Our True Face / Black Isn't in Fashion

Albeit full of good intentions, Israel made every possible mistake when it came to integrating the Ethiopians of Operation Solomon.

It wasn't long ago that bold and proud newspaper headlines marked the 20th anniversary of Operation Solomon, the second major drive to bring Ethiopia's Jews to Israel. Drawing comparisons to the exodus from Egypt, some 15,000 Africans dressed in white descended from Israel Defense Forces planes, filling Israeli hearts with pride. But since then, the now-100,000 strong community doesn't appear to have many reasons to be proud.

Albeit full of good intentions, Israel made every possible mistake when it came to integrating the Ethiopians. True, they weren't placed in transit camps or sprayed with DDT; but dumping villagers in urban neighborhoods with no regard for how they'd earn a living, and all the while trampling the honor of their community leaders, quickly turned them into society's weakest group - weaker even than Israeli Arabs. The very bottom.

Yes, there are some success stories, including MKs, a senior Israel Broadcasting Authority manager, lawyers, one prominent journalist and academics such as Asher Elias, who launched a technology college; but these are the exceptions to the rule, and the rule looks entirely different.

Ethiopian immigrant families, crushed by bureaucracy, helpless and entirely dependent on the state, aren't creating a basis for success for the next generation. They're struggling with the language, they're not integrating into the school system, and they're watching their parents fade away and lose basic authority. And how can a child from a religious household who is constantly being told that he's not religious enough, that he can't play or learn with children whose skin color is different, gain the self assurance required to succeed? It's easier just to drop out, particularly when no one is watching out for you.

Military service is a springboard, but most Ethiopian girls don't serve because they're religious; and as children from poor families, they become cleaners or supermarket clerks - and the cycle starts anew.

One may say that this is the fate of every wave of immigration. And it's true, but this wave has one thing you can't ignore - a particular skin color.

A young Ethiopian woman recently told me a familiar story: "I called a clothing store about a job, and everything sounded fine by phone, so I showed up," she related. "One glance from the store's owner, however, and I knew I didn't have a chance."

There are a thousand variations of this story. Here, in one of the world's most heterogeneous societies, black has never been in fashion.

Israeli racism is blatant and ugly, but members of the Ethiopian community don't always help themselves. Ethiopian culture rejects arrogance and pride. Young community members will never praise themselves, and they'd have trouble passing various headhunter tests. Due to their background, they'll also do less well on standardized tests like the psychometry, and if they don't receive appropriate guidance, they'll keep on following the behavioral patterns they learned at home - such as going to every community funeral, even at the expense of work hours.

Wise employers will figure out how to give them appropriate acceptance tests, will encourage them to speak their minds, and will be patient with them at first. This isn't a moral issue, but rather a financial one - with a bit of help, a company can benefit from workers of different backgrounds who bring along different ways of thinking.

Israel's economic bon ton has declared that the country's growth engine are the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors, and tends to ignore entirely people with disabilities, as well as the small Ethiopian community, which has turned into a social time bomb. But this isn't fate. Awareness and enlightened employers can reverse this.