Ethiopians in Israel: An Employment and Educational Success

While the Ethiopian community has a long way to go before they can close gaps, the direction is definitely the right one.

Tomer Appelbaum

Thousands of Ethiopian Israelis have been demonstrating in recent months to protest their difficult situation. The figures show that Israelis of Ethiopian origin are indeed in difficult straits: The income of an Ethiopian household is 35 percent lower than that of an average household in Israel, only 5 percent hold quality jobs as opposed to 33 percent of Jewish Israelis in general, and half of Ethiopian-Israeli women and 17 percent of the men work in cleaning and kitchen jobs.

These figures stem from the great gap in education in the Ethiopian community. Only 20 percent have university education as opposed to 40 percent of the general population, mainly because only 53 percent of Ethiopian Israelis earn a matriculation certificate (compared with 73 percent of the population in general). What is more, the quality of matriculation certificates awarded to Ethiopian Israeli students is lower than that of others; only three Ethiopian high-school students sat last year for the five-unit matriculation exam in mathematics.

It is easy to understand the communitys protests against the backdrop of these figures. However, there seems to be a misunderstanding. In fact, it may be that the outbreak of protest shows the exact opposite – it is testimony that the Ethiopian community is growing stronger and has reached such a level of strength that it can loudly demand its rights.

That is, the figures should tell the story that the absorption of Ethiopian Jews in Israel has been a success in terms of education and employment. A recently published study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel focused on comparing the situation of Ethiopian Jews to that of the Jewish population in general in Israel and to the Arab population.

According to the Taub Center studys figures, Ethiopian Israelis lag behind non-Ethiopian Israelis in most areas. But the study did not make do with just a general overview of the Ethiopian community. They also looked deeper within the community, comparing gaps between adults (those born in Ethiopia and who came to Israel at a relatively advanced age) and the second generation (born in Israel or who came at a young age and were educated mainly in Israel).

Here is where the picture of success emerges: A huge gap was seen between the first and second generations, a gap so great that it shows successful integration of the second generation in Israel.

For example, 90 percent of the younger generation has a high-school education, almost the same percentage as the Jewish population in general (93 percent) and three times the percentage of first-generation Ethiopians in Israel (36 percent). The rate of matriculation is only 53 percent, but that is almost four times the figure for the first generation (16 percent). The 20 percent of second-generation Ethiopian Israelis with higher education is almost four times the rate of their parents generation (5.7 percent).

Employment among Ethiopian Israelis – and here the figures apply to both generations because the second generation has only recently entered the Israeli workplace – jumped from 50 to 72 percent in 12 years. The most impressive leap is for women, from 35 percent to 65 percent in one decade. The percentage of Ethiopian Israelis working in janitorial services, by the way, has already fallen to only 5 percent.

Nevertheless, young Ethiopians still lag behind in the quality of their employment; only 19 percent hold jobs considered high-quality (the figure is 9 percent for the first generation).

But when the Taub Center checked the kind of jobs Ethiopian Israelis with higher education obtain, it emerged that the gap has almost completely disappeared. Fifty five percent of Ethiopian university graduates are employed in high-quality positions, like the figure for the Jewish population in general. The salaries of Ethiopian university graduates are lower than the average, but that is because of their choice to study professions that are less lucrative, like teaching or nursing. This choice is connected to the fact that only a few in the community study for the five-unit matriculation exam in math.

The Education Ministry speaks cautiously of relative success in special programs for the Ethiopian community – in the past decade alone, Ethiopian students received dedicated funding of 35 million shekels ($9.2 million). This educational investment, together with funding earmarked by the state for Ethiopian absorption in the areas of welfare and employment, is apparently bearing fruit.

While the Ethiopian community has a long way to go before they can close gaps with the Jewish society in general, the figures show that the direction is definitely the right one.

And by the way, the unfortunate figure that comes up in almost all areas of the Taub study is that Ethiopian Israelis are already pulling ahead of Arab Israelis. This shows that Israels problem of discrimination and exclusion stems not only from racism toward Israelis of Ethiopian origin, but toward Arabs as well.