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Focus on Issues: Israel Not Making the Grade in Educating Ethiopian Youth

January 12, 1998
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The rescue of Ethiopian Jewry stands as an enduring source of pride for the Jewish community — a heroic undertaking that exemplified what Israel and Zionism are all about.

Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991 brought tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, where the promise of a better life awaited them.

But while the government’s absorption efforts have achieved important successes in helping Ethiopian immigrants find affordable homes and jobs, Israel’s educational system has, by all accounts, failed to meet the community’s special needs.

Some Jewish leaders view it as nothing short of a crisis that threatens to tear at the fabric of Israeli society.

“The last thing that Israel needs is to have the development over the next generation of a black underclass,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“It would be disastrous for Israel, for all of us who took such pride in the extraordinary rescue of the Ethiopian community.”

Now, a coalition of Jewish organizations in Israel and the United States is stepping up its efforts to convince the Israeli government to take decisive action.

Specifically, advocates are urging the government to allocate funding for a plan that calls for intervention in 10 key communities with a high concentration of Ethiopian immigrants.

Without an immediate and targeted expansion of educational programs, they warn, the Ethiopian community will only grow further alienated from Israeli society.

Indeed, many Ethiopian youths are beginning to identify more as Africans than as Jews, experts say.

The coalition’s efforts to convince the Israeli government to allocate the necessary resources, however, have so far failed to yield concrete results.

It is not the government’s commitment to addressing the problem that advocates question, but its willingness to make the issue a top priority.

“We’re on the same side. This is one of those issues in which there is no ideological difference whatsoever,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“All of us just have to reach a little bit deeper into our pockets and into our energies to make something good happen here.”

There are about 60,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, most of whom came from an agrarian environment and had little or no education. Seventy-five percent of the community’s adults arrived in Israel illiterate even in their native Amharic.

About 60 percent of the Ethiopians are younger than 18, with some 28,000 in formal educational settings.

From the beginning, experts say, the deck is stacked against these children, as indicated by these findings:

Only 50 percent of Ethiopian children attend preschool at age three, compared to 90 percent of other Israelis;

Ethiopian children quickly fall behind in elementary school in acquiring basic academic skills;

In high school, 75 percent of Ethiopian students are channeled into non- academic vocational tracks;

Only 10 percent matriculate from high school, compared to 40 percent among the general population, and the number of dropouts is steadily increasing; and

Ethiopian parents have little or no contact with their children’s schools.

“For those of us who spent a lot of time in the [Ethiopian] villages in the 1980s and saw these same children walking barefoot five miles each way to get to a one-room school, I can’t tell you how heartbreaking it is to see them failing to become educated in Israel,” said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of the New York-based North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.

“It is just unacceptable because we know that the potential is there,” she said.

The effort to address the absorption crisis is being undertaken on two fronts.

Led by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Israel operation, an Israeli coalition of key government ministries, educational organizations and advocacy groups for the Ethiopian community has been developing and implementing programs to raise the achievement levels of Ethiopian children.

An American counterpart group, spearheaded by the JDC and consisting of several mainstream Jewish groups, has been playing an advocacy role in trying to convince the Israeli government to make the issue a higher priority and back up its commitment to Ethiopian integration with the necessary resources.

Together, the advocates have developed and endorsed a “Ten-City Plan for Integration in Israeli Society.” It calls on the government to allocate $12 million to programs ranging from early childhood to youth-at-risk in 10 communities that are home to 60 percent of all the country’s Ethiopians.

After the first year, the program would then be expanded to 20 other towns and cities with sizable Ethiopian populations. Projected costs would rise to $18 million per year.

Although some American Jewish individuals have been working to raise funds to help meet some of the costs of the program, organizational officials here stress that only the Israeli government has the means to intervene in a way that would bring immediate and sustained results.

The government, for its part, has maintained that Ethiopian absorption is a high priority that has been assigned unprecedented resources.

So far the Ministry of Education has responded favorably to the initiative and to the education campaign, according to Jewish officials here.

In a recent letter to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and co-chairman of the American coalition, Israeli Education Minister Zevulun Hammer commended “the most welcome and worthy activities” of the coalition.

However, the government has yet to officially endorse the specific plan or allocate funding.

Although the 1998 budget recently approved by the Knesset does not contain funding specifically earmarked for the program, as advocates had urged, they remain hopeful that the government might draw on discretionary education funds to begin funding the plan in the current year.

Given some of Israel’s other preoccupations — the peace process, terrorism, religious pluralism — focusing attention on the Ethiopian situation remains all the more difficult.

But unlike so many of the intractable issues confronting the country, advocates stress that the problem of Ethiopian educational integration is both finite and manageable.

“The problems are new, the numbers of people involved are small, the goodwill is still there, and this is the time to solve them,” said Gordon of the North American Conference.

Jewish officials, meanwhile, emphasize that time is of the essence.

“Every day that a kid falls behind can impact on the rest of his life,” Foxman said.

The loss, he added, is detrimental not only to the children, but to the Jewish community, to Israel and to history.

“This is this little jewel that we all carried and said, `Look at what Israel is, look at what the Jewish people are about, look at what Zionism is,” ‘ Foxman said. “If we don’t deal with it now it will haunt us and it will mar the promise of Israel and all that it represents.”

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