What makes you say that?
Feminism and enterprise
The Embroidery Center for Ethiopian women in Kiryat Gat is bustling. A woman sits outside making clay utensils. Inside, women sit together; some embroider traditional garments, others weave baskets. The woman responsible for turning traditional Ethiopian arts into a feminist economic initiative is Lakiya Yardeni, a 48-year-old mother of six.
Yardeni went to art school in Ethiopia. When she immigrated to Israel in 1989, she lived with her husband in an absorption center in Kiryat Gat and found a job as a cleaner. "I worked at it for a week or two," she recounts, "and then I told myself - 'Lakiya, this is not you, this is not for you.' I went back to the placement company and requested a different job." She found employment at the Zera agricultural products company and ended up working there for 13 years. Her bosses noted her talents and Yardeni was sent on courses in female leadership, entrepreneurship and leadership politics.
For 10 years, she worked as a volunteer on projects that focused on the Ethiopian community. "I gave to others and received strength in return, and most of all I learned that I could stand up to the authorities," she says. Yardeni noticed that traditional Ethiopian arts were disappearing, that the young women no longer knew how to sew in the Ethiopian style. When Orna Zaken and Ilana Shamia, founders of the Ahoti movement (Sister - for Women in Israel) went to Kiryat Gat six years ago looking for women for a business partnership, Yardeni presented her vision to them and they translated it into an economic initiative.
Ahoti, an initiative of Mizrahi feminists, supports the embroidery center; Yardeni oversees production and the 15 women who work there. The items produced are sold through the Ahoti shop in Tel Aviv. Two months ago, the center was part of an exhibition in Jerusalem with other feminist organizations, and its pieces were also recently displayed in an exhibition abroad.
"The whole feminist thing isn't at all standard in the community," says Yardeni, who is religious. "But I explain that feminism means the advancement of women and I present it as a good thing."
An Ethiopian woman who specializes in economic initiatives - that's pretty rare, isn't it?
"Yes, but I give all the women the feeling that they can do it too if they want to, that it's not because I'm somehow better than them. A lot more Ethiopian women could be successful, but they don't have the confidence, they don't have enough support from home. It's rare for an Ethiopian man to give his wife an opening to develop a career. You see how many Ethiopian women were murdered just because they wanted to go out to work. Only very few women, especially women my age, dare to try to get ahead."
What does your husband think of your career?
"It was hard for him. In Ethiopia he didn't know of any woman who went out to work every day and then in the evening went to courses on feminism. But before I left the house each time I explained to him what I was doing and shared everything with him, and he cooperated."
Has your absorption in Israel been a success?
"I'm the one who made it succeed, not society. It happened because I always believed in myself and was optimistic and knew that I had to move forward. Remember, they placed me in a cleaning job at first."
'We've failed terribly'
Dr. Arnon Edelstein, a lecturer in criminology, has been studying the Ethiopian community since 1997, focusing on patterns of criminality and suicide among youth. Ethiopian youth comprise 1.5 percent of youth in Israel, he says, but account for 8-10 percent of juvenile crime, and this rate is steadily rising. They account for 8-12 percent of the suicide and attempted suicide rate. And the number who drink alcohol is extremely high: 40 percent of high-schoolers and 67 percent of dropouts.
"In Israel, the absorption process broke apart the extended family and the family unit was damaged. There's a total inversion of the parental and children's roles: As soon as the parent is dependent on the child, he is no longer a role model, and then we see kids dropping out of school, joining street gangs, which is the only place that accepts them regardless of race, religion or nationality. The most common type of crime is property crime, break-ins, violence and drugs, but mostly property, and it can be attributed to the desire to buy labels to be more like the Israelis."
So can we say that we've succeeded with the Ethiopians' absorption?
"The eminent sociology professor Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt argued that absorption is measured in the normal integration of immigrants in all the social sectors, socioeconomic classes and so on. If we go by this criterion, then we've failed terribly, because after 25 years, a majority of the Ethiopian immigrants are still in the low socioeconomic class, in poverty, and still scattered in the periphery. The odds of them getting out of this are small. In a neighborhood like Kiryat Moshe in Rehovot, even if tomorrow I were to invest $50 million, it wouldn't solve anything. It's impossible to deal with a mass of people with a mass of problems. You have to break apart this neighborhood and disperse the immigrants intelligently to other places in Israel.
"The Absorption Ministry claims that it didn't push the immigrants to the periphery, but it's semantics, because when someone has to purchase an apartment with a very low subsidy, he's not going to be able to buy an apartment in north Tel Aviv. The scholar Dr. Gadi Benezer argued that in order not to repeat the mistakes of the 1950s, immigrants have to be absorbed in the strong localities in the center of the country, and not concentrated en masse in certain locations. The Absorption Ministry's master plan mentioned this, but it was never acted upon."
Who's to blame for all this?
