TEL AVIV—Following a wave of violent incidents, political controversies and alarming sociological findings regarding the poverty-plagued immigrant community, Prime Minister Sharon has agreed to head up a campaign to boost public support for Ethiopian Israelis.
The campaign, which is being organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel, is set to launch next month. Its goal is to recruit Israeli citizens, organizations and companies to volunteer in facilitating the absorption of Ethiopians into Israeli society. According to senior officials at the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental body charged with promoting and facilitating immigration to Israel, the decision to launch the campaign stemmed from several violent incidents and the recent attempt by one Israeli mayor to block Ethiopian children from enrolling in his city’s schools.
One agency official told the Forward that there are many signs pointing to the “sad reality” that Israel is failing to integrate many members of the 100,000-person Ethiopian community, including rising rates in poverty and in juvenile crime.
The alarming statistics and rash of political controversies stand in stark contrast to the euphoria that surrounded the airlifts in 1984 and 1985—dubbed Operation Moses—which brought the first wave of 8,000 Ethiopians to Israel. Operation Solomon, which brought another 14,000 Ethiopians in May 1991, also was cheered. Israelis again celebrated the notion that Zionism was a color-blind ideology committed to bringing to Israel Jews of all races. But in the decade-and-a-half since, with the arrival of tens of thousands of more immigrants and the mounting evidence of absorption failures, the sense of universal support for Ethiopian immigration has been destroyed.
Increasingly, Ethiopian activists and their allies claim that they have been met with racism and discrimination.
Many observers counter that the Israeli government’s intentions have been good, but not good enough to overcome the challenges posed by the Ethiopian immigration. Several recent studies show that unlike Russian immigrants, many of whom came to Israel with high-level job skills, the Ethiopians came from a subsistence economy and were ill prepared to work in a modern, industrialized country. Furthermore, it has been hard for some Ethiopians who had spent years as refugees before coming to Israel to adapt to life as independent citizens. Children receiving a modern Israeli education found themselves alienated from their own parents. Elderly people who had been respected community members in Ethiopia found their wisdom of little use in their new society.
In the end, some observers said, despite all of Israel’s good intentions, the government and the Jewish Agency effectively transformed a community that had been functional and independent in Ethiopia into a community that is now dependent on the social-service network in Israel. Complicating matters even further, the economic gaps in Israeli society in general are widening as government benefits to the poor are being cut—and Ethiopians, like other immigrant groups, have been especially hard hit.
The mounting problems drew national attention last month when Yitzhak Bokovza, mayor of the Israeli town Or Yehuda, refused to admit 42 Ethiopian children into class at the start of the school year.
A year ago, Carmi Gillon, head of the local council in Mevesseret Zion and a former chief of the Shin Bet, reportedly lashed into the Ethiopians living in his town. Gillon was quoted in media reports as saying that the Ethiopians “use our yards as their bathrooms, search through our garbage bins, and there have been complaints of sexual harassment against them.”
According to Tebeka Center reports, Bokovza and Gillon are only two of several mayors who in recent years have fought to keep Ethiopian immigrants out of their cities.
Each Ethiopian immigrant costs the government about $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime, according to government estimates.
Earlier this year, to help facilitate this new wave of immigration, the Jewish federation system in North America launched a major fund-raising campaign to assist Jews from Ethiopia and from the former Soviet Union. Most of the $100 million collected will go toward expediting the immigration and absorption in Israel of the Falash Mura and the Ethiopians already in Israel. The funds will be raised over the next three to five years. About $23 million over the next three years will go to cover the cost of bringing over the immigrants, and for their initial education and other welfare costs. The funds will be managed by the federations’ main overseas partners, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In total, about $40 million will go toward absorbing the Falash Mura and $37 million to integrating Ethiopians already in Israel through improved education.