…According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2008 the unemployment rate of 13.8 percent among Ethiopian immigrants was more than double the national average. Ethiopians were statistically younger than the overall Jewish Israeli population, with four times as many single-parent families. While 17 percent of Jewish Israelis were on some sort of welfare, Ethiopian Israelis receiving state support ran at 61 percent. Their children scored lower on school tests and were more likely to drop out of high school than their veteran Israeli counterparts. This is surprising because a third of Ethiopian Israelis were born in the Jewish state, which would seem to portend better integration.
Activists point to this data as an indicator of the government’s poor preparation for facilitating the immigrants’ transition from simple agrarian villages to urban Israeli life. “The Ethiopian Israeli community is probably in the worst shape of the Jewish population in Israel,” said D’vora Greisman, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews.
When Ethiopians first arrived, Greisman said, the community developed some strength that has since waned. “There has been a stagnation,” she said. “This new wave of immigration seems to be following the same footsteps of those who came over 20 years ago. They are going back to poverty-stricken neighborhoods. The government has not switched policy.”
But others take a different view. David Yaso trekked from Ethiopia to Sudan over six weeks on his way to Israel at age 14. He and his family arrived in Israel in 1981 and spent a year in the Atlit absorption center near Haifa before moving to public rental housing in the southern city of Beersheva. After three years in boarding school, Yaso enlisted in the army as a paratrooper and served for seven years. Since 1993 he has worked in the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, helping newcomers from Ethiopia adjust.
Yaso’s immigration was not flawless. He said he donated blood every three months until 1996, when the state admitted that all Ethiopian-donated blood had been discarded for fear of AIDS. Yaso brought 11 buses of furious Ethiopian immigrants to Jerusalem to protest and has not donated blood since. Still, as he looked at photos from a trip he took last year to retrace the steps he took as a teen, he said the move was worth it.
“My father worked as a farmer, a weapons maker and a blacksmith,” Yaso said in his Jerusalem office. The white walls were covered with sketches of Ethiopian tools and certificates of recognition for his work. “We were never hungry. But to tell you I would get to the place [of responsibility] I am today in Ethiopia — no.”
This kind of advancement, he said, “is only in Israel and Jerusalem.”
Israeli immigration policy has evolved since Yaso arrived. According to Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz, in the past, non-Ethiopian Israelis ran the absorption centers. Now the directors share the same roots as their charges. Moreover, Yaso noted that the state has stopped assigning Ethiopian Israelis to public rental housing in favor of offering grants for mortgages. Ofer Dahan, who oversees the Jewish Agency’s Ethiopian project, said the Jewish Agency is trying to give new immigrants more tools for success, from practicing school registration in the absorption centers to offering technical courses and career counseling. Beginning in April, his organization will open classes in Gondar to prepare the new immigrants for their lives in Israel. They will learn Hebrew and Judaism in Ethiopia, which should help them make a faster transition.…
Jankelowitz said there are 21 centers processing Ethiopians in Israel. These immigrants are separated from immigrants from the Western world, he said, because many come from rural areas and are illiterate and unfamiliar with money or basic modern home appliances like stoves and toilets.…
Even with all that Israel does to help Ethiopian Jews intigrate, there are still serious problems. Why?
…But according to IEAJ spokeswoman Greisman, despite all the programs many Ethiopian college graduates struggle to find jobs. Last April, private school administrators in the city of Petach Tikva, east of Tel Aviv, refused to accept some Ethiopian children, triggering cries of racism. And the housing grants stipulate where the immigrants can live, including some of Israel’s “worst, inner-city, disgusting and drug-infested” neighborhoods, Greisman said, although she declined to name them. Yaso said these restrictions aim to avoid segregation by dispersing Ethiopians nationwide.…