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Ethiopian Jewry:
The Situation of Ethiopian Jews in Israel

Ethiopian Jewry: Table of Contents | Virtual History Tour | Immigration to Israel

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Economic and Social Status

Most of the Ethiopian community is living below the poverty line as defined by the Israeli government. People are not starving, although Ethiopian children often come to school without having eaten breakfast and in schools where there is a lunch program, children are very happy to eat whatever simple lunch they are given.

A lot of the families with many young children are headed by unemployed men in their late fifties and sixties (the older age of the fathers attributed to the common practice of men marrying women twenty or even thirty years younger than they are). Combined with the high percentage of single mothers (who are also often unable to work), this means that someone without independent income heads a very high percentage of Ethiopian households. However, even those elderly men and single mothers who do work have difficulty making enough money to support their families since they typically work for minimum wage, which is about $650-$900 per month.

The older generation spends a lot of time traveling to weddings and funerals across the country, trying to maintain the family and social ties that sustained them in Ethiopia (an Ethiopian extended family can consist of 500-1200 members, and everyone is supposed to know everyone in the family). A member of the older generation who grew to adulthood in Ethiopia is often judged by his peers not by how hard he works or his ambitions, but by whether he pays proper attention to his social obligations. Thus cultural factors also affect the priority that is given to such things as the children's education, which the older people tend to leave to the government. Even if they wanted to intervene in the education of their children, their limited ability to speak Hebrew or even read or write in their own language hinders them.

Most families live in distressed neighborhoods in concentrated Ethiopian pockets. This situation resulted from special government programs to get people out of the caravan sites. These programs specified that they must buy apartments in the center of the country but only gave them enough financial assistance to buy in the least desirable neighborhoods. The most worrisome aspect of this situation is that we hear more and more reports of children who are out on the street, in malls, and near cheap gambling establishments until late at night. They may ditch school to hang out, or just go after school. Children in some neighborhoods are starting to steal. The parents often have little control over this because they have a lot of children, small apartments, and a feeling that they don't know how to discipline their children anymore, especially because their children know very little of their native, Ethiopian, language (Amharic) and instead speak street Hebrew.

Juvenile delinquency is growing even among children as young as 8 or 9 years old. A woman who runs a program in Beersheva to try to help children in elementary school reports that children are remaining at the malls until all hours, ditching school on a semi-regular basis, and often getting involved in petty crime. She describes this as a pattern that is spreading very quickly and involves 300 children under the age of 14 in Beersheva alone. There are also Ethiopian youth gangs in many of the cities where there is a concentration of immigrants such as Rehovot, Rishon LeZion, Netanya, Beer Sheva, Hadera etc., as well as in Tel Aviv. In neighborhoods with a high concentration of Ethiopian immigrants, we have encountered Israeli criminals actively recruiting Ethiopian youths into drug sales and other criminal activities.


Education remains the only way to improve the social and economic status of Ethiopian Jews. Ethiopian students face a number of obstacles in the Israeli educational system, and as a result, increasing numbers of frustrated Ethiopian youth are dropping out of school. This perpetuates the poverty cycle.

A vast majority of Ethiopian children are not in any preschool or nursery school program until the age of four, mostly due to financial reasons. Most mothers do not work and cannot afford to pay for nursery school or day care. The cost to send a three year old to these programs can be up to $350 per month; if there are two children under the age of four, the cost is just about equivalent to the total monthly welfare check. There is also very little money available for preschool age programs, and most families do not know how to teach their children the types of skills at home that they would learn in preschool. About 1,500 of the 6,000 families with young children are receiving some kind of guidance once a week in how to stimulate their children intellectually and verbally, but it is far from enough. People who have studied this subject say that the ages 0-4 are crucial in terms of learning, especially when the children are coming from families that are illiterate and don't speak Hebrew.

In the elementary schools, the story remains the same. The children are still concentrated in weak schools with 20% to 35% Ethiopians. The rest of the students come mostly from poor North African or Middle Eastern immigrant families. A major problem is literacy. Our overall sense, based on some testing, is that a very high percentage of the children are not learning how to read, and this is one of the core problems leading to a high dropout rate. This year, we sponsored a special experimental literacy program developed by the Center for Differential Learning in Tel Aviv, using a method that breaks down the reading process into parts. The secret of this method is to focus and test each child individually, have a clear goal, and create accountability--each child must learn to read. It worked miraculously. Only one out of the twenty second-graders had learned to read with any fluency before we began. In a few months, all the students we worked with learned to read fluently.

The same problems hold true in the other two basic subjects: math and English. Most of the children are not getting the attention that they need. As evidence, a study by JDC Brookdale shows that of nine schools with high concentrations of Ethiopians, there are major gaps in achievement between the Ethiopian-Israeli children and the native Israelis in all the important subjects. In another recent study of six schools, 50% of the Operation Solomon children and 48% of the children whose families came 12 years ago in Operation Moses or before (that means they were probably born here) were judged by their teachers as below their class level in reading comprehension. In comparison, 23% of the native Israeli, non- Ethiopian children were so judged by the teachers. In math, 56% of the Operation Solomon immigrant children and 51% of the Operation Moses children were seen as below class level, as opposed to 21% of the "regular" Israeli children.

