Struggles of Israel's Ethiopian Jews

Thousands fled Ethiopia and, they thought, discrimination, but their new home has given them a mixed reception

Six years ago, 15-year-old Yohanes Sinkaye walked off a plane from Addis Ababa into the bright sunlight of Israel among several thousand other Ethiopian Jews. He had with him only his family and the clothes on his back.

Today, Mr. Sinkaye treasures above all else his CD collection, a mish-mash of reggae great Bob Marley, gangsta rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, and the American all-girl R&B trio TLC. He's decked out in the latest hip-hop couture, from his tunic-style poncho to his Nike shoes and backward-facing baseball cap. And he is finally coming to terms with the massive changes he has experienced.

"I like living in Israel because it is easy being Jewish here," he says. But he wishes people "would start to judge me for what's in my head, not the color of my skin."

Most Ethiopian Jews would agree with both sentiments. In 1991, the Israeli government evacuated the last of the Jewish community from Ethiopia - more than 14,000 people - in a whirlwind weekend that came to be known as Operation Solomon. But six years later, the thrill of their rescue from persecution and anti-Semitism has worn off.

In its place is the daily struggle of integration. Israel's Ethiopian Jews have traveled a long road from the hills of Africa to an all-white, very Westernized society.

Most members of the community live in segregated, dirt-poor towns. Unemployment runs well above the average. Families have confronted a breakdown in traditional patterns as women and children experience newfound independence. Perhaps most fundamental, the Ethiopians - who now number 60,000 - have had to face challenges to their Jewishness in a land where they least expected it.

There are bright spots in the Ethiopian absorption. Several hundred Ethiopians are enrolled in colleges and another 400 high school students are in pre-university enrichment programs. Dozens of Ethiopian officers serve in the Israeli military services, and several people are in PhD programs.

Despite such progress, the challenge of integration has vexed members of the Ethiopian community and the Israeli government.

"How do you move an entire community from the hills of Ethiopia to the streets of a modern, post-industrial society like Israel in one weekend without any problems?" asks Will Recant, an executive with the Joint Distribution Committee in New York who has worked with the Ethiopian Jews since 1980.

Relations hit a boiling point last January over publicity about a secret government health policy. All blood donated by Ethiopians, it turned out, was summarily thrown away by the government because of a fear of AIDS. Despite the fact that AIDS is not much more prevalent among Ethiopians than it is among other Israelis, the government followed this practice simply because the donors were from Africa.

More than 15,000 Ethiopians gathered on Jan. 28 in Jerusalem to protest the blood scandal. The protest quickly spun out of control and turned into a full-fledged riot outside of then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres's home. Israelis turned on their television sets that night to watch scenes similar to the recently concluded intifadah, except it was Ethiopian Jews battling with police in the streets of Jerusalem.

A horrified nation took stock of what was wrong. The government ordered an official probe. The prime minister met with protest organizers. It was the opening salvo in a larger battle for general civil rights and respect, Mr. Recant says.

"I watched it on the news, but I figured nothing would come of it," says Sinkaye. Since then, the only noticeable policy shift of the government, apart from ending the blood policy, was that the Peres government nominated one of the organizers to be a member of the Knesset, the national assembly.

One area that the government points to proudly is its successful housing program. Most Ethiopians had been living in mobile-home parks set up after Operation Solomon. After a few years, the government gave virtually free mortgages of about $100,000 each to almost all the families. Today, the only remaining mobile-home park is in Neve Carmel, outside of Haifa. Most of its residents will leave as soon as they can find apartments.

But most Ethiopians bought apartments in the poorest neighborhoods of some of the country's poorest towns, often paying too much after having been taken advantage of by unscrupulous real-estate agents.

"The government should have given them counseling. They should have struck deals with contractors. What they did instead was just hand them the money," says Michah Odenheimer, a director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, an advocacy group in Jerusalem.

The consequences can be seen in Rehovot, a town of 100,000 just south of Tel Aviv. The town itself is home to the Weizman Institute of Science and a branch of Hebrew University, but the Ethiopians who have moved here all live in the poor neighborhoods of Kiryat Moshe, Oshyiot, and Shaarayim.

