Ethiopian-Israelis Still Struggling to Find Their Place in the Business World

Among 5000 members of boards of directors in the country, there is not a single Ethiopian; Immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel first started in the 70s.

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In the rush to fill 400 positions on boards of directors at government companies, Ethiopian Israelis want to be considered too. They expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to keep his promise to set up a program to further employment opportunities for their community, which is among the poorest in the country.

Amir Sabhat, 34, accountant and auditor at Ernst & Young, immigrated to Israel at age 5 through Operation Moses after spending 9 months in a refugee camp in Sudan. He served in an elite unit in the military, earned a BA in accounting and an MBA in financial management from Tel Aviv University. But Sabhat, who integrated quite rapidly both socially and professionally, isn't a typical example of the Ethiopian community’s fate. At Ernst & Young only two out of 1,900 employees are from Ethiopia.

“I’ve just finished a management course but I didn’t submit my application," says Sabhat about a board position. “I’m not sure if this stems from apprehension or from a feeling that I’ve hit a glass ceiling. This could very well be the case, since when I examine the lists of the people on governing boards in the public and private sectors I don't see a single Ethiopian. There may be a few observers or invited guests but no full-fledged members."

As Sabhat has noticed, while there are Ethiopians in managerial positions in larger corporations, there are none among the 5,000 serving on boards of 180 government companies or 604 public companies in Israel.

“Israeli boards of directors operate on the basis of friends bringing friends, just like in the high-tech world, with no room left for the unconnected," says Sabhat. “This is also true for senior management, which operates as a clique within a closed loop that wards off penetration by outsiders."

Sabhat claims that barriers are still high in the private sector, and that the advancement of Ethiopian-Israelis to high positions is not a priority.

“Ethiopians carry a stigma among senior managers, and are perceived as suitable only for low level jobs," Sabhat says. "These stigmas stem from ignorance, not from malice. Jews from Ethiopia are always portrayed in the media in the context of murder, suicide and crime, and this creates a prejudiced view of the community. In the education system there are instances of segregation of Ethiopians from other pupils.  Some classes contain only children who came from Ethiopia, with poor support systems. This creates a problematic ghetto."

Sabhat points to the United States and Western European countries as models of employment diversity and board representation.

“We lag far behind in these matters in Israel," he says. "Here we need to legislate to ensure diversification, and even then laws are not always implemented.  Of course, we share some of the responsibility. We have to stop blaming others. We must do everything possible to succeed, and only then look for others to blame. Don’t rush to look for racism as an excuse for personal failings."

Software engineer Asher Elias, 42, was born in Israel to Ethiopian parents. Ten years ago he established Tech Careers, a college designed as a high-tech training center, located in Kibbutz Nachshon. Most of the pupils are from the Ethiopian community.  He believes that as long as Ethiopian Israelis are dependent on government funding and non-profit organizations, their conditions will not improve.

“We need internal strength in our community to overcome this dependence," he says. “There is no reason that, out of 135,000 Ethiopians in Israel, only 300-350 are employed in high tech, even if this is a great improvement over 4 employees in 2002. High-tech is not the only solution. Ethiopians should be incorporated into every profession, such as civil service, banks, insurance companies and investment houses, credit and communications companies."

Challenges in the workforce stem from challenges in education. According to the non-profit organization “Olim Beyahad” which assists Ethiopian Israelis in finding employment commensurate with their training, only 17 percent of educated individuals find employment in their fields. Others have to make do with simpler jobs, such as technicians, manufacturing jobs, guards and cashiers.

Elias says that as soon as one unit employs a successful Ethiopian, the whole organization opens up. “I received a call from credit company Isracard three years ago, telling me of an Ethiopian employee who had received an award for distinguished service. I asked why they only had one Ethiopian out of 400 employees and they promised to improve things. They now have 10."

Currently, community activists are looking at the 400 unfilled openings on boards of directors in government companies. “Appointments were on hold during the elections," says Elias. “We’re not looking for favors or political appointments, only for jobs based on qualifications."

The Finance Ministry confirmed that of the 1000 positions, 400 are indeed unfilled, adding, "We do not distinguish between communities, since this is not one of the questions on the questionnaires filled by applicants for board positions."

Asher Elias established Tech Careers 10 years ago, a college designed as a high-tech training center. Most of his students are Ethiopian Israelis.Credit: Limor Edri

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