Jews who migrated from Ethiopia, their descendants and other supporters take part in a protest against discrimination of Ethiopian Jews in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi, Jan. 10, 2012. (photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Ethiopian-Israelis fed up with false promises
In September, a few months following the start of the widespread, intense protests by young Ethiopian-Israelis, the government made an encouraging announcement: The Ministerial Committee for the Advancement of Ethiopian Israelis announced that it would ask the government to authorize dedicated plans from the Ministries of Education, Health and Welfare, with an investment of 300 million shekels ($77 million). It seemed to be good news that could give hope to the Ethiopian community. But the community, burned by past disappointments, sees these plans as just the opposite. To them, it’s just an attempt to redirect funds that were previously promised their community to other goals.
Summary⎙ Print Ethiopian-Israeli activists argue that the numerous governmental plans to integrate the community into Israeli society do not address the specific needs of the community members and often only channel funding elsewhere.
"The protest broke out because of police violence, after the video of cops beating the Ethiopian soldier Damas Pakada was circulated, but it's over much more than that," explains Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, the director of the Tebeka organization for the advancement of justice and equality for Ethiopians. He also serves as the chairman of representatives of Ethiopian organizations. “There’s an ongoing failure in that budgets that are authorized are not used. Money isn’t lacking, but there’s a lack of planning. If we don’t change this now, in 10 years you’ll interview me again and ask why the situation hasn’t improved.”
Assefa-Dawit notes that this isn't the first time the government has announced enormous budgets for the Ethiopian community. “In recent decades they’ve come up with all sorts of grandiose plans,” he explains. “For example, the national project to absorb Ethiopian immigrants was budgeted at $660 million, but the supervision of its implementation was flawed and at the end we got nothing. Or the five-year plan from 2008, which was budgeted at 800 million shekels [$206 million], but its housing plan, for example, ended up helping only a handful of families.”
The state comptroller's 2013 report on the integration of Ethiopians in Israel harshly criticized the implementation of the various projects, exactly as Assefa-Dawit describes it: “Plans and funds are invested, but lacking coordination, significant resources are scattered over many different plans without examining their effectiveness. This creates enormous waste, and at times, resources intended for the Ethiopian community are 'absorbed' into double overheads, while other resources intended for them are hardly used,” wrote Comptroller Joseph Shapira.
Israelis of Ethiopian origin fear that the new plans are the same thing in a different guise. As Assefa-Dawit puts it, “There’s nothing really there to advance Ethiopians.”
Michal Avera-Samuel, the director of the Fidel organization for the education and social integration of Ethiopians Jews in Israel, agrees with him. She says, “They changed the title, but not the content. There’s no real check in the field as to what works and what doesn’t work.”
Fidel helps about 5,000 children of Ethiopian origin — a significant percentage of the 40,000 children 12 and under of Ethiopian background living in Israel (out of 138,000 total Ethiopians living in Israel as of the end of 2014). The organization does this with a budget of only 5.5 million shekels ($1.4 million), most of which comes from private donations, from the budget of the national project and from in-kind donations from various local authorities (the use of buildings or provision of services instead of cash). Avera-Samuel can only look on with longing as the government announces giant budgets every couple of years.
“Our funders would also like to see the government join the effort at this point,” she says.
Avera-Samuel and Assefa-Dawit unequivocally argue that the new plan is intended to allow the use of the budgets allocated for the Ethiopian community for other projects. “If in the past you knew that there are funds that were specifically allocated for Ethiopians,” she says, “Today there’s an 'integration program.' That is, they tell me that I need to integrate children who are not Ethiopians in my programs in order to receive a budget. The significance is that the little that I have, I also have to give to other children.”
According to Avera-Samuel, the "integration plan" is no less than a side door intended to enable the diversion of budgets to other projects.
“At one point we at least knew that the funding will stay in the mechanism for supporting the Ethiopian community,” she says. “Today we know that the budgets will ‘fall’ into the [hands of the] various local authorities, with government approval. We hear this from the local authorities every day, that it’s an opportunity they got to give these budgets to other communities as well. I’m not saying that other populations don’t need help, but it automatically reduces our activities and achievements.”
"The integration program ends the limitation on redirecting unused funds from previous programs and using them for other things," adds Assefa-Dawit. “I have no doubt that the local authorities want to direct these budgets to other places. It’s happened more than once. The money sits with the local authorities in various departments, without a government plan to utilize this resource and improve services for the Ethiopian community. The government blames the Ethiopian community — they allocated the budgets, after all. They are simply taking advantage of the community.”
“In the public comment process conducted by the Ministry of Education throughout the design of the new plan, the loudest voice heard called for optimal integration and ending segregated programs,” the Ministry of Education stated in response to Al-Monitor's query on the issue. “Therefore this keystone — optimal integration — was made a comprehensive principle for all government ministries. To achieve optimal integration, the ministry intends to provide each child customized services according to his needs and not his skin color.” The prime minister's office, responsible for the program, had not responded to Al-Monitor's query by the time this article was penned.
"In theory all children should get the same thing," says Assefa-Dawit. “We’re the first to want to be equal among equals, but even before this integration plan, which would hurt children more than it would strengthen them, we need to give children in our community a sense of identity and empowerment. We have to use the budgets lying around in the various ministries to strengthen our neighborhoods, to build good infrastructure, to invest in specialized schools, to repair schools.”
"I don't believe in artificial integration, and so our ‘young leadership’ program only includes youth of Ethiopian background," concludes Avera-Samuel. “Not in order to segregate them, but so that afterward, they come out feeling empowered, having a stable identity and knowing how to handle difficulties, and can meet other youths and not feel threatened. To be really equal. Our community is tired of projects with nice mottos, while we have yet to respond to the existing reality. Instead of forced integration and unsuccessful programs, we have to find unique plans that could advance the community — and these exist.”
Avera-Samuel has an excellent example of a project that works precisely because it avoids this “forced integration.” She describes the Hadarim school in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Rehovot, where there is a large concentration of Ethiopian-Israelis.
“The school was closed for seven years because they wanted integration and inclusion, and scattered the children among 13 different schools in the city. But the children from the Ethiopian community sat at separate benches, played separately at recess and returned to their neighborhood after school, so there was no real inclusion there.” According to her, the key to inclusion was returning to a unique and separate solution: “Ten years ago we decided that a neighborhood without an educational anchor cannot flourish. We succeeded in reopening the school, and in truth at first only children of Ethiopian background came, and received services specific to their needs in order to strengthen them, so that their foundation would match that of children from other sectors. A community school, which also provides afterschool care — a real neighborhood anchor. And indeed, these children can now integrate well in the middle schools and high schools. That’s what leads to real inclusion, and the evidence is that today 40% of the students in this school are not of Ethiopian background. It’s a successful school and parents of all backgrounds want to send their kids there.”