Cablegate: Ethiopian Jewry in Israel

Published: Fri 5 Mar 2004 08:06 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. Summary: Ethiopian Jews in Israel number
approximately 90,000. Fifty percent of them are
under the age of 25. Most can trace their families'
arrival in Israel to rescue missions such as Operation
Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991). The vast
majority live in impoverished communities where even
menial work is scarce, and the lack of educational
opportunities relegates most to low wage jobs. They
face huge obstacles in the areas of access to
employment, education, and housing. These difficulties
are, at least in part, the result of challenges that
they confront in moving from an essentially agrarian
society in Ethiopia to the modern, technologically
advanced Israeli economy. Sixty-five percent of
Israelis of Ethiopian origin are not working.
More than 80 percent are functionally illiterate in
their native Amharic. Last year, only about 1,250
Ethiopian students entered university at the completion
of high school and military service, according to
Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). While
there is a small middle class, it is negligible when
compared with the overall Israeli population. In
addition, Ethiopian Israelis are held back by the
widespread perception that they are not `real' Jews.
Stereotyping and discrimination also trouble them and
hinder their integration into Israeli society. The GOI
has taken some steps to address these issues. It
offers scholarships to Ethiopian students, promotes
vocational training, provides favorable mortgages to
Ethiopian homebuyers, and supports NGOs that foster
ethnic and religious tolerance. However, critics argue
that the GOI must do more or Ethiopian immigrants could
be locked into a cycle of despair and poverty that
will lead to the creation of a permanent black
underclass. End Summary
Educating Ethiopian-Israeli Children
2. Ethiopian immigrants to Israel struggle to bridge a
huge knowledge gap that directly impacts their
integration into Israeli society. They have one of the
highest dropout rates and lowest achievement records of
any community in Israel. Only 32 percent of Ethiopian
students were eligible to sit for college entrance
exams, compared with 50 percent of students in the
general population, according to the JDC Brookdale
Institute, a leading center for applied research on
human services. A recent survey by the Institute found
that more than 50 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli parents
are not equipped to assist their children with
schoolwork, and 65 percent of teachers have low
expectations of these students, creating an unfortunate
cycle of low expectations and poor performance.
Ethiopian-Israelis are concentrated in a small number
of communities, often learning at substandard schools.
Barbara Swirski, director of the Adva Center, a non-
partisan Israeli policy analysis center, explained that
less than one-third of Ethiopian students in elementary
and middle school receive grades at or above the
national average, and thirty-five percent of Ethiopian-
Israeli students in grades 1-9 cannot read or write at
grade level. UNESCO estimates that 90 percent of
adult Ethiopian immigrants had less than five years of
schooling in Ethiopia, before they immigrated to
Bridging the Education Gap
3. The GOI provides students from the Ethiopian
immigrant community special classes and extra hours of
instruction, counseling at critical transitional
junctures such as kindergarten-to-first grade and
junior high-to-high school. It also pays their
university tuition costs. Statistics from the CBS
indicate that 1500 Ethiopian Israelis are currently
pursuing university degrees, compared with less than
100 five years ago. The GOI has allocated
considerable resources to provide preschool education
for disadvantaged children, many of whom are of
Ethiopian origin.
Rescuing Disaffected Youth
4. Negist Menguesha, director of the Ethiopian National
Project (ENP), an umbrella NGO for the development of
Ethiopian-Israelis, says that as many as 26 percent of
Ethiopian-Israeli youth either drop out of school or do
not regularly attend classes. An increasing number of
these youth have become involved in illegal activities.
According to Simcha Getahune, the director of the
Ethiopian Affairs Unit of ELEM, an NGO that works with
youth at risk, in 1996, forty-seven Ethiopian youth
were arrested for violent crimes. By 2002, the number
had risen to 220. In 1996, there was one arrest for a
drug-related offense, but in 2002 the number had jumped
to 58. Similar increases were reported with regard to
property crimes during this period.
