Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Ethiopian Jewish teenage girls, both born in Israel, with their Israeli friend (L) in the local shopping plaza in the neighborhood where their families settled a few years ago, on July 2, 2007 in Netanya, central Israel. Some 2,500 Ethiopians of Jewish origin remain in the East African country as Israel slowly brings them over, a few dozen at a time, on commercial flights. Since 1984, more than 73,000 Ethiopian Jews have been settled in Israel. Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section


Late last year Israel accepted what’s set to be the final wave of Ethiopian immigrants. But the country is still struggling to integrate the 120,000 who’ve arrived over the past three decades.

Daniella Cheslow
March 10, 2011
Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Ethiopian Jewish teenage girls, both born in Israel, with their Israeli friend (L) in the local shopping plaza in the neighborhood where their families settled a few years ago, on July 2, 2007 in Netanya, central Israel. Some 2,500 Ethiopians of Jewish origin remain in the East African country as Israel slowly brings them over, a few dozen at a time, on commercial flights. Since 1984, more than 73,000 Ethiopian Jews have been settled in Israel. Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Malkamu Chani spent 10 years in a camp in Gondar, Ethiopia, waiting for permission to move to Israel. In early January, he finally flew to the promised land and moved with his wife and child to a spare, two-room immigrant-housing apartment in Mevasseret Zion outside Jerusalem. His neighborhood was a sea of clotheslines strung across modest backyards. The acrid smell of green coffee beans roasting in nonstick frying pans filled the tiny space that serves as his living room and kitchen. Chani, 28, who worked as a nurse in Ethiopia, wore a striped collared shirt and a knit blue yarmulke on his head.

“Ethiopia is a good country,” Chani said in halting English outside his new home when asked why he wanted to leave Africa. “The government is good. The main problem is that everything is expensive.”

Chani is one of the last 8,000 Ethiopians claiming Jewish roots who will immigrate en masse to Israel, following a government decision in late November. It marks the end of a dramatic transfer of Ethiopia’s entire 2,000-year-old Jewish community, which began fleeing pogroms and persecution in 1970s. In covert operations in 1984 and 1991, Israeli pilots flew 22,000 Ethiopians to the Jewish state in overflowing airplanes. Since 1991, Ethiopians known as Falash Mura have claimed Jewish roots and the right to immigrate, although their ancestors converted to Christianity in the late 19th century. Until November, these Falash Mura gathered in transit camps in Gondar, Ethiopia, while Israeli officials debated whether to accept them. November’s decision, which requires the new immigrants to convert to Judaism upon arrival, marks the end of that debate.

But as the newest immigrants arrive and settle in Israel, the 120,000-strong Ethiopian-Israeli community has seen only limited success in integration.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2008 the unemployment rate of 13.8 percent among Ethiopian immigrants was more than double the national average. Ethiopians were statistically younger than the overall Jewish Israeli population, with four times as many single-parent families. While 17 percent of Jewish Israelis were on some sort of welfare, Ethiopian-Israelis receiving state support ran at 61 percent. Their children scored lower on school tests and were more likely to drop out of high school than their veteran Israeli counterparts. This is surprising because a third of Ethiopian-Israelis were born in the Jewish state, which would seem to portend better integration.

Activists point to this data as an indicator of the government’s poor preparation for helping the immigrants’ transition from simple agrarian villages to urban Israeli life. “The Ethiopian-Israeli community is probably in the worst shape of the Jewish population in Israel,” said D’vora Greisman, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews.

When Ethiopians first arrived, Greisman said, the community developed some strength that has since waned. “There has been a stagnation,” she said. “This new wave of immigration seems to be following the same footsteps of those who came over 20 years ago. They are going back to poverty-stricken neighborhoods. The government has not switched policy.”

But others take a different view. David Yaso trekked from Ethiopia to Sudan over six weeks on his way to Israel at age 14. He and his family arrived in Israel in 1981 and spent a year in the Atlit absorption center near Haifa before moving to public rental housing in the southern city of Beer Sheva. After three years in boarding school, Yaso enlisted in the army as a paratrooper and served for seven years. Since 1993 he has worked in the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, helping newcomers from Ethiopia adjust.

Yaso’s immigration was not flawless. He said he donated blood every three months until 1996, when the state admitted that all Ethiopian-donated blood had been discarded for fear of AIDS. Yaso brought 11 buses of furious Ethiopian immigrants to Jerusalem to protest and has not donated blood since. Still, as he looked at photos from a trip he took last year to retrace the steps he took as a teen, he said the move was worth it.

“My father worked as a farmer, a weapons maker, and a blacksmith,” Yaso said in his Jerusalem office. The white walls were covered in sketches of Ethiopian tools and certificates of recognition for his work. “We were never hungry. But to tell you I would get to the place [of responsibility] I am today in Ethiopia—no.” This kind of advancement, he said, “is only in Israel and Jerusalem.”

Israeli immigration policy has evolved since Yaso arrived. According to Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz, in the past, non-Ethiopian Israelis ran the absorption centers. Now the directors share the same roots as their charges. Moreover, Yaso noted that the state has stopped assigning Ethiopian-Israelis public rental housing in favor of grants for mortgages. Ofer Dahan, who oversees the Jewish Agency’s Ethiopian project, said the Jewish Agency is trying to give new immigrants more tools for success, from practicing school registration in the absorption centers to offering technical courses and career counseling. Beginning in April, his organization will open classes in Gondar to prepare the new immigrants for Israel. They will learn Hebrew and Judaism in Ethiopia, which should help them make a faster transition.

