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Ethiopian Jewry: The Situation of Ethiopian Jews in Israel

(May 2017)

Demographics
Income and Employment
Education
Discrimination
New Immigrants
Milestones
Conclusion

Ethiopian Jews have been in Israel for more than three decades, yet the vast majority continue 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.

Demographics

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 2015, the income of an Ethiopian household was 35 percent lower than that of an average household in Israel. More than 35 percent of Ethiopian Israeli families live under the poverty line in comparison with 18.6 percent of Israeli families in general.

On the positive side, the percentage of employed Ethiopians increased from 50 to 72 percent between 2003 and 2015. The percentage of women in the work force grew from 35 percent to 65 percent in a decade.

Only 5 percent of Ethiopians hold “quality” jobs compared to 33 percent of Jewish Israelis in general. That is changing, however, as more Ethiopians complete higher education: 55 percent of Ethiopian university graduates are employed in high-quality positions, similar to the figure for the general Jewish population. Salaries of Ethiopian graduates lag, primarily because a large proportion take lower paying jobs in fields such as nursing and teaching. Some activists also complain that young people have to change their names to sound less Ethiopian to get jobs.

In 2015, the average spending for Ethiopian Israeli households was 33% less than that of Israeli households in general, in correspondence with the gross income of Ethiopian Israeli households which is approximately 35% lower than Israeli households in general.

Education

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). More than 45 percent of elementary school children of Ethiopian background attend regular public schools while 51 percent attend religious public schools and 4 percent attend Haredi schools. Forty percent of Ethiopian Israeli school children attend schools in which they comprise up to 10 percent of the student body.

Today, 90 percent of Ethiopian Jews have a high-school education, similar to the 93 percent of the overall Jewish population.

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 20 percent have university education compared to 40 percent of the general population, a reflection of the fact that only 53 percent pass their matriculation exams compared to 73 percent of the general population. The matriculation results and participation in higher education for the second generation, however, is roughly four times higher than their parents’ generation.

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).

Discrimination

Israelis were very excited and proud to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and felt a particular affinity for their commitment to Judaism in exile and desire to return to Zion. Nevertheless, Ethiopians have sometimes been victims of discrimination. Only 25 percent of Israelis say they want to live next to Ethiopians and the government settled many of them in towns on Israel’s periphery.

In 2015, protests erupted when a video surfaced showing two policemen beating an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier while he was in uniform, highlighting want members of the community said was a pattern of police brutality. A subsequent demonstration in Tel Aviv turned violent and 60 people were injured.

Activists also complain that students of Ethiopian descent, even if born in Israel, fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Absorption rather than the Ministry of Education. They say that their history is not being taught with the same diligence as that of other immigrant groups.

New Immigrants

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).

The Israeli government approved the entry of the “last group” of Ethiopian Jews in November 2015, aiming to finish what was started by Operation Moses 30 years prior. This announcement came two years after Israeli government officials claimed that no Jews remained in Ethiopia. There have been several supposedly “last” groups of Ethiopian Jews that have made aliyah to Israel, with the most recent group of 450 arriving in Israel in 2013. It is estimated that this proposal approved the entry into Israel of approximately 9,100 Ethiopian Jews, most of whom were at the time living in refugee camps in Adis Ababa and Gondar. The first group of this new wave of Ethiopian immigration to Israel arrived eleven months after the initial announcement, on October 9, 2016. Knesset members and other government officials met the group of 63 Falash Mura at Ben Gurion Airport, to welcome them to their new lives.

A deal reached in April 2016 between Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

On November 16, 2017, 69 Jews arrived in Israel from Ethiopia; however, the government decision to bring all the remaining Jews to Israel has still not been fully implemented.

Milestones

  • In 1999, Ethiopian youth joined the Israeli Scouts and the first Ethiopian Jew became a doctor.
  • In 2012, Israel appointed its first Ethiopian Jewish ambassador.
  • In 2013, an Ethiopian-Israeli won the Miss Israel Pageant.
  • In 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, and is a graduate of Ben-Gurion University's medical program. 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. In another first, Yitzhak became the first Ethiopian-Israeli to attain the rank of Colonel in the IDF in November 2016.
  • In 2016, the Israeli Bar Association announced that for the first time in history the Israeli Judicial Committee had selected two Ethiopian women, Adenko Sabhat Haimovich and Esther Tapeta Gradi, to serve as judges.  Haimowitz will serve on the Central District Magistrate’s Court and Gardi was appointed to serve on the Haifa District Traffic Court.
  • In 2017, an Ethiopian-Israeli IDF officer, Major Yaros Shigot, lit the torch at Israel's national Independence Day ceremony. 

Conclusion

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.


Sources: The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ)
Lee Yaron, “Ethiopians Earn 40 Percent Less Than Average Israeli Household,” Haaretz, (November 11, 2015);
Gill Hoffman, “Coalition crisis averted: 9000 Ethiopian immigrants to be brought to Israel over 5 years,” Jerusalem Post (April 8, 2016);
Judah Ari Gross, “In first, IDF taps member of Ethiopian community for colonel,” Times of Israel, (November 22, 2016);
Faye Greer Cashman, “Ethiopian Israeli women appointed judges,” Jerusalem Post, (December 21, 2016);
Meirav Arlosoroff, “Ethiopians in Israel: An Employment and Educational Success,” Haaretz, (July 9, 2015);
Jerusalem Report, (June 15, 2015);
Ilan Lior, “Israel Set to Greenlight Final Aliyah of Ethiopia's Falashmura Community,” Haaretz, (November 14, 2015):
Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman, “Breaking Glass,” Jerusalem Report, (February 6, 2017);
“231 immigrants from two ‘lost tribes’ arrive in Israel,” Times of Israel, (November 16, 2017).