Another widespread problem is that the teachers underestimate the students. In a revealing article from the Israeli daily newspaper, Ha'aretz, a JDC-Brookdale study evidences this epidemic through research completed at a group of similar schools. In these schools, teachers consistently underestimate the scores that Ethiopian children will receive on tests that show their math level in relation to the class by as many as 20 percentage points. The real scores of the Ethiopians were only about ten percent below those of other children, but the estimation of the teachers was that they would be 30% below. We see this as indicative of the way the system views Ethiopians, consistently underestimating their capabilities.

The scarcity of school supplies, including books, still persists. Teachers report that only 58% of the newer Ethiopian immigrant children come to school with the materials they need each day. Even less of the Operation Moses children, 54%, who no longer receive a subsidy, come to school prepared. The subsidy for books that is still allocatefor Operation Solomon children often does not even get to them, but instead, gets lodged in the overdraft of the municipality.

Even more telling are the statistics on homework. Teachers reported that only 41% of the Ethiopian immigrant children prepare homework regularly, while 71% of the native Israeli children do. This is due to several factors, including the lack of supplies and books, lack of outside enrichment, crowded conditions at home, and the weak mastery of basic skills.

Part of the problem in the elementary schools is that about 80% of the younger children are still in the religious school system, which is smaller and weaker (especially the areas in which the Ethiopians live). According to officials at the Ministry of Education, this happens because the secular school system does not want the Ethiopian children, makes little effort to recruit them, and may even make it difficult for them to enroll. A religious education is important for parents who wish this for their child, but the problem is that the existing system leads to weak schools with heavy concentrations of Ethiopians.

These problems continue into junior high school, where segregation is even more prominent, because two or three religious schools with a high percentage of Ethiopians may feed into one junior high. Since substantial tracking into "quicker" and "slower" classes begins in junior high school (based more or less on math, science, English), the Ethiopians often get shunted into the slower classes. Although this may seem justified, a three month intensive summer course in English or math could easily push these children way up in their achievement; yet, these intensive trainings are happening only on a very small scale.

Most teenagers were initially placed into the Israeli boarding school system. While boarding schools have an honored place in the education of thousands of young immigrants in Israel, their effectiveness in today's educational system is marginal. A majority of boarding schools offer only vocational training, and often youth attending these schools are from disadvantaged backgrounds. In addition, students in boarding schools are separated from their families, which undermines the traditional family bonds and places the responsibility of disciplining the students on the boarding schools. When IAEJ began our educational campaign, 90% of Ethiopian high school aged students attended these schools. This good news is that this number is down to about 70%. The percentage will keep dropping, because in the various schools, the number of Ethiopian children is "top heavy" in the 12th grade, and the Ethiopian enrollment drops to about 50% in 9th grade.

Additionally, some of the boarding schools have improved their programs in the sense that they have added matriculation (bagrut) track classes and enabled at least some of the Ethiopian immigrants to attend these tracks. The result is that a higher percentage of Ethiopians are getting the "bagrut" (matriculation certification) which is the key here in Israel, the equivalent of a high school diploma in the USA. Despite the improvements some of the boarding schools have made in their curriculum, they are still very problematic. We are presently beginning a project to evaluate the boarding schools with significant concentrations of Ethiopian Jews to discover both the living and the academic conditions for the students.

The percentage of Ethiopians passing the bagrut, which was shockingly low, 3%, when we started raising the issues about the educational problem, has risen significantly, to about 12% of the total population of 18 year olds. The Ministry of Education has the number at about 22% of those finishing 12th grade. This statistic does not take into account the number of dropouts and those not completing 12th grade, which is now up to 45% or higher. The rate of passing the bagrut for the rest of the population is now about 43%, with 98% being the average for well-to-do neighborhoods.

Currently, there are about 700 post-high school students, either before the army or after the army, in pre-college programs. This will allow them to finish the requirements for a matriculation (bagrut), or matriculation equivalent, certificate. However, the basic problem is that the gap is so wide by the time the teenagers reach this stage, that often in subjects such as English, the students finish their year of pre-college preparation with only a grade 10 knowledge, which is not nearly enough proficiency to excel in University or to pass the bagrut. Presently, there are also about 400 Ethiopians in college and university, and most are in the helping professions such as social work, teaching, etc. There are also a handful of law students, two medical students, a smattering of engineers, and about 50 women and men in nursing programs.

School Dropouts

The dropout problem continues to be a plague. The latest statistics from Ha'aretz, June 17, 1997 estimated that between 1,800 and 2,000 teenagers have dropped out of school. This represents about 15% of the student population. When we started talking about the problem two and a half years ago, the number was about 500. We have even encountered several community high schools that have only one or two male Ethiopians in the 12th grade, while having 15 or 16 girls, illustrating that boys tend to comprise the majority of dropouts.


Despite the enthusiasm around the heroic ingathering of Ethiopian Jews, the situation remains bleak and demands our attention in order to ensure that the Ethiopian absorption is successful. The focus needs to be on education, where we can act to prevent problems that will only be compounded in the future. Now is the time to take advantage of the window of opportunity and ameliorate this situation before it spirals out of control.

Sources: The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ)

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