5. ELEM estimates that more than 3500 Ethiopian youth
are at-risk. To reclaim these youth, it established
partnerships with the GOI and other NGOs to return the
youth to the formal education structure, and, when that
is not an option, to prevent them from coming to harm
on the streets. Partnerships offer special academic
courses to reintroduce youth to the classroom,
leadership development training, and courses designed
to strengthen their connection with Israel and Judaism.
Other activities focus on building cooperation between
parents, teachers and communities to ensure that
children stay in school. Shula Mola, former director
of the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, insists,
"Second chance programs prove that when resources are
directed towards bridging educational and cultural
gaps, Ethiopian youngsters can make it. However,
Israel's budgetary constraints mean that the full
integration of disaffected Ethiopian youth will be
Ethiopian Israelis: Struggling for Acceptance
6. Jews of Ethiopian origin represent the lowest rung
of Israel's Jewish socioeconomic ladder. While many of
the difficulties that they face may be explained, at
least in part, by the challenges of immigration,
cultural differences, and the disparity in educational
levels, this alone does not fully explain the extent of
their marginalization, particularly in the case of the
30,000 Ethiopian-Israelis born in Israel.
Who's a Jew and Who's Not
7. Many Israelis question the Judaism of Ethiopian
Israelis (also known as Falash Mura), the majority of
whom converted to Christianity in Ethiopia, many under
coercion. There is a widespread perception that the
approximately 22,000 Falash Mura who claim Jewish
ancestry awaiting immigration to Israel do not have
Jewish roots and simply want to escape economic
hardship in Ethiopia. Indeed, the Habad, one of
Israel's most activist orthodox religious sects, does
not fully recognize Ethiopian Israelis as Jews. To
allay doubts about the Falash Mura's claims of Judaism,
the GOI investigates the Jewish ancestry of intended
immigrants and encourages them to undergo orthodox
conversion, says Batia Eyob, director of the Israel
Association of Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), an Ethiopian-
Israeli advocacy and service NGO. Until recently, it
also urged Ethiopian immigrants to enroll their
children in orthodox schools to strengthen their sense
of Judaism. Eighty percent of Ethiopian Israeli
children attend orthodox schools, according to
statistics provided by the Adva Center.
8. Although even the most critical Ethiopian activists
insist that the GOI does not sanction discrimination of
one class of Jew against another, many blame the GOI
for not doing enough to address what they see as de
facto discrimination against them. As one Ethiopian
Israeli contact put it, "The government wants the world
to believe that there is only one Jewish people... that
all of us are the same. Hence, it pretends that there
are no differences." This view is not universal.
Another contact stated, "Israel has done more for my
people than we could have hoped for." The difference
in perspective is largely generational, with younger
Ethiopians feeling less gratitude to the Jewish state
and more likely to demand their full integration into
society, says Avrahm Neguise, director of South Wing to
Zion, executive director of an advocacy NGO for the
Falash Mura.
Is Race a Factor?
9. Ethiopian Israelis almost unanimously believe that
racism and stereotypes play a significant role in their
troubled assimilation into Israeli society. Even some
veteran Israeli contacts admit that Israelis are
developing a negative image of Ethiopians. One stated,
"The absorption of Ethiopians could be a source of
pride for the country, but if they continue to be
associated with crime, violence...and other negative
traits in the minds of other Israelis, there will be
alienation." Ethiopian-Israelis say racism limits
their access to social services, jobs, and education.
In addition, well-educated Ethiopian Israelis charge
that others question their qualifications and assume
that they are less qualified. One Ethiopian academic
asked, "Do you know what its like to have some one
assume that you are illiterate just because you are
black?" Another stated, "We want acceptance, to feel
like all Israel's other Jews, and to be a full part of
this society, but we can't achieve this goal as long as
we are dismissed as ignorant and looked upon as proof
of Israel's charity." Other Ethiopian Israelis point to
the widespread use in the media of the word "Cushi," a
Hebrew word meaning "Ethiopian negro," that they find
offensive, to describe them as anecdotal evidence of
racial prejudice.
