A turning point for Ethiopian-Israelis
By Shula Mola
Gaza, less than two weeks ago, Shai Germai, an Ethiopian-Israeli
soldier, was shot to death by Palestinian gunmen while
serving in his combat unit. In September 2001, Natan
Sandelke, a nineteen-year old Ethiopian-Israeli soldier,
risked his life to stop a homicide bomber in Jerusalem,
chasing and tackling him before he could blow himself
up in a crowd.
The bomb went off, killing the terrorist and injuring
Natan, who spent months recovering from this heroic
act. In October 2000, Yossi Tabaja, an Ethiopian-Israeli
soldier became one of the first victims of the intifada
when he was shot to death at Joseph's Tomb at the age
of twenty-seven. Of all Ethiopians drafted to the army,
over 36% of them serve in combat units, far above the
The many Ethiopian casualties and heroes of the intifada
exemplify the extent to which the Ethiopian community
is embedded in the heart and soul of Israeli society.
The battle against terror has amply demonstrated the
self-sacrifice and Zionist idealism of the Ethiopian
community. But at the very same time, the intifada has
caused an economic recession that has deepened the absorption
crisis of these immigrants. Preoccupied by security
concerns, the government has, until now, failed to pay
attention to the warning signs that tell of a community
poised at the precipice of poverty and disillusionment.
Despite their valiant attempts to fully integrate, the
Ethiopians continue to hold the lowest economic position
amongst new immigrants and veteran Israelis. A recent
report published by the Committee to Investigate Social
Gaps led by Knesset member Ran Cohen, highlights the
grim reality facing the Ethiopian community today: the
drop-out rate of Ethiopian students is more than double
the national average and 47% of Ethiopian Israelis,
aged 25-54, are not in the labor force. Surely this
struggle, against debilitating poverty, was not part
of the Ethiopian dream of returning to Zion.
Over two years ago the Ethiopian National Project (ENP)
was conceived as a partial solution to these problems.
The project, initiated by JAFI in partnership with UJC,
JDC, the Israeli government, and the Ethiopian community,
was designed as a 660 million dollar, nine-year effort
to ensure a more complete absorption and integration
of Ethiopians into Israeli society. The participation
of Ethiopian representatives in all stages of the project
provided the first true forum for the voice of the community.
The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, in
partnership with ten other Ethiopian organizations,
has been exerting immense effort to guarantee the timely
implementation of this project. But, again, the focus
on Israel's security by American Jews has shifted the
emphasis of their support away from social projects.
This has resulted in the delay of the ENP's implementation
and the danger that the scope of ENP programming will
be significantly reduced.
This is unfortunate, for the current 'situation' affecting
the entire country is having an even greater impact
on low-income communities in Israel. Increased security
spending has led to the drastic reduction of social
budgets; making day to day life a struggle for many.
Now more than ever we can not ignore the social needs
of our fellow Jews. Every day more and more Ethiopian
children, youth, and even adults seem to be resigning
themselves to a position in the lowest strata of Israeli
In Israel today 66% of Ethiopian families are dependent
on government welfare benefits in order to meet basic
needs. Ethiopians are under represented in government
offices, and schools with high academic reputations
have low Ethiopian enrollment. We must alter this reality
and diminish existent social gaps. The survival of Israel
depends on both external security and on internal solidarity.
The kind of solidarity that makes young Ethiopians volunteer
for combat units and risk their lives to protect the
Jewish homeland. Poverty, despair, and prejudice attack
the very roots of this kind of solidarity.
Over half of the Ethiopian population in Israel is under
the age of 19. Resources that have been directed towards
bridging educational gaps have proven beyond a shadow
of a doubt that Ethiopian youngsters can make it when
they are given half a chance. Nearly 2000 young Ethiopians
are now in college or pre college preparatory institutions--a
direct result of government "second chance"
But in order to succeed, resources must be properly
invested and the community must be made a partner in
the absorption process--as will happen if the ENP is
put into affect. The ENP has embraced the principle
of full Ethiopian partnership in all stages of its development.
This partnership empowers the community to believe in
their own ability to enact change. The ENP remains low
on the list of governmental priorities and I fear that
without immediate action, the community's faith will
begin to wane. The time has come to ensure the Ethiopians
a brighter future in Israel.
These immigrants, many of whom, like me, walked through
the desert with faith and determination to succeed,
should be given the full opportunity to do so. We are
approaching a turning point in the history of Ethiopian
absorption. In the past, poverty was seen as a temporary
condition, a natural byproduct of all new immigrants
journey towards the social mainstream.
Now, dangerously, both native Israelis and Ethiopian
immigrants are beginning to believe that poor social
integration is a result of problems within the Ethiopian
community rather than faulty absorption processes. But
we have not yet lost our hope. Working together we can
change this disturbing situation and in so doing illustrate
the value of Israeli democracy.
Israel has the opportunity to become an example for
other nations. We can become the example of a diverse
country effectively welcoming and integrating immigrants.
Rather than reinforcing the image, rampant in the international
press, of Israel as an apartheid state we must become
a true example of democracy in the Middle East.
The absorption of immigrants from the 'third world'
into a highly technological society will change the
image of Israel. If Israel is unable to effectively
absorb the Ethiopians then it has failed as a Jewish
democratic state and our vision of a Jewish homeland
was simply an illusion.
Investments made now ensure a more unified future for
Israel. The effort is minimal compared to the results.
Working together, we can make the complete absorption
of the Ethiopians a reality that will change the internal
and external face of Israel. It is our duty, as a Jewish
nation, to recall the power of the Ethiopian dream of
Zion and to secure that this dream comes true.
arrived in Israel at the age of twelve after an arduous
journey from Ethiopia.
Shula is now the Executive Director of the Israel Association
for Ethiopian Jews, an organization advocating for the
full and rapid integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.