- RISHON LEZION, ISRAEL - 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
- 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
- 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
- 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."