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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.

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    1. Ben

      Anshell Pfeffer:

      “Six years ago I walked with a senior Jewish Agency operative through the transit center in Addis Ababa where one of the last groups of Falashmura, cousins of the Beta Israel community, were waiting for a plane, this time a scheduled Ethiopian Airlines flight, which would take them to Israel.

      “Most of the grown-ups here will never be really integrated into Israeli society,” the Agency official said bitterly. “It will be too difficult for them to learn the language at their age, and after living most of their lives in a tiny rural village, adapting to life in a modern society will be too much of a dislocation for them.

      “The children will adapt quickly but the trauma of suddenly becoming the responsible adult in the family – having to be the ones who go to the bank, sign for a mortgage, take care of the bills and health care for their parents who should still be in their prime – will scar them for life. And then you will have the third generation, born in Israel: They won’t speak a word of Amharic or have any meaningful connection with their grandparents, and the entire structure of the Ethiopian family, based on respect for elders, will crumble. We’re importing a social tragedy and nothing the government or anyone else in Israel can do will change that.””

      Reply to Comment
      • BigCat

        Brian….eh… “Ben”, honesty demands that you start by telling Larry Derfner and everyone else that you changed your identity from Brian to “Ben” and that you for a period of time were posting both as Brian and “Ben” at the same time on this site. How can you, Brian, be taken seriously when you are deceitful? Tell, us, Brian, why you opted for multiple identities, incl. “Ben”. We are all waiting for your answer….

        Reply to Comment
        • New Relic

          Liz, I am going to assume that your posting is an example of Poes law. If so, good,job. Because nobody could be so stupid to believe what you wrote.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Philos

      Unbelievable Ashkenazi racism… Actually, it’s not that unbelievable. And Moroccans are over-represented in the working-class because they lived in caves in the Atlas Mountains, right? Utter apologia for a structurally racist state and society.

      Someone asked me if I thought Netanyahu would’ve given his Congress performance if Obama wasn’t a black man… My belief is that Netanyahu wouldn’t have dared treat a President Barry O’Bamah with the same contempt that he’s treated a Mr. Barack Obama. Open your eyes Larry – the whole society is riven through with hatred. It was founded on hatred. It’s raison d’etre is the belief in a racist ideology of anti-Semitism.

      Reply to Comment
      • BigCat

        Right, Philos. On the other thread from Lisa Goldman you were cheering your leaders: Assad, Ayatollah Khomeini, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, while blaming Israel, the United States and everyone else for the carnage and slaughter of over a quarter of a million men, women and children in Syrian.
        On this thread you are grasping straws and ranting about President Obama, etc. to somehow prove that Israel is racist? Your principles are worthy of emulation, Philos.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Liz

      What a sad disappointment in Derfner and for 972mag for printing this. How naive to say that the reason many Ethiopians are not succeeding in Israeli society is to their rural past. By saying this, he ignores the larger institutional issues facing darker skinned immigrants. Even though Israel pays for many services for the Ethiopians, they still are discriminated against because of their skin color (yes, this is about racism). But Derfner also misses another important issue that one of the reasons that Israel brought over the Ethiopians in the first place was to look good to the world, and to further castigate the Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
      • BigCat

        I too was surprised by Larry Derfner’s article, but for a totally different reason: the article is not partisan, but rather well balanced, very rational, level-headed and devoid of the kind of emotional, over the top Israel-bashing one is accustomed to on +972. Larry Derfner put the issue of race in its proper context within the complexities of the Israeli society. I did not comment on this article because there was not much to add to what Larry already said. To you and others I ask to learn something from Larry Derfner. No society is perfect. The State of Israel has done a lot for the “Ethiopian” Community more than it has for any other. But what has been done so far for the “Ethiopian” Community is not enough(I hate to use the word “Ethiopian”, because it creates distance), but we are in a process that can only but get better. Continuously bickering and looking for reasons to smear and blame Israel is really disingenuous, dishonest and counterproductive. Lets congratulate Larry Derfner for a rare article on +972.


        Israel brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel because Ethiopian Jews are Jews. Period. The claim you make in this regard comes across as very racist!

        Reply to Comment
      • New Relic

        Liz, I am going to assume that your posting is an example of Poes law. If so, good,job. Because nobody could be so stupid to believe what you wrote.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Your synopsis of the Ethiopian soldier and police encounter showed me your lack of objectivity. You used the words “suspicion of a crime”. It is obvious from the video there was no crime committed just a the police acting unnecessarily with physical aggression to a proud soldier and inciting the situation to violence. Same as they do here in America to our blacks daily.

      Reply to Comment