The stereotype is of a community beset by unemployment, its youngsters failing at school, its elders helpless. But while many Ethiopians do fit that image, a new generation of activists is quietly inspiring a turnaround – evident in the dramatic rise of those graduating high school and enrolling in university. Now, in partnership with American Jews and the Israeli government, these young leaders are about to take on a still-greater challenge.

THE GRAFFITI-MARKED apartment blocks of the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood at the edge of the town of Rehovot are inhabited by an uneasy mix of working-class Sephardim and Ethiopian immigrants, who call it “cheka sefer,” Amharic for “mud neighborhood.” Afternoons, Ethiopian teenagers wearing bandannas and oversized clothes and giant combs around their necks hang out on park benches; some smoke marijuana and fight among themselves. It appears to be yet another Israeli tragedy in the making: an ancient Jewish community that dreamed of returning to Zion transformed into a black underclass.

Yet Kiryat Moshe contains a less-obvious but no-less-powerful counter-narrative. In the last few years, a local Ethiopian leadership – composed of young army veterans and college graduates – has emerged to challenge the community’s confusion and despair. The activists created a tutoring program for teenagers on the verge of dropping out of school, including classes in computer literacy and a club featuring reggae music, popular among young Ethiopians alienated from Israeli identity. The results are evident in the local community center, whose walls are covered with photographs of high-school seniors wearing caps emblazoned with the words, “Olim l’universita” – ascending (or immigrants) to college.

Finally, the Kiryat Moshe activists turned to politics: They held internal elections within the Ethiopian community and then ran for – and won overwhelming control over – the local community council.

The unlikely leader of the Kiryat Moshe revolution is community council chairman Abbai Zeodeh, whose round face makes him look even younger than his 26 years. When he moved to Kiryat Moshe shortly after immigrating to Israel a decade ago, he discovered that social tensions between immigrant and other Israeli youth were so intense that violence and even murder seemed imminent. We’ve all come here to live together as Jews, he told himself; and he resolved to change the atmosphere. Though he lacked any formal social work training – he was studying computers at the time – his instincts were those of a veteran social worker. He began his one-man effort by hanging out with Ethiopian gangs and winning their trust: “I just listened to the kids’ complaints, no matter how long they went on. I felt that someone needed to hear them out. They began to look at me like an older brother.”

Then he sought out the rival Sephardi gangs. He listened to their members too, allowing them to complain about how the Ethiopians were ruining the neighborhood. When they’d gotten used to his presence, he told them the story of his community, which for centuries had preserved Judaism against adversity and then buried 4,000 of its members on the trek through jungle and desert to Israel. “If you get to know us,” he said, “you’ll see that we’re good people.”

Having won the trust of both Ethiopians and Israelis, his next step was to create mixed soccer teams. Then he began an employment program to help neighborhood teenagers find summer jobs. And when he ran for the community council, he won not only the votes of Ethiopians but of veteran residents. “Now the threat of violence has passed,” he says. “You can even hear Ethiopians and Israelis calling each other ‘ahi’ – my brother – on the soccer field.”

Does Zeodeh – who serves as adviser on Ethiopian affairs to Rehovot’s mayor – have political ambitions beyond the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood council?

He smiles, as if caught. “The sky’s the limit,” he says.

ZEODEH’S SUCCESSFUL experiment in community relations is just part of a much wider movement of self-empowerment among Israel’s 80,000 Ethiopians – half of whom are under the age of 19.

For the first time since mass Ethiopian immigration began in the early 1980s, a college-educated leadership – young, shrewd, articulate – has emerged that is committed to bringing the community into the Israeli mainstream. By focusing on single issues like education or health care, local activists are rapidly learning how to work the system. In Kiryat Gat, activists successfully pressured a reluctant municipality to fund an Ethiopian synagogue, then organized synagogue members into a permanent lobby for Ethiopian social needs. In Beersheba, volunteers teach immigrant mothers how to deal with their Sabra children and prepare them for kindergarten and grade school. In Haderah, young leaders seeking to promote community self-esteem persuaded the family courts to formally sponsor Ethiopian elders as marriage counselors. And a Kfar Saba-based organization called “Fidel” – Amharic for “alphabet” – runs a two-year program to train facilitators whose role is to mediate between teachers and Ethiopian parents and children.

The new leadership is being drawn from the growing number of young Ethiopians receiving higher education. A thousand Ethiopians are currently enrolled in Israeli universities and junior colleges, while another thousand are studying in pre-college programs – an astonishing success for a community that arrived in Israel less than two decades ago with almost no experience of formal education. The community has produced its first two doctors, and several lawyers are on the way.

