Ethiopians in Israel Don't Quite Fit In

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Ethiopian immigrants in Israel look at the results from their Hebrew quizzes. Kitra Cahana / Getty Images

Smadar Geto was airlifted to Israel in 1991 in one of the country’s most stunning operations—a rescue of more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews caught in the crossfire of a civil war. For many of the immigrants, sometimes dubbed Falashas or black Jews, the move marked the realization of a lifelong dream to live in Israel.

But the ensuing reality has often been harsh. Geto’s parents, now in their late 50s, never mastered Hebrew and have remained mostly unemployed. Her brother had to delay his compulsory Army service so he could help support the family. Geto herself, now 26, works at a packing plant and still lives with her parents in a run-down apartment in Pardes Hana, about an hour north of Tel Aviv. She says many Ethiopians she knows drift on the margins of Israeli society, poor and undereducated. “I think Ethiopians have gone bad here,” she told a visitor recently. “In Ethiopia they didn’t smoke, drink, steal, or anything.”

This year Israel marks 20 years since the Ethiopian migration, dubbed Operation Solomon. Among the dazed newcomers wrapped in traditional white cloths who climbed off the planes that day, a few individuals have done well. Some have received advanced degrees or risen through the ranks of the Army. But the overall picture for the community, which has swelled to 120,000, is not good. Poverty is three times higher among Ethiopians than among other Jewish Israelis, and unemployment is twice as high. Ethiopian youngsters are much more likely to drop out of school and are vastly underrepresented at the country’s universities. One place they’re overrepresented is in jail: juvenile delinquency runs four times higher in the community than among Israelis overall.

What happened? Their influx generated a wave of excitement. The government acted quickly and generously, setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars to house them and help them adjust to modern society—about three times what it was spending per immigrant on newcomers from the former Soviet Union. American Jews also got into the act, donating some $600 million since 1991 expressly for the Ethiopians, a huge sum given the size of the community.

But a combination of factors—bureaucratic mistakes, shifting economic realities in the country, and the occasional flash of bigotry—has impeded real integration. “Considering the effort and money expended over the years, we should be seeing much better results,” says Susan Pollack, an American who directs the aid organization Friends of Ethiopian Jews.

The exodus from Ethiopia is a story of collaboration between rabbis, aid workers, and spies. The community traces its origins to one of Judaism’s lost tribes, a version that is disputed by some historians but was largely accepted by Israeli religious authorities beginning in the 1970s. When several thousand Ethiopian Jews made their way on foot to Sudan, fleeing famine, Israel launched its first rescue mission, a Mossad undertaking dubbed Operation Moses. By the late 1980s, with Ethiopia in the throes of a civil war, humanitarian workers—including Pollack—helped the remaining Jews flee the countryside to settle in camps in Addis Ababa, until Israel plucked them to safety.

But that proved to be just the beginning. In Israel, officials had developed a resettlement plan full of good intentions—and some faulty strategies. Israel put the immigrants in temporary housing and gave them sizable sums to help them buy homes. But with little or no work, most of them could not afford to supplement the grant to cover a mortgage. Instead, they used the allowance to buy apartments in the country’s most neglected neighborhoods, creating clusters of poverty and segregation.

To give the younger generation a boost, officials encouraged parents to send their children to government-run boarding schools. But most non-Ethiopians at these schools were youngsters from troubled homes, according to Micha Odenheimer, who ran an advocacy group for Ethiopian Jews in the 1990s. Instead of preparing them for matriculation exams and college, the schools steered Ethiopians mostly to manual jobs, causing deep resentment. “It was very hard to understand the system and get what you want,” says Yitzhak Wanda, who immigrated at the age of 37 with his wife and three children.

Those who do end up going to college face another problem: a resistance among some Israelis to hiring Ethiopians. Yitzhak Dessie, who runs a legal-aid organization for the community called Tebeka, says only about 15 percent of Ethiopian college graduates end up working in their fields, compared with 35 percent of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and 65 percent of veteran Israelis. Part of the problem, Dessie says, is the perception that many Israelis have of Ethiopians as underachievers. At his sparse office in Netanya, Dessie has seen hundreds of clients complaining about discrimination at work and in other areas. A few dozen cases have ended up in court, including one against a school that refused to enroll Ethiopian students and one involving a kindergarten that taught Ethiopians in one room and the rest of the class in another.

To be sure, most Israelis have embraced the Ethiopians, and plenty of Ethiopians have managed to lift themselves out of hardship. Still, the main trend lines in the community are getting worse, not better. Pollack, the American activist, says U.S. donors are starting to wonder where all the money went. Last year she circulated a “call to action” among Jewish groups urging them to reevaluate the way funds are directed to Ethiopians. “There’s been this attitude that we just need to give money to the Israelis and they’ll know what to do with it,” she says. With the challenges the Ethiopians faced, money and good intentions just weren’t enough.

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