A short bus ride takes one from the campus of the Weizman Institute, through a middle-class neighborhood, and then suddenly into Kiryat Moshe, which appears to be primarily Ethiopian. Children dressed in diapers play amid rotting mattresses and steel scraps in abandoned lots. Few white people are to be seen, although only a few blocks away, the neighborhood becomes almost entirely white.

It is an example of a benign but ill-advised government policy hurting those it was trying to help, Recant says. "I don't think anyone wanted the Ethiopians to become segregated. But not enough was done to stop it from happening."

The government counters that it has spent more per person on housing programs for Ethiopians than on any immigrant group in the past. "It was hard enough to convince the people to take the money," says Gebbeye Adamek, an Ethiopian who came to Israel during Operation Solomon and now works on Ethiopian affairs for the Ministry of Absorption. "When they started buying houses in the same neighborhoods as their friends and families, we tried to convince them to mix with the rest of Israeli society. But they wanted to be with their families."

A search for better schools

Despite poor housing conditions, however, schooling is perhaps of even greater concern to many Ethiopians.

The initial wave of immigrants that came in 1984 had a high proportion of orphaned or separated children. As a result, many of them were placed in government boarding schools.

These schools, or pnimiyot in Hebrew, were designed to educate the orphans of the Holocaust. Later, they were essentially transformed into reformatories, where troubled Israeli youth could study away from their troubled neighborhoods.

With the appearance of a flood of Ethiopian orphans after Operation Moses in 1984 (see story, left), their original purpose came back into being. But after Operation Solomon, many Ethiopian children from intact families were placed in the pnimiyot, which still had large populations of juvenile delinquents and offered only vocational classes.

In this situation, "the kids already sense what they're being slated for in society, and therefore they are alienated enough to not want to contribute, so there's been a lessening of motivation," Mr. Odenheimer says. "It is forcing people into a cycle of poverty that it is going to be hard to pull them out of."

Ethiopians don't find themselves segregated just into the pnimiyot. Some schools run by the Ministry of Religion have become overwhelmingly Ethiopian. There are even prekindergarten nursery schools that have suddenly found themselves 95 percent Ethiopian as white parents transfer their children.

Such de facto segregation drew the glare of the national press, especially after the blood demonstrations. The Israeli education ministry drew up a report and a plan of action. About 10 percent of the plan has been enacted, according to Odenheimer.

For instance, the plan called for an immediate rule that no school in the country would have a population that was more than 25 percent Ethiopian. Then-Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein even singled out several specific nursery schools that he ordered to be desegregated. The schools are still primarily made up of Ethiopian students.

According to Mr. Adamek, part of the problem lies in the choices Ethiopians make. "Ethiopians want to go to religious schools and there aren't that many, so there are often too many Ethiopians per class," he says. He points to two school districts, Kiryat Malachi and Kiryat Ekron, where the percentage of Ethiopian students has been brought below the government-mandated threshold.

Whether racism is to blame for the Ethiopians' problems is a controversial subject. Most adults still feel grateful for the money and effort that Israeli society expended to rescue them from Ethiopia.

"It is not racism, it's politics," says Yitzhak Zegayah, who was among the first group of Ethiopians to be ordained as Orthodox rabbis. But a sense of victimhood has crept into the Ethiopian youth, especially the males.

"Yes, there is racism in Israel. I have no problem being black and Jewish. Why can't they accept me?" asks Mickey Gananew, a sixteen-year-old from one of the poorest neighborhoods of Rehovot called Kiryat Moshe. "That is why we're all in this neighborhood. That is why we we're all placed in pnimiyot."

More than a few Israelis find it hard to accept the Ethiopians as legitimate members of Israeli society. "We know they suffered a lot to get here, but sometimes I look at them and think to myself, they can't really be Jews, they are black," says one white Israeli, a college professor.

Odenheimer says prejudice based on Ethiopians' cultural background also plays a role. "If they were skilled, middle-class blacks coming from America, I don't think they would experience much racism or discrimination," he says.

"What is the cure for discrimination? Knowledge," says Mr. Zegayah, who spent nine years studying for his rabbinical certificate. "We as a group have to stop saying, 'Give me this, help me with that.' We have to start finding our own solutions to our problems."

