Making Ethiopians 'Good Enough' for the Elite Units

Amiram Barkat
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Amiram Barkat

One year after its initiation, the Israel Defense Forces has declared its Zinuk B'Aliyah (Jumpstart) program for "empowerment" of Ethiopian soldiers a resounding success. The program was established in response to low scores in IDF-administered tests among recruits of Ethiopian origin. The program informs them of their options and examines their potential to serve in elite roles. According to IDF statistics, revealed yesterday, the percentage of program graduates enrolled in prestigious military preparatory courses exceeds that in the general military population. The IDF is now considering expanding the project to other sectors, including immigrants from the Caucasus and Bukharan and Bedouin recruits.

Two years ago, the IDF began investigating the reasons for low cognitive-ability scores among recruits of Ethiopian origin. Low scores in IDF tests have significantly contributed to their limited participation in officers training and other prestigious, professional, military courses: Ethiopians comprise less than 5 percent of those enrolled in these courses, as opposed to 15 percent among the general population. In addition to low test scores, soldiers of Ethiopian origin suffer from a relative lack of familiarity with the military and the feeling that they are not "good enough" to serve in elite units.

"Until now, soldiers of Ethiopian origin typically served in only two areas in the army, combat units and administration [driving, provisions, etc.]," explained Brigadier General Nissim Barda, head of the Planning Brigade at IDF Human Resources. The results of investigations, initiated by Barda, revealed that tools used for general IDF enlistment screening are not suited to the Ethiopian population, because of cultural differences between them and veteran Israelis. As a result of these findings, the IDF decided that soldiers of Ethiopian origin need only be recommended by commanding officers to qualify for officers training. In addition, the IDF decided to implement special "empowerment" courses for these soldiers.

Cultural problem

Aviva Eileen, a community coordinator who works with youth of Ethiopian origin, says she is aware of damage caused by cultural differences in even the earliest stages of IDF screening. According to her, many youngsters fail to answer test questions posed in the enlistment office screening procedure. "Their instinct is to just press the 'pass' button every time a question appears on the computer screen. I know of young women who inored draft notices because they were afraid to go to the enlistment office by themselves. That problem could be easily solved if they were invited as a group, but most of the enlistment offices are unaware that this is a cultural problem."

Eileen is one of three coordinators from the Ethiopian community employed in the program, which is under the auspices of the Absorption Ministry and the Israel branch of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC-Israel). Another five coordinators are responsible for IDF relations with recruits from the Caucasus region of the Former Soviet Union. Coordinators bridge gaps between soldiers, their families and responsible military personnel. They persuade youngsters to enlist and provide vital information that veteran Israelis are likely to obtain from friends and family. Coordinators also assist military personnel and soldiers' families when absenteeism and other personal problems arise.

Evaluating potential

A year ago, the IDF began to implement its Amir Course to close gaps between soldiers of Ethiopian origin and their veteran Israeli peers. New recruits attend the one-month course immediately following enlistment. Here, they receive detailed descriptions of various options for their military service and are asked about their preferences. Unlike general IDF screening procedures, which examine current achievement, testing of these soldiers examines cognitive potential.

"We discovered that, rather than being a homogeneous group with low scores, there was a distribution of scores, and more than a few talented individuals," noted Lieutenant Colonel Shlomi Avraham, an officer in the program.

To date, about 300 soldiers have participated in three Amir Courses as a pilot project, the latest of which ended last week. The courses, which cost about $100,000 each, were funded by non-military bodies like the Absorption Ministry, JDC-Israel and the UJA-Federation of New York. A total of 12 of the course's 100 graduates were accepted into IDF Intelligence units. Other graduates were accepted to professional courses to prepare them to work in computer network administration, investigations in the Military Police detective division, teaching in the IDF Education Branch, and at Army Radio as journalists.

The IDF has already been recommended to the education minister the introduction of similar courses into the high school curriculum. Hanoch Tzamir, deputy director general of the Absorption Ministry, believes that the education system must ask itself why youngsters of Ethiopian origin require courses like Amir. He comments, "We do not have a problem with the generation that immigrated from Ethiopia, but with the generation that grew up here. The youngsters that are currently enlisting were not born in Addis Ababa, but in Ramle and Rehovot. They are graduates of the Israeli education system."

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