Appointment of Ethiopian Envoy Doesn't Represent Community's Standing

20% of Israeli-Ethiopians graduate high school with the necessary credential to go on to university, and nearly 70% percent live under the poverty line.

The Foreign Ministry's appointment of the first Israeli-Ethiopian ambassador has been heralded by Avigdor Lieberman as "a message of fighting discrimination," but it is little more than window-dressing.

Belaynesh Zevadia's appointment as the new ambassador to Ethiopia is appropriate and worthy. At 43, she is relatively young to head one of Israel's major embassies in Africa. Her career up to now includes stints as a deputy-consul in Chicago and vice-consul in Houston, but having a native Amharic-speaking ambassador in Addis-Ababa is certainly an advantage. Israel's ambassadors in Washington, London and Moscow are all veteran immigrants who have returned to represent Zion in their countries of birth.

Foreign Ministry building (Olivier Fitoussi)
Olivier Fitoussi

However, Zevadia's suitability for the diplomatic post hardly warrants Foreign Minister Lieberman's announcement that "especially now, when Israeli society is battling racism against the Ethiopian community, this appointment has a special importance. It broadcasts a message of fighting discrimination." Only last month, another appointment of Lieberman, Yisrael Beiteinu's Immigration Abosorption Minister Sofa Landver scolded Israeli-Ethiopian activists, campaigning against discrimination - "Say thank you for what you got. As a new immigrant, I also said ‘thank you’ to the state of Israel."

In the wake of Operation Moses in 1985, in which Israel brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the late William Safire memorably said that “for the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought to a country not in chains but in dignity, not as slaves but as citizens.” Landver and Lieberman seem to think that this and a few token appointments are enough.

There is no lack of poster children for the Ethiopian immigration. There is an Ethiopian Knesset member, in the IDF's ranks serves an Ethiopian colonel, and there are a handful of Ethiopian doctors, lawyers, diplomats, academics and fashion-models. They are routinely trotted out as examples of Israel's enlightenedness. But the problem of the Ethiopian community is not institutional discrimination – suitable candidates are not being blocked due to the color of their skin. Even the latent racism of some Israelis who refuse to rent apartments to Israeli-Ethiopians is not the main problem. The main problem is that 27 years since the mass immigration from Ethiopia began, the government has yet to seriously address the problems of the most under-privileged section of Israeli society.

Zevadia is hardly representative of her community. The daughter of a senior Kess (rabbi), she immigrated at the age of 16 on a Jewish Agency scholarship, studied at Hebrew University and was the first Israeli-Ethiopian to graduate from the Foreign Ministry's cadet course. Meanwhile only 20% of Israeli-Ethiopians graduate high school with the necessary credential to go on to university, their rate of unemployment is three times as high as the national average and nearly 70% percent live under the poverty line. And for that they are expected to say thank you.