Zegayah recently laid the cornerstone for a new Ethiopian synagogue in Rehovot, which he thinks will be one answer to the Ethiopian problems. "Look, Ethiopia is a long way away. Now we are in Israel," he says, drawing a map of concentric circles on a piece of paper. "Now we are in these neighborhoods. We are enrolled in these schools. But what is in the middle?"

He points to the innermost circle. "The family." He points to a circle orbiting far from the other circles. "Maybe our problems stem from Ethiopia. But the solutions lie in the family."

But even that institution is under pressure. Ethiopians' traditional society has fractured under the onslaught of a more modern Israeli society. And Ethiopian families have taken the brunt of the clash.

"Ethiopian women are supposed to bear children, cook, and clean the house," Odenheimer says. "That hasn't changed in Israel. But the men have lost their role as unquestioned leaders of the household. They don't have as much direction. Meanwhile, women have learned pretty quickly that they have greater liberty to do what they want to here, and the men can't stop them."

One of the results of this has been widespread domestic violence and a staggering increase in the divorce rate, something that barely ever happened in Ethiopia. "There has been a quick breakdown of Ethiopian society in Israel," Recant says.

The Army as equalizer

In past waves of immigration, such as when the Yemenite Jewish population was airlifted to Israel in 1948, the Israeli Army created unity and integration. That path hasn't been as successful for the Ethiopians.

Because of high unemployment rates, they often join units that hold the promise of a permanent job after the mandatory-service period. These units, such as the border police, offer little in terms of integration into society at large.

"Even those that enter the regular Army have not found it to be a great equalizer. This idea that the Army is going to pass a magic wand over people and make them able to succeed in Israeli society is just not connected to reality," Odenheimer says. "Does it give people the skills afterward to live a successful life in Israel? No. Not in any way shape or form. And it shouldn't be expected of the Army."

But many who work with Ethiopian absorption are optimistic. "Give them a generation and they will feel like full-fledged Israelis," says Kobi Sharon, executive director of Rehovot community centers.

Adamek, of the Ministry of Absorption, concurs. "Ethiopians feel strongly that we are better off living in Israel because of the religious freedom," he says. "Our difference with native-born Israelis is only education. Give us 10 or 15 years and we will fix our problems."

But not all Ethiopians are so confident. Sinkaye, for instance, does not expect to ever be fully accepted in his new country. "Some of them are still asking if I am really Jewish, and I am supposed to feel comfortable here?"

The claim by some Israelis that the Ethiopians are not really Jewish often hurts more than anything else. Claims that they are just a sect of Ethiopian Christians or that they assumed a Jewish identity just to be able to emigrate to Israel are rampant among a wide variety of Israelis.

As a result, some Ethiopians are feeling increasingly alienated in the Jewish homeland. That is the case with Avi Yakov, a student at one of the pnimiyot. Avi wears his hair stylishly straightened and sports a gangsta-style black trench coat.

"I am tired of all the discrimination here because I am black," he says. His solution? "I want to move to America, where there is no racism."


*Operation Moses, the first airlift, began in 1984, as the Israeli government rescued more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews out of refugee camps in Sudan.

*In May 1991, during a civil war within Ethiopia, Operation Solomon airlifted more than 14,000 additional Ethiopian Jews out of Addis Ababa.

*Today there are approximately 60,000 Ethiopian-Israelis, clustered mostly in poorer towns such as Kiryat Malachi, Beersheba, Ramla, and Arad.

*Unemployment among Ethiopians is at about 50 percent, and most that do work, are employed in low-skilled jobs. Among men over 40 and married women, there is close to full unemployment.

*In January 1996, riots erupted in Jerusalem when Ethiopians gathered to protest the government decision to arbitrarily discard blood donated by Ethiopians because of a fear of AIDS.

*1,500 Ethiopians are currently serving in the Army, 96 percent of eligible men, compared with 85 percent of eligible men among the rest of Israeli society.

*Today, 95 percent of Ethiopians live in permanent housing. Just two years ago, that figure was less than 30 percent.

*33 percent of Ethiopian children have been placed in special education programs, a rate nine times higher than that of their white Israeli peers. This is despite studies that show there are no higher rates of learning disabilities or emotional problems among Ethiopians.

Source: Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews

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