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Ethiopians in Israel

A special report on unique struggles that require our help now!

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Posted on: 
11 Sep 2019
 Ethiopians in Israel

Over this summer, frustration reached a boiling point in Israel’s struggling Ethiopian Jewish community following the death of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah, caused by an off-duty police officer attempting to break up a street fight. Protests over his death gained national attention as thousands of Ethiopians blocked main roads, producing six-hour traffic jams that completely disrupted daily life in Israel.

Although the Ethiopians’ grief and justifiable anger aroused much public sympathy on the one hand, the inconvenience of the traffic snarls also eroded some of that goodwill. These distressing events have underlined the urgent need to address the unique needs of the Ethiopian immigrant community to better integrate into Israeli society.

A timely study of a prolonged problem
Through the generosity of Christian supporters worldwide, the ICEJ has brought some 150,000 Jewish people home to Israel since 1980, including 1,920 Ethiopian Jews who have arrived under our sponsorship in the past three years. But there is also an absorption phase for newcomers to Israel that can often pose an array of problems, and none have faced more than the Ethiopian immigrants.

As Director of ICEJ Aid for the past two decades, I have been privileged to serve as a conduit of Christian compassion to meet Israel’s pressing social needs. In an effort to improve our outreach efforts to new Jewish immigrants in Israel, I recently began pursuing a Masters degree at Northwest University in International Community Development and wrote my thesis on Ethiopian Immigrant Integration Strategies Within Israel’s Modern-Day Restoration. I wanted to better understand the unique challenges which Ethiopian Jews face here and how they view their integration, as well as gain insight to more effectively direct our future aid efforts.

As it turns out, this research could not have been more timely, as I completed my Masters just as the Ethiopian street protests brought Israeli traffic to a halt this summer!

I had already made many connections over the years that enabled me to carry out a qualitative research study involving interviews with Ethiopian communal leaders - social and community workers, educators and students, absorption center officials and activists - who arrived in Israel during the emergency airlifts of Operations Moses (early 1980s) and Solomon (early 1990s). Unfortunately, nearly forty years after those first major waves of Ethiopian Jewish aliyah to Israel, they still lag behind economically and have yet to fully integrate into Israeli society.

This reality is contrasted by the recent joyful arrival of 620 new Ethiopian immigrants on flights sponsored by the ICEJ. They could come because of a 2015 Israeli cabinet decision to bring the remaining 9,000 Jews in Ethiopia to Israel. However, implementation of this decision remains sporadic due to shifting government guidelines and approvals.

In June, Israel’s Ministry of Interior completed reviewing all Ethiopian immigrant applicants according to current government directives. From their perspective, the Ethiopian aliyah can now be closed unless a new government broadens the eligibility requirements. The Ethiopian community will find this especially disheartening, as it would leave thousands stranded in transit camps in Addis Ababa and Gondar, and many families separated.

The roots of unrooted-ness
While that issue gets resolved and in view of the recent protests, we sense a strong leading to focus more efforts on helping Ethiopian Jewry find their place in Israeli society, as it continues to present significant challenges. Though initially welcomed with open arms, the earlier Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Israel from a patriarchal and agrarian society where the majority were illiterate. Their adjustment to Israel’s modern, hi-tech, egalitarian society came as a shock for which they were ill-prepared.

One recent study noted that “in 2011, 39% of Ethiopian-Israeli families lived in poverty, compared with 14% of all Jewish families”. They also suffer from low educational levels, with an average of 4.6 years of education, according to a recent Jewish Agency report. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage in Israel, where 49.9% of the population has completed some form of post-secondary education. In practical terms, less education means most end up in unskilled occupations.

In an effort to improve their situation, the Israeli government began providing Ethiopian immigrant families with extra funds to help pay for schooling and homes. But the grants unintentionally resulted in segregated Ethiopian neighbourhoods, as extended families preferred living near one another and most families could only afford low-income apartments.

