Ethiopian Israelis’ First Encounter With Bias Is at School

An investigation by Haaretz found that segregation of children from Ethiopian families is still widespread.

Yarden Skop
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Ethiopian-Israeli children in school.Credit: Tal Cohen
Yarden Skop

Last year an American foundation arranged a visit to a school in central Israel in which many of the pupils are of Ethiopian origin. The two guides were pupils, one of whom was Ethiopian. They stopped in front of some portraits pupils had drawn. The Ethiopian guide stopped in front of a drawing of a blonde, green-eyed girl and said that was her. The teachers and principal were very pleased and full of praise, not mentioning the fact that she had drawn herself as white.

The demonstrations over police violence against Ethiopian Israelis this week exposed the extent of discrimination and the rage felt by community members. The first stop on the road of discrimination is the education system. An investigation by Haaretz found that segregation of children from Ethiopian families is still widespread. According to the Ministry of Education, there are still two schools in which 70 percent of the pupils are from this community (one is a boarding school). In another 10 schools they constitute 50 percent of pupils, and in yet another 47 schools one-third of pupils are of Ethiopian origin. Even in cities with large Ethiopian communities there are schools without even one pupil from this community. Most schools they attend belong to the national-religious school system.

In boarding schools affiliated with rural areas, 18 percent of pupils (3,759 out of 20,483) are Ethiopian, even though overall they constitute 2 percent of the entire student body in the country. The Ministry of Education has for a long time refused to divulge the complete list of schools in which there are concentrations of Ethiopian pupils, so that its claims that the issue of segregation is being taken care of cannot be verified.

Community activists say that in some schools Ethiopian children are segregated into separate classes. They add that during former Yesh Atid Education Minister Shay Piron’s tenure, no focused action was taken to integrate pupils into schools in their places of residence. The ministry says there is a reduction in the number of Ethiopian pupils in schools in which they are highly concentrated, and that in new classes that open no more than 25 percent of pupils are of Ethiopian origin.

A further difficulty has been the incorporation of teachers of Ethiopian background into tenured positions. Specialized study programs were written for teachers’ training colleges, such as the Kibbutzim and Oranim seminars. At the end of their studies, graduates are assisted in seeking jobs as full-fledged teachers. The ministry estimates that over the last three years 50 teachers from this community have been placed in elementary schools and kindergartens.

Yaron Dasta, who coordinates this program at Oranim College, says, “If the ministry would add material about the heritage of Ethiopian Jews to the curriculum, Ethiopian children would feel they have something to contribute to society, showing off themselves and their affiliation. Currently, these children go through the system without knowing who they are. Those who aren’t from Ethiopia know nothing about Ethiopian Jews. The media presents it as if the community came here not out of ideological reasons. Society doesn’t recognize our community, and that is hurtful.”

The story of the community’s immigration appears briefly in a history unit in high schools, in a chapter about “waves of immigration to Israel over the last 30 years”. This is obviously insufficient. Proof of the prevailing hidden racism could be seen in a Facebook posting by a teacher in the Jerusalem area, describing a conversation in the teachers’ room. One teacher states that Ethiopians come from a backward country, while another says that her family worked hard to reach where they are now but “what are they [the Ethiopians] doing for themselves?” Others complained that nothing comes out of all the investment in these children.

One graduate of the program for training Ethiopian teachers says that she was automatically referred to work with Ethiopian immigrants even though she was fully qualified to work in any school.

Another teacher of Ethiopian origin who teaches science at an elementary school says that “children are exposed only to white-skinned teachers, but they hear about violent incidents involving Ethiopians on TV and no one examines these issues with them. Stories of immigrant communities exclude the Ethiopians. School books aren’t diverse enough, with no pictures of dark-skinned children.”

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