The Jerusalem Post weighs up the successes and failures of the absorption of the Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society, and cautiously concludes that “at the end of the day it was a success story,” considering how far the Ethiopians, many of whom had never lived in a city before and few of whom had any formal education at all, had to come.
“The hurdles for satisfactory absorption of Africans into any white Western society are famously formidable,” the paper says. “In countries larger and wealthier than Israel, the very notion of willingly admitting such a large population in such a short period of time would be considered a non-starter. It wasn't for Israel.”
Sounds impressive. But among Israel’s achievements, the editorial counts the following facts: “Over 12% of children of Ethiopian-born parents passed their high school matriculation exams last year (22% of those who finished 12th grade). Over 700 Ethiopian students take pre-academic courses and there are 400 Ethiopian university students.... It may not sound like much” – damn right – “but not too many years back there were none. This is how social mobility starts.”
Unfortunately, the best measure of how successful the absorption of the Ethiopian Jews has been is not how far they have come since Africa – but whether they have achieved anywhere near as much as they could have done?
My (admittedly limited) experience with the Ethiopians suggests that in many ways, Israel underestimated and undermined their drive to learn and succeed, and has consigned many of them, needlessly, to a life of struggle and poverty.
For one month in 1997, I volunteered in an Ethiopian caravan park just outside of Haifa. I will never forget the sight of dozens of Ethiopian teenagers, boys and girls, lining up at a bus stop at 7 am, in order to voluntarily attend extra English and math lessons during their Pesach holidays. I remember wondering which of my friends back home would have done the same.
Another sight I will never forget: several days earlier, at the local school, sitting in on a “special needs” class about Passover. Every student in the room was Ethiopian. At the break, I asked the teacher whether there were any Ethiopian students I could visit in the “regular” class.
“No,” she said. “There aren’t any.”
“None??? There’s not even one Ethiopian student capable of participating in the regular class?”
As we were speaking in the school corridor, two students, an Ethiopian and an Ashkenazi pupil who were previously playing together, got into some sort of fight and started scuffling. Without even bothering to check the facts, the teacher grabbed the arm of the Ethiopian, and started screaming at him that ‘that’s not the way we behave around here.’ He skulked off, humiliated, while the white pupil got off scot-free.
The more time I spent with the Ethiopian kids, the more I became convinced of their drive, determination and spunk. While they were facing an uphill battle to overcome horrific conditions at home including illiterate parents, horrendous poverty, and sometimes abuse, their chances of ‘making it’ would have vastly improved had they been offered proper support and encouragement at school. Instead, they got stifling racism and condescension, if not worse – which, I suspect, was endemic.