Jewish Coalition Joins Effort to Enhance Ethiopian Absorption
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Jewish Coalition Joins Effort to Enhance Ethiopian Absorption

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One year ago in Jerusalem, a violent protest of Ethiopian Jews erupted after the discovery that Israeli health officials were disposing of their blood donations for fear of HIV contamination.

Consensus was that health officials had bungled badly. But there was also a recognition that the Ethiopians were expressing pain and outrage over the broader insult of not yet being accepted or absorbed by mainstream Israeli society.

Now, the American Jewish community, which raised millions of dollars to support the dramatic airlifts and resettlement of the Ethiopians in Israel, is being tapped once again to staunch a crisis in their absorption.

Unlike with Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991, however, the new effort appears to be less about money and more about pressing the Israeli government to pay closer attention.

For Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, the case for American Jewish involvement is clear.

The Ethiopian aliyah “exemplified what Israel and Zionism are all about,” he said.

American Jews were the “proud partner” of a Jewish sovereignty that took a big risk and mobilized “to provide for the safety and security of Jews in need, regardless of color and continent,” he said.

“We have a special stake in its success,” added Foxman, who is helping to steer a newly formed coalition to address the issue. “If we fail, we fail in this historic moment.”

For Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, there is another compelling aspect.

“Israel has been spared many racial divisions that have so plagued America and other Western countries. Resolving this issue is of paramount importance lest this problem grow.”

There are about 60,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, most of whom came from an agrarian environment and had little or no education.

Experts agree that intensive effort went into their initial absorption in Israel, and many successes have been reported. But they say more needs to be done to close growing social and economic gaps between them and other Israelis.

For the last few years, advocates have argued that Israel’s strained educational system is not meeting the needs of Ethiopian youths and that solving this problem is key to their successful integration.

A full 57 percent of the Ethiopians are younger than 18, with 27,800 in formal educational settings.

Without an immediate and targeted expansion of educational programs, these experts warn, the Ethiopians will become a permanently disaffected underclass.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which operates humanitarian projects around the world, is spearheading the new coalition, which includes most mainstream Jewish organizations. The JDC’s Israel-based operation has long run social programs for Ethiopian Israelis.

Coalition members say talk of new or special fund-raising here is premature. They want to make sure the problem is allocated high priority by the Israeli government and sufficient government resources. And they want to ensure that these resources are being spent effectively.

Merely the fact that the Jewish organized mainstream has agreed to take up the cudgel marks a victory for long-time advocates of Ethiopians, for whom time is of the essence.

“We have a crisis and if we don’t intervene now, we’ll create an underclass,” said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, the New York-based executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jews.

“Israel has a tracking system,” she said, referring to the public schools. “If students don’t do well in elementary school, they are tracked to vocational training and emerge as part of the lowest class of workers.”

“They don’t get a second chance,” she added. “Their entire future is determined by what happens in school at 7 or 8.”

The North American Conference runs intensive after-school programs for 550 elementary Ethiopian students in Lod and Ramla.

These supplementary kinds of programs are commonly available to other Israeli children whose parents can afford to pay for them.

Gordon would like to see the after-school programs extended to all 13,000 Ethiopian elementary students.

JDC-sponsored studies have shown that after-school enrichment can close educational gaps of Ethiopians within one to three years.

Such programs have other benefits as well. A father of three girls in one of the after-school programs told the teachers that he had no education in Ethiopia because he “could have walked for two days and never found a school,” Gordon said.

“It was breaking his heart that he couldn’t help his children and that they were failing in school.”

Now the father, who is partially blind and cannot work, is attending the classes with his daughters, who are thriving. “He says this changed his life,” Gordon said.

“Attention must be paid,” echoed New York philanthropist Edith Everett, who helped press the JDC to take the new initiative.

Although it is too soon to talk of any funding initiatives, “we want to prepare the environment so people understand they may be called upon” to provide money, said Everett, the only lay person to attend the new coalition’s recent first advocacy planning meeting.

Some say a highly public U.S.-based campaign is politically sensitive because it may be seen as an intrusion in the affairs of the Israeli government, whose mandate it is to absorb the immigrants. They also say it runs the risk of implying that the government has failed in the absorption efforts it has made.

But the JDC and others take pains to stress that the initiative is a partnership with the government and has received the government’s blessing.

Israeli government officials have long maintained that the Ethiopian absorption is a high priority that has been assigned unprecedented resources. But they also have acknowledged its unique complexity.

In a letter to the JDC’s Israel office, Education Minister Zevulun Hammer welcomed the American Jewish initiative and pledged his cooperation and that of his top officials.

Meanwhile, a JDC plan outlining the parameters of the coalition notes that “only the government of Israel has the resources and power to make a sustained institutional impact.”

But it says a joint effort here and in Israel has been established to identify the most effective programs and to coordinate resources so that these programs can be provided to further Ethiopian educational integration.

The JDC receives funding from the annual campaigns of the United Jewish Appeal and local federations, which contributed millions of dollars to the Ethiopian rescue and resettlement effort.

Micha Odenheimer, who heads the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews in Israel, long has sought U.S. Jewish attention to the problem.

“Education is the only possible way for this group to escape” from crisis, and American Jewish involvement and spending “could make a major difference,” he said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

Odenheimer was an outspoken advocate for the formation of the government- appointed Ben Ezer Commission, which in 1995 called for improving Ethiopian education at a cost of about $17 million per year for three years. Only roughly a third of that is being allocated.

While he clearly would like to see some of these gaps filled by the American Jewish community, he said any involvement would help. It would spur more government accountability, making the problem a higher priority and ensuring that money is spent more “strategically,” he said.

For those on this end, the new coalition is an effort to come together, as Foxman put it, to say to the Israeli government, “This isn’t over, we want to help you.”

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