Behind the Headlines: Israel Reconsiders Schooling System Used to Educate Ethiopian Immigrants

Questions are being raised about the way Israel educates children who have immigrated here from Ethiopia, with some suggesting that the segregation of these immigrants is putting them at a permanent economic disadvantage.

Among the most vocal critics of the educational system into which Ethiopian immigrant children have been absorbed is Micha Odenheimer, Israel director of the American Association of Ethiopian Jews, soon to be renamed the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews.

Odenheimer believes Israel risks creating a permanent underclass of Ethiopian immigrants if its schooling system is not changed soon.

Virtually all of the children who arrived here during either the 1991 Operation Solomon airlift or the Operation Moses immigration wave of 1984-85 — some 21,000 students — are in the government’s religious school system, whose administration is entirely separate from the administration of the state’s secular schools.

Some maintain that this segregation, which is based on the fact that the Ethiopian immigrants tend to come from religiously traditional backgrounds, cuts them off from certain academic opportunities enjoyed by other immigrants.

Odenheimer voices especially sharp fears about the boarding schools in which more than 90 percent of Ethiopian teen-agers are educated. They are run by the Youth Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Youth Aliyah’s academic curricula are controlled by the Education Ministry, and in the case of the Ethiopians, by its religious education division.

Odenheimer questions whether the Ethiopians are being given a chance to reach their full potential because most have been tracked into vocational training.

He is not alone. Education Ministry statistics from 1992 show a significant gap between the academic achievement of the Ethiopian students and other Jewish Israelis.

VIRTUALLY SEGREGATED VILLAGES

Some, such as Yehiel Leket, head of the Jewish Agency’s Youth Aliyah Department, deny the validity of such comparisons. But he and other officials with responsibility for the welfare of these youth concede there are problems.

The education authorities all insist they are in the process of making the necessary changes.

Since 1983, roughly 9,000 Ethiopians between the ages of 12 and 18 have been or are being educated, in 52 different Youth Aliyah villages and dormitories.

Youth Aliyah’s mandate, officials say, has always been to give the students a stable environment that helps them to realize their potential and to mainstream them into Israeli society.

But Odenheimer says Youth Aliyah cannot fulfill its mainstreaming mandate if many live in essentially segregated villages, with more than 70 and 80 percent Ethiopians.

And he believes that not enough students have been offered the opportunity to take the bagrut, the academic matriculation exam, which he calls the “dividing line” or “watershed” for Israelis.

The exams are “strict requirements for continuing in any higher education framework,” he said, and usually a prerequisite for a good job. Without them, the youth will be relegated to work “as a fry cook at Burger Ranch,” he said, referring to a fast-food restaurant chain.

Only 30 percent of Ethiopian students took the exam in 1992, compared to 76 percent of Jewish Israelis, according to Education Ministry statistics. And only 10 percent of the Ethiopians who took the exam received a certificate of matriculation, compared to 60 percent of the overall population.

The head of the Education Ministry’s religious education division, Matityahu Dagan, conceded it was “a mistake of our system” to overemphasize vocational training for the Ethiopians.

“They are naturally intelligent and very keen to study,” he said, while high school vocational training across the board operates with “very, very low standards.”

Last year, he said, his ministry decided that all Ethiopians at Youth Aliyah schools should be exposed to academic instead of vocational training, at the end of which they can opt for a vocational course. But implementing this will take time and be difficult, he said.

A STRONG MOTIVATION TO STUDY

Leket, who has been head of Youth Aliyah for about a year, defends his program but also admits there are problems with the way Ethiopian youth are being educated.

He admits there is a problem of Ethiopian overconcentration in certain youth villages by virtue of mathematics.

Since nearly all of the Ethiopians are in the religious programs, and only 50 percent of Youth Aliyah villages are religious, the result is “like an Ethiopian ghetto,” in which 70 to 80 percent of the students are Ethiopian.

“We should find a way to change it,” Leket said. “The aim should be no youth villages with more than 50 percent” Ethiopians.

Leket is also willing to consider whether the Youth Aliyah program enables the Ethiopian immigrants to realize their full academic potential.

He concedes that the Ethiopian students “can do better. They have a strong, unique motivation and are ready to study, study, study.”

He said the new academic programs that his department has introduced this year will help “give an opportunity to most of the children to take the bagrut.”

Odenheimer of the Ethiopian Jewry association believes the Ethiopians are a “very unique” but vulnerable population, who came here in large measure “with very little preparation for Western society.”

He believes that unless a strong and consistent push is exerted to enable them to break the barriers, there will be a natural downward slide that will not be easily reversed.

“If the special needs of this group, who have arrived in Israel from a vastly different culture, are not addressed,” Odenheimer wrote recently in a letter to Immigrant Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, “the inevitable result will be the creation of a subclass with all the added problems that racial distinctions bring to economically deprived groups.”

“The time to act is now,” he warned Tsaban, “before the place of the Ethiopians within Israeli society has been fixed, both for others and within the Ethiopian’s own self-image.”

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