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'Beta Israel, Not Home Yet' by Shula Mola
A turning point for Ethiopian-Israelis - By Shula Mola
$10m. project for Ethiopian absorption

A turning point for Ethiopian-Israelis By Shula Mola

In Gaza, less than two weeks ago, Shai Germai, an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier, was shot to death by Palestinian gunmen while serving in his combat unit. In September 2001, Natan Sandelke, a nineteen-year old Ethiopian-Israeli soldier, risked his life to stop a homicide bomber in Jerusalem, chasing and tackling him before he could blow himself up in a crowd.

The bomb went off, killing the terrorist and injuring Natan, who spent months recovering from this heroic act. In October 2000, Yossi Tabaja, an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier became one of the first victims of the intifada when he was shot to death at Joseph's Tomb at the age of twenty-seven. Of all Ethiopians drafted to the army, over 36% of them serve in combat units, far above the national average.

The many Ethiopian casualties and heroes of the intifada exemplify the extent to which the Ethiopian community is embedded in the heart and soul of Israeli society.
The battle against terror has amply demonstrated the self-sacrifice and Zionist idealism of the Ethiopian community. But at the very same time, the intifada has caused an economic recession that has deepened the absorption crisis of these immigrants. Preoccupied by security concerns, the government has, until now, failed to pay attention to the warning signs that tell of a community poised at the precipice of poverty and disillusionment.

Despite their valiant attempts to fully integrate, the Ethiopians continue to hold the lowest economic position amongst new immigrants and veteran Israelis. A recent report published by the Committee to Investigate Social Gaps led by Knesset member Ran Cohen, highlights the grim reality facing the Ethiopian community today: the drop-out rate of Ethiopian students is more than double the national average and 47% of Ethiopian Israelis, aged 25-54, are not in the labor force. Surely this struggle, against debilitating poverty, was not part of the Ethiopian dream of returning to Zion.

Over two years ago the Ethiopian National Project (ENP) was conceived as a partial solution to these problems. The project, initiated by JAFI in partnership with UJC, JDC, the Israeli government, and the Ethiopian community, was designed as a 660 million dollar, nine-year effort to ensure a more complete absorption and integration of Ethiopians into Israeli society. The participation of Ethiopian representatives in all stages of the project provided the first true forum for the voice of the community.
The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, in partnership with ten other Ethiopian organizations, has been exerting immense effort to guarantee the timely implementation of this project. But, again, the focus on Israel's security by American Jews has shifted the emphasis of their support away from social projects. This has resulted in the delay of the ENP's implementation and the danger that the scope of ENP programming will be significantly reduced.
This is unfortunate, for the current 'situation' affecting the entire country is having an even greater impact on low-income communities in Israel. Increased security spending has led to the drastic reduction of social budgets; making day to day life a struggle for many. Now more than ever we can not ignore the social needs of our fellow Jews. Every day more and more Ethiopian children, youth, and even adults seem to be resigning themselves to a position in the lowest strata of Israeli society.

In Israel today 66% of Ethiopian families are dependent on government welfare benefits in order to meet basic needs. Ethiopians are under represented in government offices, and schools with high academic reputations have low Ethiopian enrollment. We must alter this reality and diminish existent social gaps. The survival of Israel depends on both external security and on internal solidarity. The kind of solidarity that makes young Ethiopians volunteer for combat units and risk their lives to protect the Jewish homeland. Poverty, despair, and prejudice attack the very roots of this kind of solidarity.

Over half of the Ethiopian population in Israel is under the age of 19. Resources that have been directed towards bridging educational gaps have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ethiopian youngsters can make it when they are given half a chance. Nearly 2000 young Ethiopians are now in college or pre college preparatory institutions--a direct result of government "second chance" matriculation programs.

But in order to succeed, resources must be properly invested and the community must be made a partner in the absorption process--as will happen if the ENP is put into affect. The ENP has embraced the principle of full Ethiopian partnership in all stages of its development. This partnership empowers the community to believe in their own ability to enact change. The ENP remains low on the list of governmental priorities and I fear that without immediate action, the community's faith will begin to wane. The time has come to ensure the Ethiopians a brighter future in Israel.

These immigrants, many of whom, like me, walked through the desert with faith and determination to succeed, should be given the full opportunity to do so. We are approaching a turning point in the history of Ethiopian absorption. In the past, poverty was seen as a temporary condition, a natural byproduct of all new immigrants journey towards the social mainstream.

Now, dangerously, both native Israelis and Ethiopian immigrants are beginning to believe that poor social integration is a result of problems within the Ethiopian community rather than faulty absorption processes. But we have not yet lost our hope. Working together we can change this disturbing situation and in so doing illustrate the value of Israeli democracy.

Israel has the opportunity to become an example for other nations. We can become the example of a diverse country effectively welcoming and integrating immigrants. Rather than reinforcing the image, rampant in the international press, of Israel as an apartheid state we must become a true example of democracy in the Middle East.

The absorption of immigrants from the 'third world' into a highly technological society will change the image of Israel. If Israel is unable to effectively absorb the Ethiopians then it has failed as a Jewish democratic state and our vision of a Jewish homeland was simply an illusion.

Investments made now ensure a more unified future for Israel. The effort is minimal compared to the results. Working together, we can make the complete absorption of the Ethiopians a reality that will change the internal and external face of Israel. It is our duty, as a Jewish nation, to recall the power of the Ethiopian dream of Zion and to secure that this dream comes true.

Shula Mola arrived in Israel at the age of twelve after an arduous journey from Ethiopia.
Shula is now the Executive Director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, an organization advocating for the full and rapid integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.


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