The Education Ministry continues to run special programs catering solely to Israeli students of Ethiopian background despite a cabinet decision to drastically curtail such activities, according to a position paper published last week.
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“Apparently, the ministry isn’t capable of changing and of seeing students of Ethiopian origin exactly like other students,” said Ziva Mekonen-Degu, executive director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, which authored the paper together with the Clinic for the Study of Multiculturalism and Diversity at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“To it, our children are immediately ‘the weak ones’ – even when there’s no justification for this,” she added.
In October 2015, as part of a broader government plan to help Ethiopian Israelis, the cabinet actually decided to cancel all programs that treat them differently from their peers. Moreover, a few months later, the Education Ministry’s director general issued a directive reinforcing this decision.
“It’s forbidden to continue running programs that segregate students of Ethiopian origin,” the directive said. “Existing programs will continue to operate on condition that they are adapted to promote integrative work.”
Among the programs in question are after-school enrichment classes and tutorials for elementary- and secondary-school pupils, along with community-oriented activities for parents and children. Some of the programs receive funding from Jewish Federations, the Jewish Agency and other sources.
Activities run for Ethiopian Israelis under the auspices of nongovernmental organizations were supposed to comply with the new rules, according to the 2015 policy, and “the operation of segregated programs will be approved only in exceptional cases and for a limited time.”
But attorney Inbar Peled, of the Hebrew University clinic, says that in reality, these programs are still running, and seem set to do so for the coming four years or so, judging by various ministry documents.
The report that came out last week stressed the fact that many Ethiopian Israelis themselves have long opposed special programs for their community, and have stated that “the government’s decision reflected the conclusion that the disadvantages of these segregated programs outweigh their advantages.”
In addition, a 2013 comptroller’s report highlighted numerous problems with the management and funding of these activities.
Two of the main educational programs that should have been shut down by the government’s decision last year are those organized under the auspices of the National Project for the Absorption of Ethiopian Jews (aka the Ethiopian National Project), and PACT – Projects to Promote Ethiopian-Israeli Children and Their Parents.
Virtually the only criterion for inclusion in such activities is belonging to the Ethiopian community – with no other requisites with respect "to educational level, socioeconomic status, family background or length of time in the country,” according to the new position paper, which has also been submitted for discussion to the Knesset Education Committee.
Moreover, the authors of the position paper added, the programs in question haven’t actually succeeded in narrowing the gaps between Ethiopian Israelis and other students. In discussions with staff from IAEJ and the university clinic, it was noted, senior Education Ministry officials said the programs would be “adapted” so that 20 to 30 percent of the students participating in them would not be of Ethiopian origin.
“Why precisely was this the percentage determined? No logical explanation of the choice was given,” authors of the paper wrote. “Nor was any information divulged about the changes to be made in the programs.”
Moreover, they noted, the wording of the tenders and contracts the Education Ministry has issued indicate that the activities will continue in their previous format – “with cosmetic changes only.”
In its response to the paper, the ministry said that the assistance formerly offered to Ethiopian-Israeli students by means of separate programs would henceforth be given “in an integrative manner, with an emphasis on providing services in the towns where members of the Ethiopian community live.”
For their part, however, those who drew up the report said this response was “puzzling, since it’s difficult to understand how it is possible to ensure integrative service when the criterion for students’ inclusion remains their being members of the Ethiopian community.”
“The Education Ministry’s fundamental assumption hasn’t changed,” Mekonen-Degu charged. “It continues to view people of Ethiopian origin, most of whom were born in Israel, as deserving of separate treatment. Their educational situation or needs are less important.
“The ministry promises to ‘mix’ students who aren’t of Ethiopian origin into the programs,” she continued. “But our fear is that our children will continue to be sent to them automatically – and then be joined by the weakest students in the class. It’s very hard to fight such early pigeonholing.”
The Education Ministry said the claims set out in the new document are simply untrue, and insists that it attaches “supreme importance to advancing and strengthening students from the Ethiopian community, and has invested considerable resources to this end. But the ministry has no separate programs for students of Ethiopian origin per se.”