The Situation of Ethiopian Jews in Israel
Ethiopian Jews have been in Israel for more than three decades, yet the vast majority continues to live in Israel’s social periphery. Ethiopian Israelis are perceived as a “unique” group and are often treated as such by the government and NGOs. Even with the special treatment, their social standing has changed little over the years. Moreover, socio-economic gaps between Ethiopian Israelis and the general population persist, despite the major resources invested.
At the end of 2013, 135,500 Israelis of Ethiopian origin were living in Israel. About 85,900 were born in Ethiopia while 49,600 were born in Israel.
At present, 70 percent of Ethiopian Israelis do not fall under Israel's standard definition of “olim” (new immigrants). Only about 30 percent have been in Israel for less than 10 years. Within the veteran Ethiopian Israeli population there is great variance relating to background, language and culture of the geographical area in Ethiopia from which they come, when they made aliya (in the 1980’s, 1990’s or 2000’s) and how long they have been in Israel, where they live and what they do in Israel. The majority of Ethiopian Israelis live in central and southern Israel (38 percent and 24 percent respectively).
Income and Employment
In 2013, the average expense per Ethiopian Israeli household was 35 percent less than that of Israeli households in general, in correspondence with the gross income of Ethiopian Israeli households, which was 35 percent lower than Israeli households in general.
While rates of employment are similar among Ethiopian Israelis and the general population, a large proportion of Ethiopian Israelis works as unskilled and contracted laborers and the community may be defined as “working poor.” More than 35 percent of Ethiopian Israeli families live under the poverty line in comparison with 18.6 percent of Israeli families in general.
In April 2016 Lt. Col. Avi Yitzhak became the first Ethiopian Israeli to graduate from the IDF's Brigade Commander course. He was also the first Ethiopian Israeli to ever serve as a combat doctor. Yitzhak emigrated to Israel at age 19 in 1991, and prior to entering the Brigade Commander course he led the Combat Medical Branch of the IDF Medical Corps.
The Israeli Bar Association announced on October 6, 2016, that for the first time in history the Israeli Judicial Committee had selected two Ethiopian women to serve as judges. The nominees, Adenko Sabhat Haimovich and Esther Tapeta Gradi, are lawyers who hope that their nomination will help promote racial equity in the Israeli legal system.
Lt. Col. Dr. Avraham Yitzhak became the first Ethiopian-Israeli to attain the rank of Colonel in the IDF in November 2016. Yitzhak was also the IDF's first ever military doctor of Ethiopian heritage. Born in Ethiopia, Yitzhak made aliyah to Israel in 1994 at age 19 to pursue his medical degree. He is a graduate of Ben-Gurion University's medical program.
According to the Ministry of Education during the 2013-14 school year, 33,359 Israelis of Ethiopian descent attended school, making up 2.97 percent of students in the Israeli education system. About two-thirds of them (67.5 percent) were born in Israel while about one-third was born in Ethiopia (32.5 percent). 45.3 percent of elementary school children of Ethiopian background attend regular public schools while 51.3 percent attend religious public schools and 3.9 percent attend Haredi schools. 40 percent of Ethiopian Israeli school children attend schools in which they comprise up to 10 percent of the student body.
Standardized tests (“Meitzav” in grades 2, 5 and 8, "Pisa" in grade 10 and the percentage qualifying for “Bagrut” (matriculation)) show that there are serious gaps between Ethiopian Israelis and the general population. These gaps are evident from grades on standardized tests in Hebrew, English and math – and increase as the grade level rises. Nevertheless, 88 percent of Ethiopian Israeli high school students completing grade 12 take bagrut exams in comparison with 86 percent of the general population. Only 50 percent of Ethiopian Israelis pass the exams and receive matriculation certificates, however, compared to 67 percent of the general population. These numbers have increased over the past six years, both among Ethiopian Israelis (an increase of 14.3 percent) and among the general population (an increase of 12.3 percent), hence the gap remains (in 2013-14 the gap was 17.3 percent). An even smaller percentage of Ethiopian Israelis receive matriculation certificates at a level required for university acceptance – 26.5 percent compared to 52.5 percent of the general Israeli population in 2013-14. The gap of 26 percent is similar to what it was six years ago.
Only 0.28 percent of Ethiopian Israelis participated in special programs for gifted children compared to 1.5 percent of the general Jewish population. Yet, the percentage of Ethiopian Israelis in special education is 50 percent higher than their proportion in the population.
The number of Ethiopian Israeli teachers employed in the school system increased from 54 in 2009-2010 to 240 in 2014, out of a total of 137,567 teachers - a participation rate of a mere 0.16 percent.
In the 2013/14 academic year, there were a total of 312,528 university/college students in Israel; 2,785 were Israelis of Ethiopian origin, i.e. Ethiopian Israelis make up 0.9 percent of university/college students while they are 1.5 percent of the population. Higher rates of Ethiopian Israeli women attend university than in the general population – 67.7 percent and 56.8 percent respectively (BA).
Between 2010 and 2013, 1,704 families of Ethiopian origin left absorption centers and 1,133 received increased government assistance (66 percent). In 2013, 85 percent of those who left absorption centers received increased assistance. Over the past 3 years, in the wake of advocacy efforts, the Ministry of Absorption has become more flexible in providing assistance to new immigrants of Ethiopian origin. Yet at present, more than 5,000 new immigrants from Ethiopia remain in absorption centers (out of a total of 7,000 new immigrants in the centers).
A deal reached in April 2016 between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Knesset members will allow 10,000 Ethiopian Jews to be absorbed into Israel between 2016 and 2020, according to an administration spokesperson. The agreement allowed room in the government budget for transportation costs, and for conversion program costs to better integrate the new citizens.
Despite the challenges outlined above, positive trends do exist: the number of Ethiopian Israelis receiving matriculation certificates has increased, as have the number of university students, and the percentage of Ethiopian Israeli women employed is similar to the number of women employed in the general population. Over the past 20 years, the socio-economic status of Israel's population has improved, including that of Ethiopian Israelis, although gaps remain, as noted. Though their proportion remains small, a growing number of Ethiopian Israelis has become part of Israeli middle class.
Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ)
Hoffman, Gill. “Coalition crisis averted: 9000 Ethiopian immigrants to be brought to Israel over 5 years,” Jerusalem Post (April 8, 2016);
Ari Gross, Judah. “In first, IDF taps member of Ethiopian community for colonel,” Times of Israel, (November 22, 2016);