budget a sum of $45 million for bringing the Falash Mura to Israel.
Each Ethiopian immigrant costs the government about $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime, according to government estimates.
Earlier this year, to help facilitate this new wave of immigration, the Jewish federation system in North America launched a major fund-raising campaign to assist Jews from Ethiopia and from the former Soviet Union. Most of the $100 million collected will go toward expediting the immigration and absorption in Israel of the Falash Mura and the Ethiopians already in Israel. The funds will be raised over the next three to five years. About $23 million over the next three years will go to cover the cost of bringing over the immigrants, and for their initial education and other welfare costs. The funds will be managed by the federations’ main overseas partners, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In total, about $40 million will go toward absorbing the Falash Mura and $37 million to integrating Ethiopians already in Israel through improved education.
Employment remains a major challenge, some Ethiopian activists said, even though a recent study conducted by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute found that the employment rate of Ethiopian men between the ages of 26 and 44 is approaching that of the nonimmigrant Israeli population. The study also found that the situation of Ethiopian immigrants is generally improving, especially considering the limited resources with which the Ethiopians came.
“We are very far from equality,” said Shlomo Molla, the Jewish Agency’s director of Ethiopian affairs.
Molla, a veteran immigrant who came to Israel from Ethiopia in 1984, said that the survey does not take into account the type of employment people have or the wages they receive. “Even if people are working, they are getting a minimum salary and are not working in their profession,” he said, adding, “There is an increasing number of young graduates who are unemployed. As a result, these students end up working in man-power-type jobs.”
The Brookdale survey, based on interviews with about 15,000 Ethiopian residents in eight Israeli cities, offered several findings that are distressing Ethiopian activists. According to the survey, as much as 30% of the Ethiopian family units are single-parent families. Also, more than half of the households that have children under 5 — especially those with large families — do not have any games, toys or books.
The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews has been tracking crime among Ethiopians since 1996, when Ethiopian juveniles committed 139 crimes. This accounted for 1.2% of all opened police files that involve young perpetrators. In 2004, Ethiopians accounted for 4.1% (933 of 22,839) of juvenile crimes — double the proportion of Ethiopians in Israel’s overall youth population. The issue drew national attention this past May, when a 16-year-old Ethiopian boy allegedly murdered a 15-year-old girl from the town of Rehovot. Police said the suspect, who was on an unsupervised vacation from a juvenile detention center, was in a drug-induced state when he assaulted and killed the girl.
According to Molla, the problems facing the Ethiopian community stem from more than just cuts in government funding.
“Authorities should hear the people, consult with them and not force them into places that they would never fit in. Education should be prioritized, as a key for integration,” Molla said. “Otherwise, the alienation will only grow stronger, to the point of anti-social behavior that will cost the Israeli society a lot more in the long run. Plans must be made for the next decade, and not by politicians who mainly see the future up to the next elections.”
According to reports from the Tebeka Center, racism also has been a major problem. The center has dealt with hundreds of complaints regarding racial discrimination against Ethiopian immigrants. In one case, a dismissal notice was sent that referred to an Ethiopian employee as a “nigger.” A security supervisor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University ordered that no more than one Ethiopian guard be assigned to any one position. An Ethiopian worker in Arad was told that she is not allowed to cook for Jews because the local rabbi doubts her Jewishness and believes that she would taint the food.
“These are only a few of hundreds of open cases,” said attorney Yifat Solel, who runs the center’s individual rights division. “The complaints vary from work-related issues to discrimination by the public health system. Everything from housing to religion services that the state is unwilling to provide. Each day we encounter new sad stories, most of which would never have happened to immigrants from other countries.”
Molla came to Israel from Ethiopia at age 17 and since has married, had children and acquired two university degrees in law and social practice. He said that the Tebeka reports clearly reflect today’s reality.
“Being black makes you different,” Molla said. “Even if you speak fluent Hebrew with no accent, people will rarely see you as one of their own. Most probably, you will get compliments for your good Hebrew but nobody listens to the content. This is the most frustrating feeling for us.”
But in the gloomy reality, there are some points of light. One of them is a Jewish Agency initiative known as Kedma, a project that has taken hundreds of Ethiopians between the ages of 18 and 25 who have dropped out of the education system and put them into a one-year course to prepare them for matriculation exams. In cooperation with the Jewish Agency, Kiryat’s Ono Academic College decided to open up its law and business departments to Ethiopian students and offer them scholarships. Today there are 120 students in both departments — more than the number in these departments at any other university or college.
One innovative job-creation program for Ethiopian immigrants trains them as bus drivers in the Tel Aviv area. Some 80 people are enrolled in the training program, and a few dozen already are driving on the roads. Once hired, they can expect a salary of about $1,330 a month after taxes — roughly the average Israeli salary.
“We know that when parents work, the model is different, the absorption is different, everything changes,” Molla said. “When they do not work in professions, they have menial jobs that do not always help them break out of the cycle of poverty.”
Despite the Ethiopian community’s relatively small size, Molla added, “integrating the Ethiopian immigrants will be one of the main challenges for Israeli society and the Jewish world for the next decade.”