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February 27, 2015 12:52 am

The Challenging Journey of Ethiopian Integration Into Israel

avatar by Yotam Rozenwald / Tazpit News Agency

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Ethiopian Jews celebrating in Jerusalem. Photo: Inbal Gross / Tazpit News Agency.

Although the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel during the 1980s and 1990s, economic and social problems related to the hardships of immigration are still evident in their lives today.

Moshe Selomon, a social entrepreneur, spoke to Tazpit News Agency about the actions he thinks should be taken in order to upgrade the social status of the Ethiopian community in Israel.

“The Ethiopian community needs governmental aid because it lacks economic resources. Usually, the starting point for members of the community is different from the starting point of Israelis whose families are already established in Israel,” Selomon told Tazpit.

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“Most Israelis get some kind of financial help from their parents when buying their first home. When my parents bought an apartment I was the one helping them. Not everyone can afford that, so for me it is obvious that there is a need for some sort of affirmative action by the Israeli government,” he told Tazpit News Agency.

Approximately half of Ethiopian families in Israel live under the poverty threshold.

In addition, cultural differences, the language barrier, and the relatively older age of some Ethiopians who immigrated to Israel, have created inherent hardships for many members of the 125,500 strong Ethiopian-Jewish community. Integrating into Israeli society was and is still a struggle for many.

Aftamo Yosef, a department manager at Israeli NGO Tzeida Laderech, translated as “Provisions for the Road,” explained how his organization helps Israelis from all social groups, among them Israelis of Ethiopian origin.

“We mentor young men and women in different stages of their military service. Whether it’s calling an officer on behalf of a young soldier, providing moral support, or simply explaining to his parents an army related issue, we give the soldiers and the candidates our full support,” he told Tazpit News.

Yosef explains that such support is vital to soldiers and military candidates from the Ethiopian community. Due to the fact that a lot of Ethiopian immigrants arrived to Israel at a relatively senior age, they were not eligible for military service. As a result, some parents from Ethiopian origins do not understand some of the hardships and dilemmas their children endure while serving or preparing for service in the IDF.

“IDF service will be absent as a topic of discourse within those families,” Yosef told Tazpit. These inherent circumstances make Tzeida Laderech’s support of Ethiopian soldiers very important.

Throughout the last decade, the state of Israel has taken some affirmative actions for the Ethiopian community. Measures include expanding the number of state employed Israelis of Ethiopian origin, and enabling more youth of Ethiopian origin to receive education in leading secondary schools. Nevertheless, affirmative action has not solved all of the community’s problems.

Both Selomon and Yosef believe Israel’s integration policy could be better.

Selomon explains, “The authorities tried to integrate us by erasing our special characteristics and heritage. It’s a common problem with every wave of immigration that arrives to Israel,” Selomon told Tazpit.

Indeed, there is a certain expectation in Israel, that immigrants will become Israelis very quickly. Such an expectation can be unrealistic and painful to immigrants, as they are expected to forfeit old cultural characteristics.

“I strongly believe each group in the Israeli society brings its own flavor. Therefore, Israeli society should embrace diversity, in order to create a better, more inclusive atmosphere, where there is a place for all the groups that compose the Israeli society,” Selomon told Tazpit News.

Yosef also points to a different problem, he explains that because of the high ratio of Ethiopian soldiers who go AWOL, the IDF decided to better integrate soldiers of Ethiopian heritage by enrolling them to a special course they take in the first four months of their service. Although the special course can be beneficial to some soldiers, Yosef sees the course as creating separation instead of integration.

Yosef elaborates, “The majority of soldiers in this course are of Ethiopian origin, [so] there’s no integration. The army sought out better integration and created nothing but separation. Furthermore, if a certain IDF rookie needs that course, that’s an individual need.”

According to Yosef “there are many IDF rookies of Ethiopian origin that are straight A students with no criminal record whatsoever. Enrolling them to such a course will be a waste of time and can only damage their motivation.”

Yosef claims better integration will be achieved only when the Jewish Ethiopian identity is empowered. In addition, Israelis should have better knowledge of the Ethiopian Jewish culture, and “myths and barriers need to be broken,” Yosef concluded.

Selomon thinks there’s an important role for successful Israelis of Ethiopian origin to play in the battle for better integration. “I am actively bringing back successful Israelis of Ethiopian origin to their old neighborhoods, so they can act as role models and empower the communities they grew up in,” he told Tazpit News.

“In addition to governmental aid, I believe the community needs to find its inner strength in order to fully integrate into Israeli society,” said Selomon. “The Ethiopian community possesses great power. It’s the same power that enabled us to walk for thousands of kilometers in order to immigrate to Israel. This power needs to be harnessed to the benefit of the Ethiopian community and Israeli society.”

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  • It is heartrending to learn of the Ethiopian Community’s integration problems in Israel. Unfortunately, it is very understandable.

    As a Sephardi, I am aware of Ashkenazi feelings of innate superiority. Yes, Israel is not free of the curse of racism.

    Deep as THIS is, Ethiopians may be victims of an other consideration: one might label this ‘fish-out-of-water’ syndrome.

    What is meant by this?

    Great scholars of Ethiopian culture, among them Ullendorff (1920-2011) and ethnomusicologist Kaufman Shelemay from Harvard, have questioned the very Jewishness of the ‘Falashas’ – as they were referred to at the time that these scholars wrote. They deduced the Falashas had no Jewish background at all. They are, they claimed, Ethiopians of perhaps Agau origin.
    Insofar as ‘Falashas’ kept Jewish customs, it was because Ethiopian Christianity was – and still is – highly Judaized. Falashas, it is claimed, emerged from Ethiopian Christianity in the fourteenth century CE under Abba Salama.
    This explains, among many other things, their Monastic tradition and their complete lack of any knowledge of Hebrew.

    All this would be highly academic and irrelevant IF Ethiopian Jews were able to integrate seamlessly into modern Israeli life. It appears from the above article they are not.

    Maybe the past throws light as to why.

  • Malkia

    I couldn’t agree more with Rotam Rozenwald. These people would make a phenomenal force in the Israeli Army and the Gov’t has to step up its integration and education of this wonderful devoted group. Right now, Israel has a refugee problem, it can be reversed, more money and infrastructure must be put into place.

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