Israel Doesn't Have an Ethiopian Problem, It Has a Social Integration Problem

The state comptroller was quite right to highlight the difficulties faced by immigrants from Ethiopia in his latest report, but it should have broadened its scope to include the poverty trap affecting more than two million Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Five years ago, as we walked through the Falashmura compound near the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa, where a group of 65 Ethiopians were packing their meager belongings for the night flight to Ben-Gurion International Airport, a senior Jewish Agency official whispered to me: "Look, we are importing a social time bomb. These people will never be real Israeli citizens, it will take generations and maybe their grandchildren will be integrated into society."

It is tempting to read Wednesday's state comptroller's report on the failures of integration programs for Israelis of Ethiopian origin and pronounce his prophecy fulfilled. Nearly 52 percent of Ethiopian-immigrant families are below the poverty line, double the national rate.

On the other hand you could take a more pragmatic or perhaps cynical view, and to view as a success the fact that of a community of 150,000 that emigrated, with virtually no assets, from a country where the great majority lacked the basic skills necessary not only to compete in a 21st-century job market but even to live in a modern society, 42.3 percent no longer qualify as poor. Very few, if any, would want to return to Ethiopia.

But that of course won't fly. No functioning society can allow a distinct group comprising nearly 2 percent of its population to live in these conditions. State Comptroller Joseph Shapira is quite right to highlight the plight of the Ethiopian-Israelis. But hold on a minute: isn't that exactly what is happening?

Ethiopian-Israelis are not the worst-off Israelis: There are two much larger communities that are even more deprived. Both Israeli Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox suffer from slightly higher levels of poverty. Israel does not have an Ethiopian problem, it has a social-integration problem.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't be worried by the fact that Israelis of Ethiopian origin are twice as likely as the overall population to live under the poverty threshold and to lack higher education. But it does mean we should stop seeing their problem as unique, separate from the much greater crisis in which more than a quarter of Israelis are not part of the wider society or the workforce.

This conclusion is clear from further reading of the comptroller's report. It does not reveal who is at fault, beyond the all-too-familiar litany of small-time corruption, badly-run programs and lack of coordination between government agencies. There doesn't seem to be a lack of goodwill or a shortage of funding overall.

Both the government and Jewish philanthropists and communities from around the world have been willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to improve the chances of young Ethiopian-Israelis.

There has been some success, but much more could have been achieved if funds were not lost by being split among too many departments and nongovernment agencies that cannot find a way to speak to each other.

It is pointless to designate a single party for the job. The Jewish Agency, which is trying to get out of the Ethiopian-immigration business as soon as possible, is not in charge of the long-term integration of immigrants.

Nor is there any hope for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which for four years and counting has been a Yisrael Beiteinu bastion that sees mainly to the special interests of Israel's "Russian" immigrants, as all emigrants from the former Soviet Union are generally called here. Minister Sofa Landver went so far last year as to call Ethiopian immigrants "hypocrites" and lecture them to "say thank you for what you have received."

So if no single body can take the job, why hasn't there been a nationwide initiative to integrate the Ethiopians? That approach was tried and predictably failed.

A "national project" was announced in 2001, followed by a five-year plan in 2008, both specifically focusing on integrating Ethiopian-Israelis, but they both lacked leadership and did not receive sufficient authorities or budgets. Governments changed, and none of them had the attention span and the political willpower to make the matter a priority.

Part of the problem is the Israeli tendency to view Ethiopian-Israelis as a single, homogenous community. The comptroller's report also suffers from this condition.

One group, making up two-thirds of the community's members, consists of veteran immigrants, who came to Israel in the 1980s and in Operation Solomon in 1991, as well as their native-Israeli children and even grandchildren.

This group is naturally much better integrated than the second group: the Falashmura, who arrived much more recently. Most of them came from remote, rural areas in Ethiopia. In addition, as the descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity they are ostracized by many of the earlier immigrants.

There can be no one-size-fits-all project that meets the needs of both groups, those who have lived here for more than three decades and those who are still getting used to life in a modern country.

The programs that have succeeded were those that targeted the specific problems of a specific age group or were based in small local communities, but there will never be a nationwide solution.

The political establishment and the media are currently focused on whether Finance Minister Yair Lapid has betrayed the middle class with his new state budget. The predicament of the more than two million Israelis, most of them Arabs or ultra-Orthodox, who are caught in the welfare, low-pay, no-skills trap, receives scant attention.

This is a national crisis that affects the majority of Ethiopian-Israelis. Their problems can be solved only as part of a national program to integrate one-fourth of Israel's citizens.

Credit: Daniel Bar-On/Jini

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