Netanyahu Promises New Approach to Help Ethiopian Community

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Police officers and Ethiopian-Israeli protesters clash in front of Tel Aviv city hall.
Illustrative photo of police officers and Ethiopian-Israeli protesters clashing in front of Tel Aviv city hall, May 3, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held an emergency debate on the state of Ethiopian immigrants on Monday, spurred by that community’s protests over recent days. At the end of the meeting he promised that in coming weeks the government would approve a comprehensive proposal for a new approach to the community, based on discussions that have already been conducted.

Netanyahu was referring to a series of professional discussions that began in January 2014, seeking to formulate a new policy toward immigrants of Ethiopian descent. There were dozens of meetings on the national and local level that drew some 1,000 participants, who presented a wide range of viewpoints and interests. A website was set up that organized the participants’ comments – sometimes in real time – and allowed for responses. What emerged was an extraordinary glimpse, free of clichés and PR spin, into the situation of these 130,000 Israeli citizens.

This process also mapped out, for the first time, all the budgets and programs aimed at Ethiopians in five government ministries. In 2012, the total budget for Ethiopian assistance was 312 million shekels ($80.2 million), of which only 248 million shekels was actually spent. The researchers noted there were numerous areas of overlap and no consistent aid policy among the different ministries. Confusion concerning the allocation of money and authority, and a total lack of reliable statistical information, has typified the government’s handling of the Ethiopian community.

The recommendations that resulted from these debates have yet to be implemented, perhaps because over the past few months there were arguments in the government over which body should be responsible for it. “No one was interested in this hot potato,” said an official in one of the relevant government ministries.

Of all the topics addressed, education generated some of the most heated debate. “I arrived at Ofek [juvenile] Prison a month ago, and since then I don’t sleep well at night,” said Monica Shavit, deputy director of the Education Ministry’s Pedagogic Administration. “Forty percent of the criminals aged 14-18 are from the Ethiopian community. Eighty kids of the 200. More than 75 percent of those kids will become prisoners again. The fact is we’ve failed, and we have to figure out where we failed. I don’t know the answer.”

Others tried to provide answers: Kindergarten teachers aren’t trained to deal with kids who are “different,” said one, while several experts decried putting Ethiopian children in separate classes or frameworks, which stunts their integration and leads to lower levels of learning so they fail academically later on. “All those educational programs meant to ‘save’ us should be stopped,” said Elena Almagasad. “We don’t need saving, just support as we integrate.” And just as educational staffers need to be trained in multiculturalism, so do health workers. Many Ethiopians still have trouble understanding and making themselves understood to doctors, for example.

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