One of the lawyers is Kobi Zena, who sports a goatee and sleek sunglasses, and comes from the southern development town of Kiryat Gat. As a student in an academically poor religious high school, Zena could barely cope with his studies; finally, in 11th grade, he dropped out and went to pick fruit in farms up north. “I looked at myself and asked, ‘Is this what I came to Israel to become?'” He returned to school – this one secular and academically robust – where he received enough help to pass his matriculation exams. “The journey from Ethiopia to Israel was physically challenging, but we were energized by our hopes. Then we came here and lost all our illusions. Now our journey into Israeli society is the real struggle.”

More and more young Ethiopians are succeeding in that struggle. In 1999, 32 percent of graduating Ethiopian high-school students passed their matriculation exams – up from a mere 7 percent in 1994. Community activists note that the national average for matriculation is over 50 percent, and insist there is little cause for cele-bration. “My measure for success is modern Israeli society, not Ethiopia,” says Zena. Yet that very impatience is itself a hopeful sign: Young Ethiopians insist on nothing less than full integration into the mainstream.

The matriculation breakthrough is largely the result of lobbying efforts by the “Education Coalition,” founded in 1996 by Ethiopian activist groups, the Joint Distribution Committee (known simply as “the Joint”) and several American Jewish family foundations. The coalition, coordinated by the Joint, has pressured the government into establishing a nationwide program to help Ethiopians pass matriculation exams. And any Ethiopian student who qualified for higher education is now given a full tuition and housing subsidy – more than students from any other immigrant group. The results, say Ethiopian activists, prove what the community can achieve if given a chance to succeed.

Yet few Israelis are aware of the extra-ordinary changes that have occurred within the Ethiopian community in the last five years. Instead, the Israeli media continues to focus on the bad news – reinforcing the stigma attached to Ethiopians, who are widely seen as “primitive.”

Just recently, for example, the mayor of Gederah, near Rehovot, publicly called on the government to stop sending Ethiopian immigrants to his town, whose schools, he said, are inundated with needy Ethiopian children. And several kibbutzim that are temporarily housing Ethiopian immigrants have refused to admit Ethiopian children into their kindergartens.

The bad news about Ethiopian absorption remains very bad indeed. Most immigrants, for example, live in poor neighborhoods that are largely Ethiopian. Over 60 percent of Ethiopian families have no breadwinner; only 32 percent of Ethiopian fathers and 10 percent of Ethiopian mothers are employed. And even as one part of the community makes its tentative first steps into higher education and the middle class, another segment is slipping into permanent poverty. At least 6 percent of Ethiopian high-school students drop out every year, nearly double the average Israeli rate – and community activists say the number of Ethiopian youth attending school in name only is far higher. The sub-culture around reggae and rap – based on a black rather than Jewish identity – is moving from the fringes of Ethiopian youth to the mainstream. Young Ethiopians account for a major part of the case load of the Youth Probation Service – this, from a community which until two decades ago knew no juvenile delinquency. “Once it was shocking to see an Ethiopian kid with dreadlocks, hanging out in the street and smoking cigarettes,” says Rehovot education activist Itai Eshetu, who came to Israel as a boy without his parents and grew up in boarding schools. “Now there’s at least one kid like that in every family.”

The emergence of a young and effective leadership means that the community has a fighting chance – but no more than that. The positive and the dissipating forces within the community now vie in defining its future.

Activists say that the role of Israeli society in reinforcing either trend is critical. Yet Israelis, they insist, have conveyed a devastating if unintentional message that Ethiopian immigrants don’t quite belong. The community has endured a series of painful humiliations – from the religious establishment’s initial insistence that immigrants formally convert to Judaism, to the revelation in 1996 that the nation’s blood banks were routinely throwing away blood donated by Ethiopian immigrants, feared to be AIDS carriers. Though Ethiopians no longer need to formally convert, and the AIDS scare has largely passed, the residue of those crises has been a lingering sense of otherness.

The real problem, note activists, isn’t Israeli racism, but a patronizing attitude toward the immigrants. “Open racism doesn’t exist here like in Canada or the U.S.,” says Ethiopian-born Batya Iyov, who grew up in Montreal, moved to Israel three years ago and now runs Ethiopian programs here for the New Israel Fund. “But there’s a subtle reluctance to admit Ethiopians to the mainstream, to believe that Ethiopians can make it.”

