Ehud Barak - Ariel Hermoni
Defense Minister Ehud Barak visiting Ethiopian soldiers earlier this month. Photo by Ariel Hermoni
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They thought that army service would be their entry ticket into society. But internal Israel Defense Forces data reveals that for many Ethiopian immigrants, integrating into Israel society's chief melting pot, the IDF, is difficult: One in four Ethiopian men winds up deserting, three times the overall rate for male recruits.

Furthermore, over 60 percent of Ethiopian soldiers spend some time in an IDF jail, according to Issachar Makunen, a lieutenant colonel in the reserves who now heads Zionei Yisrael, an organization aiming to prepare Ethiopians for army service.

The IDF defines desertion - a crime whose maximum sentence is 15 years in jail - as being absent from one's unit for more than 21 days. Until this June, the cut-off was 45 days, but the army shortened it.

Ethiopian men actually join the army at a higher rate than the general public: 88 percent enlist, compared to 73 percent of all Israeli men. But then the problems begin.

The first difficulty, according to sources in both the IDF and the Ethiopian community, is poverty. Even if given assignments that allow them to work on the side - such as guarding facilities, which entails one week on duty and one week off, during which the soldier can work - their army commitments reduce the help they are able to give their families. Financial help is sometimes available: 12 percent of all soldiers receiving financial assistance from the army (which can total thousands of shekels a month ) are Ethiopian, double their weight in the army as a whole. But for many soldiers, money is a pressing issue.

Another problem is cultural differences, including the gap between the reality of the army and Ethiopian soldiers' expectations as well as their families' lack of understanding of army life. "If their mother calls, they simply get up and leave," an army source said. Makunen added that not having served in the army themselves, Ethiopian parents can't offer their soldier children the support Israeli parents do.

The army source also noted that many Ethiopian soldiers are caught between two worlds - their parents' culture and the surrounding Israeli culture - "and don't know where they belong."

A., an Ethiopian soldier, was drafted in 2010. His father is still in Ethiopia, and his mother died five years ago. He was raised by an aunt. He has been a deserter for a year and half.

"I wanted to be a combat soldier, but the situation at home didn't let me," he said. "My sister and aunt need me, so I gave up in advance on the possibility of serving in a good job. I also need to help out financially. And my aunt doesn't speak Hebrew well, so I have to help her" - that includes transactions with government offices and medical personnel.

The young soldier said he dropped out of school in 11th grade, and it was hard to get used to discipline again - especially army discipline.

"I decided to desert after I asked my commander to let me go home one day to help my aunt go to the hospital, and he refused," A. said. Since then, he has been working odd jobs.

"I know I'll be caught someday," he said. "But meanwhile, I'm earning a living, and that's a miracle."

Among Ethiopian women, about half enlist, similar to the 55 percent rate among the general public. But 5 percent later desert - double the rate among the general female population. Nevertheless, the army said, absenteeism, desertion and prison have all been declining among Ethiopian women.

B., who was born in Israel a few months after her mother arrived, deserted two months into her army service. "One day, I said I'd rather work," she said. "So I got up and went. In another second they would have put a lien on my house. I showed my commanders that I was in debt, but they didn't listen to me .... My mother is a single parent, who supports us, and I have another three siblings. Now, with the money, I'm helping my mother."

She said she had originally hoped the army would help her finish high school. That dream has vanished - and with it, her hopes of getting a steady job, since as a deserter, she can't work legally.

In 2008, the army announced a five-year plan to improve the outlook for Ethiopian recruits. Two years went in studying the problem; real work began only in 2010.

One of the plan's elements is Zinuk B'Aliya ("A leg up" ), in which some 500 Ethiopians are enrolled, according to the Absorption Ministry. The program prepares recruits for the army during high school and mentors them during their service.

Another is Amir, a special course for recruits who score low on placement exams but seem to have potential to do better than their scores would indicate. Some 600 Ethiopians take the course - which predates the five-year plan - each year, and according to a study last year, more than 90 percent of graduates complete their army service.

A third program trains officers to cope with the special needs of Ethiopian recruits, and a fourth works to help the recruits' families adapt to having a child in the army.

An IDF source said the army is working hard to help Ethiopian recruits, "but ultimately, the army is just one link in the chain."

School is another link. The Education Ministry declined to comment for this report or to supply data on dropout rates among Ethiopian students.

The Absorption Ministry said it has been collaborating with the army on the five-year plan, with both working on a program to arrange financial aid for recruits' families even before they start their service. It also said it has staffers in its bureaus throughout the country who work with Ethiopian soldiers.