The Israel Bar Association recently called on its members to hire law students of Ethiopian origin. This is the first initiative by a private body to assist Israelis of Ethiopian origin to enter a profession considered prestigious and desirable.
In political circles and the media, Ethiopian-Israelis are often referred to as a "ticking social bomb." Some 105,000 people of Ethiopian origin now live here, including 30,000 young people born in Israel. Born into a competitive and often cruel society, they start out with terrible disadvantages.
Approximately 65 percent of their parents who are 45 or older are unemployed, and 60 percent of their families have a large number of children. Eighteen percent of their families are headed by a single-parent, as opposed to 8 percent in the population as a whole. Most young people in the Ethiopian community grew up in poor neighborhoods which some call "ghettos," akin to the black ghettos of the United States.
Will the first Ethiopian-Israeli generation born and raised in this country be able to extricate itself from a fate of poverty, unemployment, crime and drugs? The answer is not clear. On one hand, the crime rate among the community's youth is climbing every year; at present it is three times the rate for all Israeli youth.
On the other hand, the proportion among them eligible for matriculation certificates is also on the rise, from 30 percent in 1995 to 42 percent today - as opposed to 60 percent among all youth. Some 1,500 young Ethiopian-Israelis are now enrolled in higher education, and about 3,000 members of the community have academic degrees.
The key to their success is employment and not education; today, many people with academic degrees are unemployed or working at blue-collar jobs. Failure to find suitable work is a source of personal and familial frustration in the Ethiopian-Israeli community and a negative role model for young people. Most Ethiopian-Israelis with college degrees who have found jobs commensurate with their skills work for programs that assist the Ethiopian community. Many believe a "glass ceiling" separates them from jobs providing services for the general population.
Organizations with experience employing Ethiopian-Israelis that were interviewed for a study carried out recently for the Adva Institute think tank, report a high degree of satisfaction with these workers and a willingness to hire more. However, Ethiopian-Israelis apparently avoid seeking jobs at desirable work places mainly because they don't have friends or relatives working there. For their part, employers don't feel a need to seek out potential Ethiopian-Israeli workers.
The glass ceiling will only be broken if employers take the initiative. The private sector has room for more initiatives like that of the Bar Association.
There should be affirmative action programs in the public sector; a cabinet decision in this spirit was taken as far back as the late '90s, but it has not been properly implemented.
Affirmative action can help the Ethiopian community overcome the disadvantages it starts out with and make it possible for its members to reach key positions in Israeli society. Affirmative action will help defuse the social time bomb.