Politics: Not Enough Votes to Really Count
10. Ethiopian voters, estimated at 45,000, are not
enough to woo the major political parties sufficiently
to put their concerns squarely on the national agenda.
Israel's political list system in which voters vote for
party lists instead of individuals also works against
them. To date, only one Ethiopian Israeli has been
elected to the Knesset. Contacts state that for
historical reasons, most Ethiopians vote for the
conservative Likud party, at least in national
elections. Likud governments authorized the airlifts
that brought the first Ethiopian immigrants to Israel.
11. In the 2003 national elections, two Ethiopian-
Israeli candidates ran for the Knesset. Neither was
successful. Ethiopian candidates have done better on
the local level. In 2003, Ethiopian candidates won a
total of 6 seats in five municipalities. This little
publicized success indicates that the traditionally
complacent Ethiopian minority may be becoming more
politically savvy. As if to prove the point, in
November 2003, Ethiopians demonstrated outside of the
Prime Minister's residence to demand the right of
family members, still in Ethiopia, to join them in
Israel. In January 2004, Foreign Minister Silvan
Shalom announced plans to speed up the resettlement of
the Falash Mura, more than 22,000 of whom are waiting
to immigrate to Israel. But Shalom's promise provoked
a backlash from lawmakers who question the claims of
Jewish roots of the Falash Mura and argue that Israel
cannot afford the speedy resettlement of thousands of
destitute Ethiopians. Press reports quote Absorption
Minister Tsipi Livni as saying that absorption costs
for each Falash Mura is high (approximately 100,000
USD) because of the deep cultural and economic gaps
that Ethiopians must overcome to acclimate in Israel.
12. Ethiopian-Israeli organizations see restriction on
the immigration of Ethiopians as unjust, particularly
in light of Israel's proactive efforts to promote the
immigration of other Jews. Among the government's
critics on this issue is Avraham Neguise, executive
director of South Wing of Zion. "Putting economic
considerations before saving Jews is a crime against
Zionism," he said. "We demand the government give
answers. It is very difficult to imagine why, when we
are begging other Jews to come from countries like
Russia, America and Argentina, we raise the question of
money for the Ethiopian Jews. I have no doubt this is
discrimination," Neguise said.
Integration into the Israeli Labor Market
13. The unemployment rate for Ethiopian Jews is one of
the highest of any group in Israel. Their position is
exacerbated by the fact that they tend to have low
paying jobs. Most of them -- 75 percent of working men
and 62 percent of working women -- are employed as
unskilled agricultural and manufacturing workers.
Sixty-five percent of Ethiopian-Israeli households
depend on welfare, according to the Adva Center.
Several factors hinder their ability to fully access
the job market. The most pressing is their inability
to compete effectively with veteran Israelis and
immigrants from developed countries who frequently have
greater academic and professional training. Moreover,
many do not speak Hebrew well, and, arguably, although
Ethiopians complete military service, they are not part
of the army's "old boys" network, which often helps
Israelis find jobs after they complete military
service. To address the problem, the GOI has
instituted vocational training programs for youth. It
has also entered into partnerships with NGOs and the
private sector to encourage companies to hire Ethiopian
Israelis, says Negist Menguesha. These programs have
had only limited success. Sixty-five percent of
Ethiopian-Israelis between the age of 25 and 54 are
14. Few Ethiopian-Israelis -- 4 percent of men and 15
percent of women -- are to be found in the academic,
liberal, and technical professions. Of the 94,000
Jewish licensed teachers in Israel, 30 are of Ethiopian
origin, according to the Ministry of Education.
Statistics provided by the Israeli Bar Association
indicate that there are only five practicing Ethiopian-
Israeli lawyers. The largest employer of Ethiopian-
Israeli women is the public sector. The majority of
Ethiopian-Israelis employed by government agencies
provide services to other Ethiopian immigrants. The
number of Ethiopian-Israelis who own their own
businesses is negligible. The few that do exist are
limited to small family shops that sell Ethiopian style
clothing, music, and spices. KURTZER
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