Israel's Ethiopians Call for Integration, Not Isolation, in Israeli Army

Community activists criticize the army’s late response to a video showing an Ethipian soldier being beaten by policemen.

Ethiopian Israeli protest leaders at a press conference in Tel Aviv, May 10, 2015.
Ethiopian Israeli protest leaders at a press conference in Tel Aviv, May 10, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Leaders of the Ethiopian immigrant protest movement say it’s time for the Israel Defense Forces to stop its special programs for integrating young people of Ethiopian origin and should instead train them in regular courses, saying distinctive treatment increases their isolation from other Israelis.

“It doesn’t seem logical to me that the army says, ‘we’ll make you a separate course,’” said Genato Mengistu, one of the leaders of the recent Ethiopian protests. “We don’t need these favors, loosen up. People were born here; the language they know is Hebrew; they aren’t aliens for you to experiment on and then show off. Why don’t they have a special course just for French immigrants?

“How long can they keep on saying that integration is slow and it takes time?” he continued. “We are here in Israel almost 30 years. There was always racism and it will remain, the question is if you leverage it negatively or positively.”

Military sources say the IDF is starting to change its approach to recruits from the Ethiopian community, but that many of them still need extra help. “We are avoiding separation,” said a senior officer in the IDF Personnel directorate, who stated that some of the special programs aimed at easing Ethiopian adjustment to military service were being stopped. For example, it was decided last year that Ethiopian immigrant solders would be in the same courses as other immigrants in the field unit preparation course.

“We are moving from affirmative action to distinctive advancement. But practically speaking, we are required to give special attention [to soldiers of Ethiopian origin] at all levels,” she said. This is why they are designated as “immigrants,” even though many if not most of them were born in Israel and some even have Israeli-born parents. The officer added that she would be happy to eventually do away with this designation.

Some 89 percent of young Ethiopians do IDF service, a rate considerably higher than the general population. More than 40 percent of the men serve in combat units. But their dropout rate is high; IDF data from the first half of 2014 shows that 23 percent of the men don’t complete their army service and one in 10 of the women also drop out.

Soldiers of Ethiopian origin enter officers’ courses at only a fifth of the rate of the rest of the population, and around a third of all Ethiopian solders, men and women, do time in military prison during their service. In 2013 the state comptroller described such statistics as a “social warning light.”

In August 2012, the army established a special department for integrating Ethiopian immigrants into the military. The aim of the department was to combine all the programs and activities for assimilating Ethiopians into the IDF, of which there are several, ranging from a special screening test to reduced criteria for joining an officers’ course, so as to raise the number of standing army soldiers of Ethiopian origin.

Some Ethiopian protest leaders say these programs increase their isolation in society and end up intensifying discrimination against them. For example, Mengistu castigates a course called Amir, which has been operating over the past decade to prepare Ethiopian recruits for army service, even though army data shows that those who take the course have a substantially lower dropout rate – only 5 percent.

In a letter sent to military authorities, protest leaders made specific demands regarding policies they say can be improved. For example, they asked that the Amir course be halted and that an internal directive forbidding service in a unit by a single Ethiopian only be cancelled. They were also highly critical of the IDF’s conduct following the release two weeks ago of a video in which Cpl. Demas Fikadeh was seen being beaten by a policeman in Holon. They believe the army’s response came too late, poisoning the attitude of many soldiers toward the IDF.

“Is our blood only good enough for war?” asked Mengistu. “What message is conveyed when a soldier is attacked and the army doesn’t immediately condemn it? The willingness to come and be a fighter drops. The protest was received by many soldiers with a feeling that they’d prefer to take off their uniforms and go home.”

Following the mass protests of recent weeks, Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot ordered all army commanders to have an hour-long conversation with their soldiers about preventing racism and denouncing violence. The army believes that soldiers of Ethiopian origin identify with the community’s protest, even if they can’t participate in it.

“The soldiers are not indifferent. For some of them the protest elicits repressed pain, while others feel mobilized and united or isolated and withdrawn,” says an internal document aimed at giving the commanders tools for the conversations with their soldiers.

The document stressed that even if the soldiers identify with the protests, “they must refrain from participating in a public debate or public protests related to political or military issues.” Nevertheless, soldiers of Ethiopian origin have attended the recent protests by the community, and according to Mengistu the last person arrested at last week’s demonstration in Tel Aviv was a soldier doing compulsory service.

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