Despite Promises, No Budget for Plan to Advance Israel's Ethiopian Community

According to informed sources, none of the plans prepared by the government were anchored in the recently approved state budget.

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
Israeli 'Kessim' or religious leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during the Sigd holiday, November 2014.
Israeli 'Kessim' or religious leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during the Sigd holiday, November 2014.Credit: AFP
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

After about a year-and-a half of internal discussions with professionals and activists, government ministries have begun publicizing their plans for the advancement of the Ethiopian community in Israel.

Despite several positive recommendations – such as doubling the number of teachers from the community, making health services more accessible and promoting urban renewal – and the declarations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised to promote a government program to solve the problems of the Ethiopians, the expectation of change is apparently premature.

Ethiopian-Israeli children in school.Credit: Tal Cohen

According to informed sources, none of the plans prepared by the various ministries was anchored in the state budget recently approved by the government, and the Finance Ministry has refrained committing funds for implementing them. In any case, the anticipated budget has been significantly reduced: At first, according to several sources, they were talking about approximately 800 million shekels; later the sum plummetted to 120 million, over four years.

In the past two weeks the budgetary problems have filtered down to Ethiopian social activists. Confidence in the government, which was limited in any case, is gradually deteriorating.

“It’s possible that they’re trying to pull the wool over our eyes, promising nice programs but ‘forgetting’ to budget them,” said one of them. He continued, “If the crisis is not solved soon, we’ll return to the streets. Apparently that’s the only language they understand in the government.” Off the record, senior officials in several ministries are saying the same thing.

Ethiopian Israelis protesting in Tel Aviv, Mon., May 3, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Treasury sources say that the ministry is “in the midst of the budgeting process” and that part of the earmarked sum has already been set aside. But precise details about this partial sum are unclear. On the other hand, sources in the Education Ministry and the Social Affairs Ministry maintain that they still don’t know which parts of the programs will receive the necessary funding.

In addition: While the treasury is asking for more time, the Prime Minister’s Office, which is leading the process, is saying that the discussions are already over, and that “the professional teams in the social services ministries, the treasury’s budget department and the PMO have decided on the sums needed” for the various programs.

“We are certain that the programs will receive all the funding necessary by the time they are brought for cabinet approval,” the PMO added.

The new policy was formulated in a comprehensive process initiated by the Absorption Ministry early in 2014. In December of that year, the ministries presented their detailed plans, but the early election halted the process.

The discussions were renewed when the new government was formed in May, several days after two mass demonstrations by Ethiopian Jews in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The protest revealed, not for the first time, the anger, disappointment and frustration of so many Ethiopians at the government and its direct representatives - from teachers in the schools to policemen in the streets.

Israeli police uses water cannon during heavy clashes, to disperse Ethiopian Israelis demonstrating in central Tel Aviv against police brutality and institutionalised discrimination.Credit: AFP

Momentarily it seemed that change really was around the corner. “We’ll bring a comprehensive plan to the cabinet, to help you in every way possible,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the time.

The promised plan is in fact comprehensive, but Netanyahu decided not to present and approve it in toto, but rather in stages. Supporters of the decision say that this will enable a focus on the objectives of each ministry separately; others say that it promises “industrial quiet” for the prime minister.

To date only the programs of the education and health ministries have been publicized. In the coming days Social Affairs Ministry program is expected to be publicized, while the plans of other ministries, including defense and internal security, will be published only later. The Education Ministry plan includes decreasing and even closing separate programs catering to Ethiopian children only; special enrichment courses for schools with a high percentage of Ethiopians; additional learning reinforcement for all age groups; expanded investment in finding and encouraging gifted children; and a doubling of the number of Ethiopian teachers from 300 to 600.

The Health Ministry plan includes a doubling of the number of “cultural intermediaries” and anchoring their work in uniform job slots; conducting 20 reviews to examine “linguistic and cultural access”; a special effort to prevent diabetes (according to ministry figures, Ethiopians are 2.4 times more at risk of contracting the disease than the veteran Jewish population), and a promise to handle any complaint about incidents of racism in the health system within 48 hours.

A Housing and Construction Ministry paper from last December stated that “The 5-year housing plan did not achieve its objectives,” and only 12 percent out of 1,000 families made use of the assistance they were offered to purchase an apartment. “The plan lacks in-depth attention to a population with housing in deprived neighborhoods, which constitutes a barrier to integration into society,” according to senior officials.

According to several sources, despite a broad consensus on the solution among professionals, promotion of the plan has encountered difficulties. One of the reasons may be the relatively large budget required for its implementation, which is estimated at about 200 million shekels.

The government’s conduct on the housing issue seems to be part of a regular pattern: scattering declarations about a change in social policy, recruiting experts and activists to draw up recommendations - and in the end an insufficient to nonexistent budget. The War on Poverty committee suffered a similar fate - its recommendations were published about a year ago, only to be shelved within a short time.

According to government sources, the treasury was firmly opposed to anchoring the plans of the various ministries in the state budget. The coalition agreements, on the other hand, were included in it. “[Finance Minister Moshe] Kahlon said that he doesn’t have the necessary funds,” said one of them. “

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