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Why Jews see racism in Israel

Ethiopian immigrants say the refusal of schools to integrate their children is part of a pattern of discrimination that has diluted the idealism that drew them in the first place.

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Some 111,000 Ethiopian Jewish immigrants and their children live in Israel today – a tiny fraction of the country's 7.2 million residents. Most Ethiopians came during the 1990s and 1980s in covert immigration operations that were celebrated in Israel and in the Jewish Diaspora as realization of the state's raison d'etre of taking in at-risk Jewish populations.

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The public relations dividend was not ignored. Ethiopian faces were routinely splashed across Israeli brochures to play up the country's multiethnic character and damp accusations of racism.

But today, these communities are struggling socially and economically. About two-thirds of Ethiopian Jews receive support from state welfare agencies. And just over 10 percent recieve post-high school education compared to 40 percent of Israeli Jews, according to an Ethiopian advocacy group.

Explanations vary. Some point to the problems faced by the Ethiopian community in transitioning from an agrarian society back home to the technology dominated economy in Israel. Others see a pattern of ethnic discrimination reminiscent of earlier waves of Jewish immigration from Arab countries. Still others say hundreds of millions of dollars raised in the Jewish Diaspora to absorb the Ethiopians has been wasted in bureaucracy. But many say it comes down to skin color.

"We came here because we thought Israel was our country. We didn't expect this," said Demelash Belay, a 36-year-old English teacher who moved to Israel in 2006. "We heard in Ethiopia that Israel is a democratic country. We found discrimination. And because of it Ethiopians are suffering."

Since 2000, the Jewish state has accepted thousands of immigrants from the "Falash Mura," Ethiopian Christians who trace their ancestry to Jews. The Falash Mura, like some Ethiopians before them, have been pressed by the Israeli Rabbinate to undergo a lengthy process of conversion to confirm their Jewish authenticity.

Schools deny racist policies

The religious schools, which are partially funded by the municipality and the Education Ministry, have defiantly resisted efforts by the national government to intervene. Spokespersons for the schools and the municipality denied accusations of racism.

Tzachi Lieber, a spokesman for all three elementary schools, said they already have 30 Ethiopians enrolled and that the staff considers it an "honor" to have the immigrants enrolled there: "That proves it's not an issue of racism."

Still, Petach Tikvah municipal spokesperson Hezi Hakak conceded that there's de-facto segregation in the public school system. One school is nearly 100 percent Ethiopian. But some activists, such as Molla, remain patriotic and express optimism that Ethiopians will eventually take their place along side other immigrants in key decisionmaking roles in Israel.

But the official obstacle now facing Ethopian Jewish children was keenly felt by Daw Jambh, a young demonstrator who repeatedly confronted policeman Monday. "I just got out of the [Israeli] army, and I feel disgraced," she said. "I feel like getting out of here."

Community activists complain that Petach Tikvah is not the only municipality where Ethiopian students find themselves in segregated schools. And discrimination is not limited to the school system. A recent survey by Israel's Yediot Ahronot found that Ethiopian candidates were less likely to get invited for a job interview than other Jewish ethnicities.

"There are people who are ignorant. They lack knowledge. They know about us from a colonial aspect," says Daniel Admasso, director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. "They think that blacks are pitiful, and they live somewhere else.... The white Jewish culture has lots of stereotypes, and they have trouble with people who are different."