Tribulations of Being an Ethiopian Jew

Growing up in Israel, Shay Sium became accustomed to being called a ‘nigger’. Sium, 32, has lived in Israel most of his life, but says he and other Ethiopian Jews are treated differently from other Israelis: factories do not want to employ them; landlords refuse them; and certain schools turn away their children.

"The word discrimination doesn’t describe what we experience. There is another word for it: racism. It is a shame that we still have to use this word today,” he told IRIN.

An estimated 125,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, but while they are supposed to be full citizens with equal rights, their community has continued to face widespread discrimination and socio-economic difficulties, according to its leaders.

A recent decision – as reported by local media – by 120 homeowners not to sell or rent their apartments to Israeli-Ethiopian families has brought discrimination against Ethiopian Jews in Israel back into the spotlight.

Hundreds of Ethiopian Israelis took to the streets on 18 January to protest the move by landlords in the southern city of Kiryat Malakhi – Shay Sium’s hometown.

“This is not an isolated case,” said Yasmin Keshet, an attorney for the Israeli NGO Tebeka, which provides legal support to Ethiopian Israelis. The scale of racist offences and discrimination against Ethiopian Jews, she said, is reflected in the many legal cases Tebeka has dealt with in recent years.

“Can’t you see I am not taking black people?”

Under the Law of Return, Ethiopian Jews enjoy full rights and have a right to settle in Israel and obtain citizenship. The reality, however, is different.

In 2009, a young Ethiopian-Israeli university student named Idano tried to board a bus in Rishon LeZion city.

“She knocked, but the driver wouldn’t let her in," Keshet said. "When he opened the door for someone else, she followed inside, whereupon the driver said: ‘Can’t you see I am not taking black people. Did you have buses in Ethiopia, or even shoes?’"

The driver eventually appeared before a disciplinary hearing and was fined 20,000 New Israeli Shekels (NIS, US$5,330) in 2010. The next year, a magistrate’s court ordered him to pay Idano 60,000 NIS ($15,980) in compensation.

In September 2011, Tebeka represented 281 children who were prevented from registering in a school in Petah Tikva town because of their Ethiopian backgrounds – “a clear breach of law,” according to Julie Wyler, director of resource development at Tebeka. 
"Ethiopians are a resilient community [but] don’t know what is legal and illegal, also because new immigrants often don’t speak proper Hebrew,” Wyler said.

Lack of awareness and skills also makes Ethiopian Israelis easy to employ on lower-than-average pay. They are often desperate to find a job and willing to work under difficult circumstances.

“Ethiopians are an easy catch for manpower agencies," Wyler said. "They are allowed to hire employees for up to a year without providing social security under Israeli law, so they fire them after 11 months, just to re-employ them again afterwards.”


About 81,000 of Ethiopian Israelis were born in their home country, while 38,500 were born in Israel, according to official records. Between 1985 and 1991, more than 30,000 were airlifted in three rescue operations after years of civil war and famine had driven hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians into the capital, Addis Adaba, and refugee camps in Sudan.

But more than 20 years on, many Ethiopians still face economic hardship and social problems in Israel.

About 52 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli families live below the poverty line, compared to 16 percent among the general Jewish Israeli population. According to the Brookdale Institute for Applied Social Research, only 65 percent of Ethiopian Israelis were employed compared to 74 among the general Jewish population in 2010.

"In the area of employment, the gap between Ethiopians and other Jews has narrowed significantly,” institute director Jack Habib said. But about 60 percent of all Ethiopian families are still in a welfare programme, partly due to juvenile delinquency which is four times higher than the Israeli average, and domestic violence, which is estimated to be 2.5 times higher than the average.

Growing up in Israel

Partly as a result of the difficult socio-economic situation, which also triggers prejudice against the community, many young Ethiopian Israelis become disassociated from society at large.

"Growing up was an everyday struggle,” said Sium. “For those who are different, the Jewish people can be a very closed community. Simply because I am Ethiopian, life has been harder than it is for others.

“Raising a kid is tough for everyone in Israel, but it is even tougher for us,” he continued. “Once, my five-year-old kid asked me after a demonstration why the people on the street are shouting. I couldn’t tell him that it is because the white people don’t like the black people. I didn’t want to give him the feeling that he is not good enough."

In 2008, a report by the Israeli state comptroller and judge Micha Lindenstrauss found that about 20 percent of Ethiopian Israeli children do not go to school. Drug abuse among the youth is widespread, and crime rates are much higher than among the overall Jewish Israeli society.

