Israel’s yuppie Ethiopians

Larry Derfner takes a look at Israel’s Ethiopian community and finds a new generation of up-and-coming professionals

Yitzhak Dessie, an Ethiopian Jew who immigrated in 1984, was sitting behind the desk in the Tel Aviv law office he rented a few weeks ago. Two years out of Haifa University Law School, he clerked for the ultra-prestigious firm of Haim Zadok, and is now going on his own.

An Ethiopian lawyer? What a strange notion. Ethiopians are known in this country mainly for two things – their horrendous social problems and sweet natures. They bring with them a long heritage of primitive, pre-industrial living in rural Ethiopia, not the best training ground for Israel’s universities or professional world.

Dessie, 29, speaks softly, but there’s a steely quality about him.

“Any opposing lawyer who doesn’t take me seriously because I’m an Ethiopian will find out very quickly that I’m at least as good as he is, if not better,” he says.

“And if he thinks he can take advantage of me because I’m a ‘nice’ Ethiopian, that will backfire on him.”

When Dessie came to Israel in 1984, there were virtually no Ethiopian role models for success, except for a couple of social workers and teachers.

The 60,000 or so Ethiopians who’ve arrived in the last two decades – another roughly 15,000 were born here – have only slowly begun to see some of their countrymen “make it.”

However, it will be different for the some 3,500 Ethiopian Jews who have begun arriving from the Quara region. There are now the beginnings of an Ethiopian professional class – still minuscule, with only a few dozen members, but it’s there and growing. Yitzhak Dessie is a rarity, but he’s not alone.

There are three Ethiopian lawyers, and one Israeli- trained physician, Dr. Avi Yitzhak at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba. (Two other Ethiopian-born doctors were educated abroad before immigrating.) There are a few Technion- trained engineers, as well as accountants, computer programmers, IDF officers and about a dozen rabbis. The bulk of the Ethiopian professional elite is in social work and teaching.

The picture should improve markedly in the near future; 855 Ethiopians are studying in college and university this year (including 313 enrolled in college preparatory programs).

TALKING with Ethiopian professionals, one finds out that their achievements weren’t accidental – they grew up in families where education was highly valued.

Dessie was raised in the village of Ambober by his grandfather, a kes, or spiritual leader. “He would begin farming at about five in the morning, then go somewhere at eight or nine to perform a ceremony, then come back and continue farming. By the time I got up to go to school, he’d already finished half a day’s work,” Dessie recalls.

His parents moved to Addis Ababa to find work. His father, Molato, became chief aide in the embassy in Djibouti before being jailed for nine months for helping “smuggle” Jews to Israel. He later began studying in university, finished his degree in Israel and is now a social worker in Migdal Ha’emek.

Only a few hundred Ethiopian Jews came from Addis Ababa, but they make up a disproportionately large number of Ethiopian professionals in Israel. Within the Ethiopian community, those from Addis are frequently seen as snobs.

“They’re our ‘northerners’ (yuppies). They say, ‘We’re not from the village, we’re from the city,’ ” said Asher Elias, a computer programmer and official with the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.

“I have contempt for those types,” said Dessie. “There are some people who haven’t gotten anywhere in Israel, but they’ll say, ‘I’m from Addis,’ as if that makes them something. Some will say they’re from Addis even if they were only there for a month. But the truly cultured people from Addis tend to be very friendly and decent. They don’t have to show off.”

EYNAT Asress, a second-year law student at Bar-Ilan University from the village of Gayena, used to commute four hours to school – on foot. “After all the effort I put into going to school in Ethiopia, I wasn’t going to let it go to waste in Israel,” she said.

Gayena was a “modern” village compared to others in the Gondar region, she said, and many youngsters in the village attended school regularly. Two of her cousins received degrees in medicine at Ethiopian universities. Asress said her parents, who live in Karmiel, always strongly encouraged her, the eldest of eight children, to study.

Ethiopian immigrants get free tuition and board at the colleges and universities, Elias noted. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be more than 200 Ethiopians there,” he said. In addition, entrance requirements are somewhat relaxed, especially on the psychometric exam, which, Elias noted, is geared to students of Western background.

He faults university academic advisers for steering Ethiopian students into social work and teaching, where they will be able to work with “their own kind,” which isn’t doing them any favors.

Elias said that one of the most important ingredients for an Ethiopian’s success in Israel is “having an attitude that you have got to get it yourself, not that the world owes you living.”

