Beyond racism: What’s keeping Ethiopian-Israelis down?

Racism is a severe problem for the community — and the country — but that doesn’t fully explain the difficulties faced by Ethiopian-Israelis.

To the extent that they were protesting against face-to-face racism from “white” Israelis, the thousands of Ethiopian Israelis who raised hell in Tel Aviv Sunday night had more than a legitimate gripe. When I was in the army 25 years ago, I saw such insulting patronization toward Ethiopian immigrant soldiers it was hard to believe; from what one hears, such treatment hasn’t disappeared from Israeli life by any means. I don’t know if Israeli cops harass them and treat them more roughly – a videotape of police manhandling an Ethiopian soldier on suspicion of some crime is what set off the recent protests – but I wouldn’t be surprised.

However, to the extent that the demonstrations are aimed at the state for discriminating against Ethiopian immigrants and native-born, I don’t think they’ve got the right address. The State of Israel may have done more for Ethiopian Jews, between the effort to bring them over and the investment in them after they arrived, than any state has ever done for any group of immigrants. In the early 90s, after Operation Solomon airlifted nearly 15,000 of them to Israel, the state gave each of the families an apartment, paying off 98 percent of the cost, leaving them to pay the remaining 2 percent in monthly payments and the apartment was theirs to own. Between the state and diaspora Jewish philanthropic organizations, there are more programs to help Ethiopian Israelis than can ever be imagined.

And yet they are a well-entrenched Jewish underclass, as seen in the completely disproportionate number of Ethiopian youths living in state boarding schools or being held in juvenile prisons; dropping out of school; going AWOL and/or to army prison; and later being unemployed or working at the lowest-paid, lowest-skilled jobs.

Is that because of discrimination against them by the state, or by police or by Israelis on the street? No, it’s in spite of the extraordinary amount of help the state and diaspora Jewry have given them. There is a class of Ethiopian-Israeli achievers, of course; the 20 or so I lived with in an immigrant absorption center in 1985 all went directly to university after finishing the course in Hebrew; I imagine they’re doing fine now. Not coincidentally, they were all from Addis Ababa, not from the rural Gondar region where the overwhelming majority of Ethiopian Jews came from.

To the extent that the Ethiopian Israelis have a problem with police violence, the fault lies completely with the cops. To the extent they have a problem with random, garden-variety racism – and that’s a very serious problem – the fault lies completely with racist Israelis. But their disproportionate presence in this society’s underclass is largely because their families came here from rural Ethiopia. They started so far behind, technologically and educationally. They had no money, no resources, no network here. It was an unimaginable culture shock. As a group, they have so far to go to catch up with the rest of Israel, and while they’re making progress from year to year, it’s inevitably slow going.

It would be nice if the past was irrelevant, and all it took to get Ethiopian Jews to compete on an equal level with other Israelis was to bring them here, give them a reasonable amount of help, and then just watch them hold their own. But it seems that after centuries in rural Ethiopia, it takes more than that. I think everybody knows this, but people don’t want to say it because they don’t want to hurt the Ethiopians’ feelings. This is the best of intentions, but it shouldn’t lead people to grab onto easy, completely incorrect explanations – like “government neglect” – for why this enormous social problem hasn’t been solved.