On a dead-end side street off Rehovot’s main avenue is a restaurant with a torn awning and no sign. Only the Ethiopian flag in the window indicates this is Rehovot’s first Ethiopian restaurant – one of the town’s eight small businesses recently opened by Ethiopians. The little room consists of a few Formica tables, woven baskets on the wall, a symbolic bar; the menu features solely Ethiopian cuisine based on pancake-like bread with meat sauces. “When I tried to get a loan from the government and the Joint, I was told I’ll never succeed,” says owner Belay Fanta. “But I’ve been here for two years already, and I’m doing okay. There’s a strong desire among young people in the community to succeed, but the message we get all the time is that we’ll never make it. The biggest problem for the Ethiopian community isself-confidence. That’s why a place like this is so important for us.”

THE LEADING FORCE IN THE self-empowerment movement is the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), the community’s advocacy and lobbying organization. It was the IAEJ that led the successful effort, in the mid-1990s, to end the Ministry of Education’s scandalous policy of routinely sending Ethiopian students to vocational rather than academic schools, and to boarding schools that were almost entirely Ethiopian.

On the walls of its well-equipped and expansive Jerusalem office – funded in part by several American Jewish community federations and private family foundations – hang posters painted by Ethiopian children. In one painting, children – their faces colored brown and blue and green – hold hands around a giant menorah; in another, immigrants ride a bus painted with the flags of a dozen countries. The message is a negation of black sepa-ratism: We’ve come home, to take our place among the ingathering of the Jews.

The IAEJ is itself an example of Ethiopian empowerment. Though founded by American immigrant (and Jerusalem Report contributing editor) Micha Odenheimer in 1994, the organization is now headed by young, college-educated Ethiopians. “I was amazed at how quickly the community developed its own savvy and articulate leaders,” says Odenheimer, who stepped down as IAEJ head three years ago to make way for the community’s activists. During a recent visit to the IAEJ office, the only non-Ethiopian staff person present was the secretary.

The IAEJ staff members are angry but not bitter, hopeful despite themselves about the community’s future. Partly that’s because they see their very presence in Israel as a victory, even a miracle. The IAEJ’s director, Shula Mola, then 12 years old, walked from Ethiopia to the Sudan with her family in 1984, carrying her 1-year-old brother on her back when her mother got ill. She became an activist almost by chance: When one of her younger brothers was mistakenly placed in a special education program – common practice by the educational establishment, which often confuses cultural differences for learning disorders – Mola decided to fight. She went from school to school, trying to find a principal who would reverse the decision. Finally, she attended a meeting between parents with children in special education and then-education minister, Zevulun Hammer; Mola stood up and delivered an impassioned speech against placing young Ethiopians in special ed, and found herself becoming a spokesperson. Even now, in a sense, she’s continued carrying her younger siblings on her back.

For Mola, the biggest obstacle to Ethiopian absorption is what she calls “the projects mentality.” Rather than integrate Ethiopians into the Israeli system, she charges, community members are kept suspended in a series of projects sponsored by the government and the Jewish Agency that are intended to integrate them into the mainstream but which, ironically, only reinforce their separateness. Many municipalities, she notes, have eliminated the Ethiopians from their budgets, preferring outside funding to deal with immigrants. “We’re not treated as citizens, but as subjects of projects,” she complains.

In the Education Ministry, for example, several dozen Ethiopians are employed as tutors for Ethiopian students – but those tutors aren’t part of the regular system, only hired as part of special projects. The result is a feeling of permanent temporariness: “At any time they can be dismissed, without compensation.” Even more ludicrous, she adds, is the situation at the Absorption Ministry, whose four Ethiopian employees are hired under a special “project,” their salaries paid for by the Joint. And so, unlike some of the Absorption Ministry’s Russian immigrant employees, the Ethiopian employees aren’t part of the civil service and are denied its benefits. “The very body intended to absorb Ethiopians hasn’t absorbed its own Ethiopian employees,” says Mola.

The director of the Joint’s Israel office, Arnon Mantver, confirms Mola’s charges. “It’s an outrage,” he says, adding that he intends to suspend the salaries for the Absorption Ministry’s Ethiopian employees, in a bid to force it to integrate them into the civil service.

THE UNEASY RELATIONSHIP between the new leadership and the establishment is about to undergo its most crucial test. Beginning in January, 2002, a nine-year, $ 660-million project aimed at accelerating Ethiopian absorption will be launched – funded jointly by Diaspora Jewry and the Israeli government. Called the “National Project,” it brings together the government, the Jewish Agency, the Joint, the United Jewish Communities (a merger between the UJA and the Federation), Keren Hayesod (the UJC equivalent in Diaspora communities outside the U.S.) – and the young Ethiopian leadership.

