Ethiopian Israelis Suffer From Years of Government Neglect

Ambitious programs fail to get off the ground while poverty rates remain high and integration into society remains difficult.

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Ethiopian Jews celebrate Sigd holiday in Jerusalem.
Ethiopian Jews celebrate Sigd holiday in Jerusalem.Credit: AFP

The immediate cause of the protests by Ethiopian Israelis was a video showing two policemen beating a soldier of Ethiopian descent and trying to arrest him in what appeared to be an unprovoked attack.

But official neglect even more than harassment is how the government treats the country’s 130,000 Ethiopian Israelis, many of them born in Israel to the 20,000 brought to Israel on secret flights in the mid-1980s and early ‘90s.

Two and three decades after they have arrived and host of abortive government programs designed to help them succeed in their adopted homeland, 52% of Ethiopian families and two-thirds of their children live under the poverty line. This makes them one of the communities most needing social services.

In a few cases, Ethiopians have served in elite army units, studied at top universities and thrived as professionals in law, medicine and accounting. An Ethiopian woman won a recent Miss Israel contest.

But Ethiopians lag behind other Israeli Jews in school, with 59% failing to complete the bagrut matriculation exam, against 46% of all Israeli Jews in 2009-10. High percentages of Ethiopian Israelis work in unskilled jobs.

“When an Ethiopian applies for a job, as qualified and impressive as he might be, he is not going to be invited for an interview because he has an Ethiopian name on his CV,” Assefa-Dawit of advocacy group Tebeka told Reuters.

“Israel is our country; there’s no us and them. This is our home. The community is crying out for the government to resolve this.”

The government’s history of helping Ethiopians is mostly a history of failed initiative and too little money too late.

In 2001, the government approved a nine-year, 660-million-shekel plan ($170 million at current exchange rates) to help absorb Ethiopian immigrants. Yet the program only went into effect four years later and just 8% of the original budget was allocated.

In 2008, the government approved another program for absorbing Ethiopian immigrants, to run for four years with an 870-million-shekel budget under the auspices of the housing, immigrant absorption, social affairs, education and economy ministries.

But after two years, not a shekel had been allocated. Only after a petition to the High Court of Justice was the money finally spent under a multiyear budget. But, according to a report by the state comptroller last year, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry has never created tools for measuring the effectiveness of the programs.

An examination of Absorption Minister Sofa Landver’s Facebook pages and office diary — which has been made available — offers a glimpse into the priority she has given Ethiopian Israelis.

An Ethiopian-Israeli protester in Tel Aviv, May 3, 2015. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

On Sunday, when an Ethiopian protest exploded in Tel Aviv, her Facebook page was devoted to a meeting with Romania’s diaspora minister and her dedication to the needs of Romanian immigrants in Israel, most of whom arrived in the 1960s.

Later in the day she added a status on the ministry’s participation in a ceremony for World War II veterans later this month to mark the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany. Only at 8 P.M. did Landver address the Ethiopians and their protests.

“I am aware of and committed to providing solutions to all the problems and the racism that Ethiopian immigrants suffer in Israel. This isn’t lip service,” she wrote. “I call on everyone to act with restraint and to know that there are those who prefer to act.”

But Landver’s appointment book, which was obtained by the Movement for Freedom of Information, shows that Landver devoted only eight meetings last year to the subject of Ethiopians, and only two of those were meetings with representatives of the community. But she held 12 meetings and events concerning French immigrants and at least that many concerning immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

In last year’s report, the state comptroller found fault with how the absorption and education ministries were helping Ethiopians succeed on three issues: the bagrut exam, their high army dropout rate and their low representation in the civil service.

The Social Affairs Ministry estimates that 56% of Ethiopian families require social services of one kind or another. But the ministry operates only one dedicated program for the community, and it is available in just three cities — Netanya, Rishon Letzion and Rehovot — and serves just 150 families. Its budget is just 3 million shekels for this year, just 0.05% of the ministry’s budget.

For its part, the ministry said that while there is only one dedicated program for Ethiopians, its other programs include Ethiopian beneficiaries.

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