Another marker for professional success among Ethiopians is a high-school matriculation from the Yemin Orde Youth Village, the “Eton” of Israeli boarding schools, whose student body is about 40 percent Ethiopian.

Ethiopian high-achievers tend to emerge from Yemin Orde, Elias said, partly because the school starts off by accepting only students who show potential, and because, “They place expectations upon the Ethiopians, they don’t handle them with kid gloves.”

Yemin Orde director Dr. Chaim Peri said the key to the school’s success is its teaching of a creed that comes down to “Ethiopian is beautiful.”

“Ethiopian Jewish culture is a proud, wonderful heritage, and they mustn’t lose it. Pride in your heritage is the basis for self-pride, without which there is no success,” Peri said. “Without a past, you don’t have a future.”

ALL OR virtually all of the Ethiopian success stories are no older than their early 30s, Elias noted. The younger they arrived in Israel, the better chance they have of getting ahead, he maintained.

Elias, who received a degree in business and computers from Jerusalem’s College of Management, was born in Israel. He said his older sister, Rina, was the first Ethiopian Jew born in Israel, and she is an accountant today in Haifa, having gotten a master’s degree in business from Tel Aviv’s College of Management.

Business is a problem for Ethiopians; it usually takes money, connections and/or an aggressive personality to succeed, and Ethiopians don’t come by these attributes naturally.

Peri, whose boarding school recently gave courses in entrepreneurship, mentioned another problem. “Ethiopians have to get out of the ghetto. Ethiopian entrepreneurs are always advised to import Ethiopian spices. How much Ethiopian spice can people eat?”

He acknowledged that there was a contradiction, one he hasn’t figured out how to solve, between encouraging Ethiopians to hold onto their heritage and teaching them to succeed in Israeli business.

“The Ethiopian code of behavior is very refined, they internalize their feelings,” Peri noted. “My fear is that if they try to adapt themselves to the codes of behavior in business, they’ll lose their distinct Ethiopian character.”

ASK EXPERTS on the Ethiopian community about the success stories in business, and they right away mention Ilana Almaz, who runs a hairstyling salon on the fourth floor of Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station.

After the IDF, Almaz worked at a Tel Aviv restaurant, saved money, took out a loan through the Absorption Ministry, and in 1995, at age 22, opened “Ethiopian Style.”

She’s not a threat to Shuki Zikri yet – her shop employs two hairdressers, one of whom is Almaz’s sister – but by Ethiopian standards, she’s a virtual tycoon.

Asked to name other Ethiopians in business, she mentioned the owner of an Ethiopian nightclub in Tel Aviv, and said she’s heard of a couple of Ethiopian-run grocery stores here and there, but that’s about it.

Almaz said that because she came to Israel at age five, the problems Ethiopians have adapting to the Israeli business style “don’t apply” to her. “Besides,” she added, “being nice to customers is good for business.”

Elias said Ethiopians in the professions haven’t yet reached the critical mass necessary to form a “network,” one that can provide connections – entry-level jobs, clients or contacts – to young Ethiopians just starting out.

Dessie said Zadok’s office has steered some clients his way, the Public Defender’s Office has provided others, and he got a number of clients from having been legal adviser to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. So far, he said, all his clients have been Ethiopians.

When he worked at a Tel Aviv computer company, Elias, who has light skin, said he “used to enjoy telling customers I was Ethiopian, just to see their reaction. They’d be startled. They’d say, ‘No kidding! How’d you become a computer programmer?’ ”

He said he’s found that being an Ethiopian is a handicap for a professional in Israel. “Israelis have all sorts of preconceptions about Ethiopians, and they’re just about all negative – we’ve got AIDS, we’re primitive, we’re welfare cases. That’s all Israelis hear about us in the media,” he said.

Asked if he thought that prejudice would stand in the way of his finding non-Ethiopian clients, Dessie replied, “I don’t pay much attention to that issue, I just don’t have the time to think about it. I do my work, and if some Israelis are prejudiced toward me because I’m an Ethiopian, that’s out of my hands. If it’s an issue, then I think that little by little, it’ll be less of one.”

Asress was likewise dismissive of prejudice as an obstacle. “There are also many Israelis who aren’t prejudiced against Ethiopians, and who truly wish us well. Every ethnic group has its prejudices and its stigmas,” she said. “To put it simply, I’m not the sort of person who cries over such things.”

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