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.
More than 135,000 Israelis of Ethiopian origin live 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).
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.
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).
In June 2019, the Council for Higher Education approved a multi-year $40.4-million plan to encourage academic excellence and leadership among Ethiopian-Israeli students as part of the 2015 Government Policy for Advancing the Integration of Israel Citizens of Ethiopian Descent into Israeli Society. The objective is to increase the number of Ethiopian students pursuing bachelor’s degrees by 40 percent, from 2,500 to approximately 3,500, within five years.
In 2020, Tel Aviv University announced the launch of a program to study the Orit, the Ethiopian version of the Hebrew Bible, which is written in Ge’ez, the language used by Ethiopian clergy. The project also seek to preserve songs, rabbinical interpretations and stories in Amharic and Tigrinya that are being lost as Ethiopian Jews assimilate into Israeli Society.
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 2012, residents of an apartment complex in Kiryat Malachi refused to sell or rent to Ethiopians, which provoked a protest against housing discrimination.
In 2015, protests erupted when a video surfaced showing two policemen beating an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier while he was in uniform, highlighting what members of the community say is a pattern of police brutality. A subsequent demonstration in Tel Aviv turned violent and 60 people were injured. After the incident, the government formed a commission to stamp out racism, which reported Ethiopians were discriminated against in education, medical treatment, employment and army enlistment. Ethiopians also were victims of “over-policing” – aggressive tactics in response to minor violations – and were indicted and jailed at far higher rates than other Israelis. Following the publication or the report, the situation has improved, with “a drop in over-policing” and “a significant improvement in police interactions with young Ethiopian Israelis.”
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.
In February 2018, the Israeli government ended a 30-year controversy over the status of traditional Ethiopian leaders known as kesim by recognizing their authority to perform official religious functions and the legitimacy of their halachic rulings.
In June 2019, an Ethiopian soldier reported that his commander had called him a “stinking kushi” — a Hebrew racial slur. The commander was relieved of duty.
The same month, police killed an unarmed Ethiopian teenager, which provoked protests across Israel. This was at least the fourth Ethiopian to be killed by police since 1997.
Gilad Erdan, the minister for internal security, and Motti Cohen, the acting police commissioner, promised to set up a new unit “to fight expressions of racism wherever they exist” and to ensure that force is used “moderately and responsibly only against those who break the law.”
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.
Just one Ethiopian Jewish family was allowed to immigrate to Israel in 2018.
On September 17, 2018, Israel announced plans to accept 1,000 more Ethiopian Jews out of an estimated population of 8,000. The first of these, a group of 82, landed in Israel on February 4, 2019. Only Jews with first degree family already in Israel were included in the government’s decision. They are able to bring their partners and any unmarried children who do not have children of their own.
Although a cabinet decision in 2015 promised to bring the entire Falash Mura community to Israel over a five-year period, the government never budgeted the roughly $55 million per year needed to absorb them.
On February 9, 2020, the government approved the immigration of 398 Ethiopian immigrants, including 43 who arrived late February and 73 (14 families) who arrived on March 24 just before Ethiopia officially closed its land borders as a response to the COVID-19 virus.
Following the loosening of coronavirus-related restrictions, Israel welcomed 119 immigrants from Ethiopia on May 21, 2020. This group of Falash Mura are scheduled to arrive on a special flight from Addis Ababa organized by the Jewish Agency. Their arrival will be a few days after Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian-born woman to serve in the Knesset, became the first Ethiopian-born woman to serve in the cabinet. She was appointed Minster for Immigration and Integration.
On July 23, 2020, another 34 Ethiopian Jews arrived. Like other immigrants landing in the country during the pandemic, they were quarantined for 14 days.
On October 12, 2020, the cabinet approved the aliyah of 2,000 Falash Mura. “This is a very painful and long-standing issue, and it is time to put an end to this injustice that cries to heaven,” Tamano-Shata said. “It is time to connect the torn families, embrace them and integrate them in the best way here in Israel alongside their families.”
Approximately 8,000 Falash Mura are still waiting to make aliyah, and about 4,500 of them have immediate family in Israel. “I intend to put an end to the issue and close the camps,” Tamano-Shata said.
Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said the decision was “an important and welcomed move promoted by Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata with dedication and professionalism out of a true national mission.”
“We will not stop there,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said. “There are thousands more waiting to immigrate, and this is an ongoing task of the Israeli government that means real life-saving. We as a government need to integrate the immigrants who come and remember that it is not just to bring a plane with immigrants; it is a mission that will last for years.”
On December 3, 2020, 316 Falash Mura arrived in Israel on the first flight of Operation Rock of Israel. This group, the children or grandchildren of members of the community who immigrated in the past, will be followed by another contingent on December 5. The government plans to airlift approximately 2,000 by the end of January 2021. The first 300 arrived on January 1.
Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomes Ethiopian Jews (December 3, 2020)
- 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 2012, Pnina Tamano-Shata becomes the first Ethiopian-born woman to serve in the Knesset.
- 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.
- Seventeen-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli Eden Alene won the 2018 Edition of Israel's
X Factorsinging contest television show in January 2018.
- In November 2018, Israel’s first male Ethiopian judge, Bialin Elazar, was appointed to Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.
- In December 2018, the Israeli Air Force’s first Ethiopian pilot completed his training.
- The International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry at Ono Academic College launched a Chair for Research of Ethiopian Jewry, the first such academic position in the country and likely the world.
- Pnina Tamano-Shata became Israel’s first Ethiopian-born cabinet minister in May 2020. She will be Minster for Immigration and Integration.
- In December 2020, Eden Amare Yitbarek became the first Israeli of Ethiopian background to win a Rhodes scholarship.
- Eden Alene will make history during Eurovision 2021 as Israel’s first Ethiopian representative.
Sources: The Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ).
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“119 immigrants from Ethiopia arrive in Israel,” Times of Israel, (May 21, 2020).
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Judy Maltz, “Another Group of Ethiopian Immigrants Lands in Israel Thursday Morning,” Haaretz, (July 23, 2020).
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Cnaan Liphshiz, “Tel Aviv University launches academic program to preserve knowledge of Ethiopian Jewish bible,” JTA, (October 28, 2020).
Jeremy Sharon, “First immigrants from Ethiopia in Operation Rock of Israel land,” Jerusalem Post, (December 3, 2020).
Sue Surkes, “Ethiopian-Israeli one of 2 Rhodes scholars bound for Oxford University,” Times of Israel, (December 17, 2020).
“300 Ethiopian immigrants the first to make aliyah to Israel in 2021,” Jerusalem Post, (January 3, 2021).
Gabe Friedman, “Listen: Israel’s 2021 Euro).vision song entry, by Ethiopian-Israeli pop star Eden Alene,” JTA, February 4, 2021
Photo: Israel Government Press Office