"I say that it's part of our racism, and I say so sadly, ashamed, as one who was born in this country, that we are terrible racists. And it started with the absorption. They were looked upon, like the immigrants from North Africa, as primitive people. Absorption officials and government officials will obviously deny it, but there was a deliberate policy of ignoring and harming the parents' generation. They also harmed the high priests, the Kessim. It would have been possible to deal with them with respect and understanding for their original culture, without using cultural coercion, to enrich them and give them the tools to succeed in the new culture, before we go about destroying ancient cultures and taking the ethnocentric attitude that we come from the enlightened culture."
"The whole emergence of an impoverished neighborhood also has to do with free choice - the immigrants choose where to live," says Sarah Cohen, a social worker by training who has run the Absorption Ministry's welfare services for 14 years.
It's their fault? Because they chose to live in Kiryat Gat or Kiryat Moshe and not north Tel Aviv? It's not the low mortgage that led them to live in a poor neighborhood?
She is 27. For seven months she has been living at the Selait hostel for women who are trying to escape a life of prostitution and is making progress in weaning herself off drugs. She came to Israel from Ethiopia as a toddler with her family. "We were very poor. As a child I was rejected and unloved."
And at school?
"I barely went to school. I didn't have support at home or anyone to help with lessons. At school I was called names and I was always alone. The teachers didn't understand what I was going through, and so I used to run away at every opportunity. By fifth grade I dropped out completely."
To finance her drug habit, she started working as a prostitute. Bat-El says she knew other Ethiopian youths who were into drugs, but when she started out as a prostitute, she was practically the only Ethiopian.
What were your dreams as a child?
"I wanted to be a gymnastics teacher. And to belong. Not to be a stranger."
Do you still feel like a stranger?
"That feeling is gone now. Now I feel like I'm in another place. I feel that I'm equal to other women and sometimes even more. At the hostel, I know my value and for the first time I have a sense of belonging. Here for the first time I have white friends."
Ten years ago, Yitzhak Dasa, 39, founded Tebeka, an Ethiopian legal aid organization that fights social injustice and discrimination. Tebeka represented Noga Zuraish, who was struck in a hit-and-run incident in a parking garage by a yeshiva student who was initially acquitted in court. Tebeka petitioned the High Court to overturn the verdict. The organization also represented Yadinu Waraka, who was denied entry to an Egged bus, and also filed a High Court petition regarding the schools in Petah Tikva.
Refusal by schools to accept Ethiopian children is nothing new to Dasa. "Every year, the same thing happens, just in a different city," he says. "We petitioned the High Court in 2005 against Yitzhak Bokovza, the mayor of Or Yehuda, who barred Ethiopian kids from the schools, and in 2002 we petitioned the court against the Education Ministry and the city of Hadera, after the Moriah School in Hadera wouldn't let Ethiopian kids enroll."
When you look at the cases that Tebeka handled in the past compared to today, what changes do you see in Israeli society?
"People are a lot more aware of discrimination now. In the first years, the Israeli public was very empathetic to the Ethiopian immigrants and wanted to help. It is very easy to identify with people when they're in such a tough situation, but when you're dealing with a population that's starting to become equal to you, then the discrimination starts."
Do you see things getting worse?
"No. It's just that a lot more Ethiopians are aware of their rights now. Take the case of the Egged bus driver who wouldn't let Yadinu Waraka on the bus. I promise you that she's not the only one this happened to. My guess is that he said the same thing to others, but this young woman said: 'I'm not going to just let it go' and that's the change."
Tebeka is also struggling to raise funds. "Most charitable contributions go to coexistence groups and the Palestinian issue," says Dasa. "Even liberal American Jewish foundations prefer to support organizations working on the Arab-Israeli issue rather than the Ethiopians."
Has Israeli society succeeded in absorbing the Ethiopians?
"There was a paternalistic attitude. For example, they decided that every Ethiopian who arrives must spend time in an absorption center, that members of this community must be educated on how to live in Israel and receive an 'absorption basket,' but the establishment needs to understand that not everyone needs to go through this. An absorption center is sometimes a hothouse where people don't learn to get along independently."
Dasa immigrated to Israel at age 13. "When I went to the [Education Ministry's] youth department, they didn't even check my knowledge of English and math," he says. "They just directed me right away to a boarding school for at-risk youth with religious and vocational studies, and no preparation for a matriculation certificate. The boarding schools to which they sent the Ethiopian youth were youth villages that were in danger of closing, where most of the people were at-risk youth from the weaker sectors. And they used the Ethiopian children to raise money from the United States for the Youth Aliyah program, which was on the verge of total collapse, and we received the lowest possible level of education. No one checked if we did homework and we had to survive in a violent environment." After repeated pleading, he was allowed to transfer to another class, but the level there was still very low. He finally got himself transferred to the Yemin Orde boarding school. "There for the first time I got a good education, but my friends weren't able to transfer and they couldn't get a matriculation certificate," he says. His path to university wasn't easy either. "I got in thanks to affirmative action," he says. For a master's degree in law, he studied in the United States.
"When I look back, I see that a successful absorption means you have to take the power into your own hands," he says. "And so I ask all those who are planning fund-raising projects on behalf of the community - even if it's easy to raise money from American Jews who are sympathetic to the 'poor Ethiopians' - stop creating projects that are all about wretchedness. Create projects that are about being successful. Tebeka, for instance, gives out NIS 100,000 worth of scholarships to outstanding Ethiopian students."