Initially, according to activists, the government and the Jewish Agency tried to present their Ethiopian employees as community representatives. But the activists revolted. Says Mola: “We told them that their Ethiopian employees are good people who care about the community, but they represent their organizations, not us. We didn’t want to put them in the difficult position of choosing between the interests of the community and the organizations.”

The young leaders then organized a nationwide election involving dozens of local Ethiopian groups and national organizations. A 10-member board was elected to represent the community on the National Project – the first time Ethiopians have managed to unite in a reasonably representative structure. “There’s a new maturity among the leadership,” notes the New Israel Fund’s Iyov. “If nothing else happens with the National Project, it’s already succeeded in getting the community to work together.”

The activists have won their first crucial battle: The community representatives have been made one of six equal voting partners in the decision-making process.

The next battle will be over allocations. Says Odenheimer: “At least some portion of the funds of the National Project must be set aside for strengthening grass-roots organizations. In the last five years, many Ethiopian organizations and local initiatives have become professional to the point where they can be the most effective agents for change. It would be a disaster if the positive changes that have happened in the community aren’t taken into account when budgets are allocated.”

While agreeing that empowerment should be a key goal of the National Project, the Joint’s Mantver says that it’s unlikely that large sums will be directly transferred to Ethiopian groups. “American Jews give money through the Joint, because they know us since 1914. I don’t see that changing.”

The issue, counters Negist Mangasha, the community’s main representative to the National Project, isn’t budget allocations at this stage, but creating a new mechanism for a changing relationship between the community and the establishment. “We want to see a separate organizational structure created – under the equal supervision of all the partners – that will handle the funds of the National Project,” she says. “We don’t want the funds going through the Agency and the Joint; we don’t want more of the same old system. It’s not 1984 anymore. There’s a strong Ethiopian leadership with people who have rich experience in the field. We are ready to be serious partners. But we find ourselves always having to fight our way into the decision-making process. Why should it be that way?”

MANY ACTIVISTS SUSPECT that the establishment intends to make the major decisions on funding behind closed doors, presenting the community with a fait accompli. When one recent meeting of the National Project was convened on short notice, Ethiopian activists suspected foul play – an attempt to preempt them from first meeting among themselves to establish their positions.

“I don’t think they understand the amount of effort we put into this work,” says Mike Rosenberg, head of the Jewish Agency’s department of immigration and absorption. “We’re the ones who pushed the National Project off the ground. There are some excellent people among the Ethiopian leadership. But it’s clear to us that they couldn’t do this alone; I hope it’s clear to them. I don’t think we’ve been paternalistic. There will be grass-roots involvement, but this is not going to be a grass roots-run operation. I don’t want this project to fall apart because of conflicts.”

IAEJ founder Odenheimer offers this solution to the mutual mistrust: “For the National Project to work, the establishment has to see itself as midwife and facilitator, rather than controller. And the Ethiopian leadership needs to have the self-confidence to see the establishment as a partner, not an adversary.”

From among all the participating groups within the National Project, activists feel closest to the UJC. American Jews, they note, were instrumental in encouraging an initially reluctant Israeli government to undertake the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry in the early 80s. And American Jews like Odenheimer and activist Nate Shapiro, along with the New Israel Fund and several family foundations, especially the Washington, D.C.-based Moriah Fund, are credited by activists with training and funding the new generation of Ethiopian leaders. (Activists also cite the Joint as being the first major Jewish organization to understand the urgency of the Ethiopian crisis.) “American Jews have the purest interest in wanting to see this project succeed,” says IAEJ activist Asher Elias. Precisely because American Jewish organizations were so central to the Ethiopians’ immigration, many now feel a moral debt to help insure the immigrants’ success. And because of black-Jewish tensions in the U.S., American Jews also have an interest in showing black Americans a model of successful Israeli integration.

Ethiopian leaders acknowledge that they must learn to work with the Israeli establishment. Says the IAEJ’s Mola: “I’m trying to understand the establishment. The Agency and the Joint are used to seeing us as a helpless and depressed community. They saw us coming from Sudan barefoot and sick. For them, we’re clients, not partners. It’s like a parent who is used to doing everything for his child, and then one day the child grows up and wants to do things for himself. There’s a crisis in the relationship; the parent is hurt. Suddenly, we’re saying to those who all these years have been in charge of helping us: ‘Excuse me, but I think it should be done this way.’

“Suddenly American Jews want to hear what the Ethiopians have to say, not just the Agency and the Joint. It’s hard for them. The challenge for all of us involved in this process is to create a new relationship among equals.”


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