In Israel, distress signals from Ethiopians

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Alimu Ishete was trying to bridge the divide between Ethiopian Jews and their adopted country.

During a recent talk in this Tel Aviv suburb, he brought out a traditional white robe, worn in Ethiopian villages on Jewish holidays, and picked away at the krar, an Ethiopian guitar.

His audience of Israeli educators listened closely. After two decades, it seemed it was the first time they were really hearing about Ethiopian Jews.

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The gap between black and white Israelis seems, with some exceptions, to be growing. For Ethiopians, it is visible in impoverished neighborhoods, soaring unemployment, and the highest high-school dropout rate of any Jewish group in Israel.

Twenty-six percent of Ethiopian youths have either dropped out or do not show up for classes most of the time, raising concerns that the community's current difficulties may become chronic. Drug use, including glue-sniffing, is on the rise, and criminal activity, hardly known among Ethiopians before they came to Israel, has been growing.

Ethiopian Jews, who number just over 1 percent of the more than 6 million Israelis, arrived mostly in two waves: during the early 1980s and then in a dramatic US-backed airlift a decade ago. Most started almost from scratch in education and job skills. There were also cultural differences. "In Ethiopia, children look down when their teacher talks," Mr. Ishete says, in contrast to native Israeli children, who look their teachers right in the eye.

For the Ethiopians, 95 percent of whom were subsistence farmers, the leap to 21st-century, first-world Israel was so enormous as to be hard to grasp, he adds.

But not everyone is sympathetic. Israeli mayors unabashedly urge the government to keep Ethiopian immigrants away from their cities.

During a break in Ishete's talk, Masha Aroshes, Rishon LeZion municipality official, says that more Ethiopian families due to arrive here are not welcome.

"They are going to a neighborhood which the mayor has been trying very hard to improve," she says. "It is just starting to flower. Adding another 35 Ethiopian families is not right. It impacts on the education level. In order for the Ethiopians to be properly absorbed, they should not go there."

That kind of talk is adding to alienation among Ethiopians, according to Asher Elias, a staff member at the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ).

"Ethiopians have lots of motivation to become Israelis, but they are not accepted," he says. "In jobs, in education, people feel they are discriminated against because they are black. I'm not saying it is right or wrong, but it is what we are feeling, and that is enough."

A low point in the relationship between Ethiopian Jews and Israelis came in 1996, when it was revealed that Israeli hospitals had thrown out all blood donated by Ethiopians. "These were donations to help other Israelis," Mr. Elias says. "[Ethiopians] said to each other: 'What do they think? That we are not humans?' "

Habad, one of Israel's stronger orthodox religious groups, doesn't recognize Ethiopians as Jews or allow their children into its kindergartens.

The government has taken some affirmative-action steps, offering mortgages on better terms than to other groups so Ethiopians can become property owners. It also pays fully for the university education of Ethiopians.

Elias says that a strong affinity of Ethiopian youths for rap and reggae music shows that many are looking for non-Israeli cultural identities. In the music of reggae singer Bob Marley, "Ethiopia is the top of the world, Haile Salasse and the flag of Ethiopia are the main thing," he says. "So who are these kids going to listen to, Israeli bands or Bob Marley?"

Israelis are developing a negative image of Ethiopians, warns Yair Tsaban, who was immigration minister during the second immigration wave. "The absorption of the Ethiopians could be a source of pride for the country," he says. "But if the Ethiopian immigrants are associated with crime and violence in the minds of other Israelis, there can be alienation. People could ask 'Why have they been brought here?' "

Officials at the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that helps the immigrants, stress the positive: There are 1,500 Ethiopians in universities or colleges, compared with just 100 five years ago. And things are looking up – the agency, government ministries, and Jewish communities abroad plan to come together for a $600 million nine-year program of job training and improving education for Ethiopian immigrants.

Perhaps the strongest ray of light is the IAEJ itself, founded in 1993 as an independent advocacy group. It works with hundreds of young activists from all over Israel and, funded mostly by American Jews, lobbies Israeli politicians. Members of the organization say it has enabled thousands of students to study in academic rather than vocational programs. It has also been instrumental in a rise in the number of Ethiopians who pass their high school matriculation exams.

One IAEJ program tackled truancy by forging contacts between Ethiopian dropouts and "big brothers and sisters." The program was adopted and expanded by the Education Ministry as a way of reaching all children at risk, and now has 15 offices across Israel.

"We don't have a lot to give in terms of valuables and possessions," Elias says of the Ethiopian community. "But when we fight for something, it can also help the other groups that have been left behind."

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