Maketa, a mother of five, came to Israel in 1990, when she was 37. She got a job as a production assistant in Israel Radio's Amharic divison. For a decade, she was a field reporter and interviewer on the "Through Our Eyes" program that aired on Channel 2. Since 1997 she has been a senior reporter on the IETV Ethiopian channel, seen by 15,000 households, and she also hosts various programs aimed at the community.
Maketa says she's in the process of divorcing her second husband, whom she married in Israel. "It was hard for him to accept my independence. There was a small incident of violence toward me and I said to myself: 'You who teach other women to stand up and speak out cannot remain silent.'"
Are Ethiopian women subjected to more violence than is reported in the media?
"Yes. I see it in my work on a daily basis. It's common at all levels of the society. The killings, though, are a new and horrifying phenomenon for the community. You have to understand, in Ethiopia women were used to the men treating them like objects, and accepted the fact that they were denied rights. When they came to Israel, the power shifted. The men didn't get integrated in the society and lost their standing in the family unit as the breadwinners. The man's standing is already undermined in the ulpan; suddenly he finds himself in a classroom next to his wife and she's picking up the language a lot faster than he is. The government administration also ignored the effects of immigration on the family unit. The Ethiopian men were neglected. I saw the Absorption Ministry constantly coming up with projects to empower women or treat at-risk youth, but I never saw projects designed to empower men."
How is the Israeli media coverage of the Ethiopian community?
"Most of the coverage is negative. Israeli society is blind to our presence. Social organizations band together to fight the deportation of 1,200 children of foreign workers and it gets tons of coverage and is the lead story on the evening news. Has anyone in the media ever covered the Ethiopian kids who at age 15 come home from school and go to work in order to send money back to Ethiopia? Why doesn't this get any air time? And our work is ignored, too, and that hurts, especially when we do important programs and investigative reports. I watch panel discussions on Channel 2 and Channel 10 and they have people on from all over the spectrum, but no Ethiopians."
Did you ever apply for a job on a Hebrew television channel?
"I have no desire to work in any other media organization. I believe that first of all I must help my community with the tools I have - whether it's training young Ethiopians in the field of television or providing information to viewers that will help them integrate into society. This is a lot more fascinating to me than the idea of appearing on Channel 10. This channel produces reporters and cameramen, like one who started as an announcer here and is now on Channel 2."
Backbone of the community
In Rehovot's Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, which is awash in crime, poverty and drugs, the neglect is appalling. The synagogue for Ethiopian Jews is hidden from view. A creaky, decrepit gate marks the entrance. The yard is overgrown with weeds; holes in the ground next to the exposed concrete attest to renovation work that was halted long ago; old mattresses and beer bottles offer evidence of another use for the place during the night.
Kes Taganya Baraku, 77, opens the door to the synagogue, revealing a small sanctuary. "This synagogue is very cramped and in poor shape and for nine years we've wanted to expand it," he says, eyes brimming with sadness. "We collected money from the community itself, everyone gave what they could, and we came up with NIS 400,000, but the work was halted for lack of funds. We requested assistance from the Religious Services Ministry and other sources, but we got nothing."
In Ethiopia, Kes Baraku oversaw 37 synagogues and served for five years as the chief Kes. Today he is in charge of just this one meager synagogue. Translating for him from Amharic is his colleague Samai Elias, 42, the Kes of the Ramat Eliyahu synagogue in Rishon Letzion, which serves 1,200 families. "We are not happy with this aliyah, because what it's meant is a spiritual breakdown," says Kes Baraku, the tears now spilling from his eyes as he pats his heart. "The community has fallen apart."
The two explain that in Ethiopia, a Kes is a communal religious leader and a social role model. The Kes presides over weddings, funerals and memorial services, but also helps settle personal disputes among couples, or between other individuals. "The rabbinic establishment and the Religious Services Ministry are trying to abolish the tradition of the Kessim," asserts Kes Elias. "The Kessims' salary still comes from the Prime Minister's Office, not from the Religious Services Ministry, and there are significant wage discrepancies. A distinguished Kes receives just NIS 5,500 in net wages - is that even appropriate for a neighborhood rabbi? There's anger and frustration. Kessim could make a significant contribution to the Ethiopians' absorption. What are they afraid of? The Kessim are not competing with the rabbinate. You think we want to replace the Hevra Kadisha?"
Kes Baraku: "In many ways the absorption has not succeeded, and I'm not talking now about the spiritual aspect, but about the social aspect. Our community is suffering from the murder of women, an increase in single mothers, violence, juvenile crime, drug and alcohol use and suicides - none of this existed in the Jewish community in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Jewish youth was not like this. The violence and the murders of women are a consequence of neglect, breakdown, lack of leadership. The Ethiopian man is in the darkness here. We're a religious society and you've taken apart this spiritual element of the leadership, which was the backbone of the community. This blow has destroyed the community." W
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