These conditions have remained largely unchanged since the report was issued more than three years ago.

Shula Mola arrived in Israel when she was 12. “I was sent to a religious boarding school, where I worked very hard to become Israeli and also religious. Whenever I knew something others did not, the teachers were surprised because I am Ethiopian. I wanted to go to university. But they expected us to become nothing more than cleaners.”

Now the chairwoman of the independent Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), she says growing up in Israel is hard for Ethiopian children. “Many face prejudice in school and little support. They try to connect, but often can’t cope with the study gap.”

From her perspective, Ethiopian Israeli youth have it even harder today.

“My kids are born here. They face the same problems, but don’t have the excuse of being new immigrants. Whatever the problem, people automatically see it as a distinct Ethiopian feature,” Mola explained.

Such branding, as well as poverty and a difficult family background, often contribute to the youth’s disaffection from society. “Many are hopeless. When facing difficulties at school, poor and uneducated families usually can’t support their kids,” Mola said, adding that today’s Israeli education system puts more and more responsibility on the family.

But others say integration of the generation of Ethiopian Jews born in Israel is much easier than for their parents and grandparents.

“For me, it was easy to adapt,” said 27-year-old Avi Yalou of Kiryat Malakhi. “But when my mum goes to the bank, she still doesn’t know how to deal with it in Hebrew.”

Civil Society Role

Upon arrival, Ethiopian Jews are usually placed in “absorption centers” – housing arrangements run by the Jewish Agency, on organization in charge of immigration and absorption of Jews into Israel. There, new immigrants receive support, including cheap housing and language classes. But many stay much longer than the usual period of six months.

“The absorption center is like a closed society where new immigrants get used to being dependent," said Shalva Weil, an anthropologist and leading researcher on the Ethiopian community in Israel. She said Ethiopians often end up staying three, four, or even seven years. “When they finally move out, they are suddenly on their own and often face severe difficulties in Israel, which is not an easy country.”

Efrat Yerday, speaker of the IAEJ, added: "The Jewish Agency puts a lot of pressure on them to prove how Jewish they are. And this is the main thing they have in mind when they are in the absorption center, because they need to fulfil the requirements."

Some civil society organizations are trying to empower the Ethiopian Israeli community.

“My organization is fighting against a huge monster we have no power against,” said Yerday. She cites the “Five-Year-Plan”, which was produced by a cross-ministerial committee in 2008, as one such “monster”.

With a budget of 870 million NIS ($231 million), it was meant to be a comprehensive strategy for integrating the community and tackling socio-economic problems. One of its goals was to enable young Ethiopian Israeli couples to take out mortgages under preferential conditions and move from overcrowded poor areas to better neighbourhoods.

But many of the 400 young couples included in the plan never moved, because the amounts allocated were not sufficient and banks did not provide any guarantees for the mortgage loan. In 2011, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the key provisions of the plan had not been implemented.

Another plan was started in January 2012 by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry to tackle domestic violence through workshops and awareness-raising, after a study by Shalva Weil found that 81 percent of Ethiopian immigrant women murdered by their husbands came from new immigrant families.

“The plan will be implemented in towns where new immigrants hardly live,” she told IRIN. The cities include Ashkelon, Kiryat Malakhi, Afula, Netanyam Rehovot and Richon LeZion, where almost no immigrants from Ethiopia have settled for several years.

Despite the challenges, the Ethiopian Jewish community has done relatively well, experts say. “You can’t compare someone who recently arrived from Ethiopia to someone who lives in a villa on the north of Tel Aviv,” Weil said. "Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Many immigrants came from remote villages.”

Weil, who has studied the community for more than 30 years, added: “Given the difficult background of many immigrants, it is quite fantastic how well they have managed in Israel.”

Israeli government officials have called for mutual coexistence. "We, the state of Israel, should say thank you to immigrants from Ethiopia, and not vice-versa," Israeli President Shimon Peres said after the protests in Kiryat Malakhi.

The younger generation also gives reason for hope.

"The generations are different in dealing with problems,” Sium said. “The old generation is quiet. We have witnessed many demonstrations, but saw hardly any older people there. It is the young people who move things forward today. The elders understand that our situation is changing."

As Yalou, one of the organizers of the 18 January protest, put it: “My parents know that we, the young generation, are the future.”

In the meantime, activists say they will continue resisting what they see as racism.

“Right now, groups of activists are sitting together to see what we can do to fight the current situation," Yalou said. "Further protests are in the process of being planned… We hope to make changes.”

(IRIN News)

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