Enormous cultural gaps have caused confusion as well. Takele Mekonen, an educator who arrived in Operation Moses in the early 1980s, explained that somewhere in the few hours between take-off and landing, “[our] social structure, that is from the top of the pyramid – the kesim [spiritual leaders], to the foundation of the family, completely melted and didn’t exist anymore. … From the moment of aliyah, it vanished.”

The community elders lost spiritual authority as the younger generation, eager to become Israeli, devalued their own traditions in favour of new Israeli practices. Time-honoured customs clashed with Israel’s more Western ways. Ethiopians also discovered their Jewish identity was not accepted by all Israelis, despite a favourable chief rabbinate ruling in the 1970s. In addition, the cohesion of larger extended families began to break down, as young couples dispersed into new neighbourhoods and the community’s intergenerational support system, so foundational to Ethiopian society, was lost. Each of these challenges profoundly affected their integration process.

Gender roles within families also changed overnight, leaving many bewildered. According to Avraham Abouya, an educator who arrived in Operation Solomon, ninety-five percent of Ethiopian immigrants came from rural villages where traditional gender roles were more pronounced.

“In Ethiopia, the husband is the one who decides. Even when they walk outside to do the shopping or to go to an event, the man walks ahead, and the woman walks behind”, he noted. “The men earn more, are more important and control the money.” But in Israel, the women have been quicker at learning Hebrew and more easily found work outside the home as cleaners and caregivers. This shift left many men disoriented and even humiliated, as their wives were now providers and wanted a say in decision-making.

These adjustments inevitably cause tension, family conflicts, and parenting difficulties. The resulting figures on single parenting are daunting. In 2018, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that “among Ethiopian Israeli families some 26% are single-parent families, more than double the rate of the rest of the... population (12%).” Unfortunately, these stresses combined with the slower acculturation process for Ethiopian men has translated into high rates of intimate partner homicide “more than sixteen times the rate in the general population.”

All these challenges have caused the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel to lose its balance. As one Ethiopian social worker told me: “A person has to feel that he is worthy. This is what is missing in the Ethiopian community. Since the... community collapsed, people lack confidence... and are looking for ways to cope.”

Finding acceptance
Indeed, many Ethiopian youth feel unwanted at home and unaccepted as Israelis. This discouragement has led many into drinking, drugs and delinquent behaviour. Israeli media reports focusing on poverty, juvenile delinquency and violence in the family have fed negative societal views of Ethiopians without enough reporting on their positive contributions and potential to balance the picture.

This painful reality periodically comes to the fore in Israeli public discourse, such as when Israeli authorities decided in the late 1990s to throw out blood donations by Ethiopian immigrants due to fears of AIDS contamination, the refusal of some schools to accept Ethiopian students, or the Barkan winery’s 2018 decision (later reversed due to public outcry) to ban Ethiopian employees from some stages of the wine-making process when inspectors for a stricter kashrut license questioned their Jewishness. Events such as these, along with the recurring police profiling and brutality, cause deep resentment in a community which feels denied full acceptance and too often bears the brunt of discrimination and cultural misunderstandings.

The cultural and language gaps, the residential segregation, and other factors have meant that many Ethiopian Jews were not positioned to connect well with the broader Israeli society. Takele Mekonen, contemplating what is yet required, concluded: “The process of education is a very long process. It means to create a new reality.” The desert or first-generation immigrant does not know what this new reality should look like, he added. It takes time to adjust and develop accepted new role models who can lead the way forward.

A call to planting
The ICEJ’s aliyah work enables the rebuilding of a nation by returning Israel’s sons to their borders, whereas our integration efforts address the challenges of melding diverse cultures, customs, and languages into one cohesive society. We also are seeking to prevent disenfranchised or disadvantaged groups from developing on the periphery of society. This has happened for far too long within the Ethiopian Jewish community. With your support, ICEJ Aid is committed to working with Ethiopian immigrants and Israeli community leaders to promote projects that bridge the cultural differences and assist these new arrivals to develop their full potential.

In these efforts, we are partners with the God of Israel who passionately proclaims: “I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will assuredly plant them in this land, with all My heart and with all My soul” (Jeremiah 32:41). Being planted in the land means successful integration and God lets us know it is one of His top priorities.


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