In the Mevasseret Zion absorption center in January, a class of 14 older men and women who had moved to Israel eight months earlier learned a list of words beginning with “aleph,” the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Few wrote; they were barely literate. Their teacher, Arega Tadesse, immigrated in 1987 and spoke to the students in a mix of Hebrew and Amharic, the language of some northern Ethiopians. Another room in the center had a “supermarket ulpan,” where students learn to identify packaged goods like rice, soap, and microwave pizza. Volunteer Adar Sharon said that while the older generation rarely strays from homemade injera, or sour flatbread, their children demand the same industrial food their Israeli classmates eat at school. The immigrants are allowed to stay at the center for two years, after which they receive a grant of up to $135,000 to buy a house elsewhere, Dahan said. Many leave earlier if they find jobs, which are relatively easy to get in Jerusalem. Those who stay longer risk losing their mortgage grants.

Chani, the nurse who just arrived, hopes to find a job nursing in Israel—once he learns the language. He does not know where he will live, but he is considering Jerusalem. His brother-in-law, who immigrated two years ago, has already found work manufacturing drugs at Teva, Israel’s largest pharmaceutical company.

But not all absorption centers are alike. Jankelowitz said there are 21 centers processing Ethiopians in Israel. These immigrants are separated from immigrants from the Western world, he said, because many come from rural areas and are illiterate and unfamiliar with money or basic modern home appliances like stoves and toilets. The Mevasseret Zion center houses the newcomers in one-story houses; students wander the center’s large campus in the winter sun. Other centers are less attractive. Some are tall, crumbling blocks, like the Kalisher absorption center in Beer Sheva. In 2008, immigrants from the northern Beit Alfa absorption center protested in Jerusalem, complaining they could not get jobs because they were marooned in a pocket of poverty eight miles from the nearest city. Their children traveled 40 minutes each way to school because the state required them to study in Orthodox academies, while the nearest city, Beit Shean, refused to enroll them. In response, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption pledged to find more convenient solutions to the children’s schooling.

Some of the Falash Mura immigrants arriving in the coming years will be put in Beit Alfa and Beer Sheva, Jankelowitz said.

Moreover, second-generation Ethiopian immigrants highlight the difficulty of sustaining successful policy after the first wave. A slew of nongovernmental organizations developed to serve the community, ranging from policy think-tanks to training programs. Ethiopians have an Israeli television station. In 2008 Israel officially recognized the Sigd holiday, which Ethiopian Jews celebrate 50 days after Yom Kippur to commemorate accepting the Torah. That year the government also pledged 700 million shekels (about $200 million) for a five-year Ethiopian aid program. A year later, the Israeli government announced that 30 civil-service positions would be earmarked for Ethiopian-Israelis, in addition to 15 reserved the year earlier.

But according to IEAJ spokeswoman Greisman, despite all the programs, Ethiopian college graduates struggle to find jobs. Last April, private-school administrators in the city of Petach Tikva, east of Tel Aviv, refused to accept some Ethiopian children, triggering cries of racism. And the housing grants stipulate where the immigrants can live, including some of Israel’s “worst, inner-city, disgusting and drug infested” neighborhoods, Greisman said, although she declined to name them. Yaso said these restrictions aim to avoid segregation by dispersing Ethiopians nationwide.

Arnon Mantver is director-general of the Israeli arm of the Joint Distribution Committee, which helps needy Jews around the world, using funds donated mostly by North American Jews. He also headed the Jewish Agency’s Immigration and Absorption Department during the mass immigration to Israel from Ethiopia and the Former Soviet Union. Today, he says, Ethiopians have “islands of success” in early childhood education, college attendance, and women in the workforce. Moreover, the army has proved a great leveler, with 90 percent of boys and 69 percent of girls joining the force, far more than mainstream Israelis. Although there are still large gaps between Ethiopians and the wider Israeli public, Mantver chalks that difference up to the challenge of integrating immigrants from the third world into a competitive, Western economy.

“I thought it would take 10 years,” to integrate the Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, he said. “I see after 20 that the problem is not solved.” Mantver said that North American Jews, who pressured the Israeli government to accept the Falash Mura, must make a redoubled effort to close gaps. “We don’t want to create a black underclass in Israel,” he said.

Veteran Ethiopian immigrant Adiso Zahay praised the Jewish Agency’s plans to emphasize jobs, which he said was a weak point in the past. Zahay supervises the Ethiopian National Project, a donor-funded organization that runs after-school and education programs for children. He noted that the new immigrants, who will have lived off donations for years in camps in Gondar, will need a particular push.

“Don’t just give mortgages,” he said. “It is crucial to get employment for the Ethiopian community. If we in Israeli society—the veteran Ethiopians and the state—if we discount this point, we will create a situation where the immigrants will not work, their children will learn from their parents to be parasites, and we will educate a generation that will not know how to work.”

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

Support Our Journalism Today

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them.

Help us do what we do.