Planning to Make a Difference By Mebratu Meshesha

9 February 2014
Research and Reports


While Ethiopian Jews have been living in Israel for over 3 decades, many socio-economic reports confirm the fact that they live in society’s periphery. This, despite the declaration of government ministries, semi-governmental organizations and non-profit organizations that a great deal of resources are being invested and that some progress has been made. One fact has not changed over time: the gaps between Ethiopian Israelis and the general Israeli population are deepening in every aspect. These gaps are inacceptable, considering that the investment of resources is a constant one. As a result, we must not only present an analysis of the situation, but also propose a different framework for thought and action.

The basic premise of this paper is that the condition of Ethiopian Israelis is described herein does not result from a lack of economic resources but from the perception that Ethiopian Israelis are a “unique” group and that the actions that must be taken in their regard are different. In retrospect, this perception has lost whatever validity it had, since despite treatment of Ethiopian Israelis as a unique group by governmental and non-profit organizations, their social standing has not changed during the past 3 decades. We have reached an impasse, since the actions taken have not brought about the desired results, and no alternative actions have been identified.

In light of the above, we call to reconsider the type of actions taken vis à vis the socio-economic marginality of Ethiopian Israelis.

We propose a new way of thinking and action in order to transform the marginality of Ethiopian Israelis in such a way that relates to them in the same way as other citizens. We propose altering the perception to one which views Ethiopian Israelis as ordinary people who are treated as regular citizens by the state authorities. These authorities must take responsibility to serve and promote Ethiopian Israelis, each one in its realm of influence. In other words, government authorities on all levels must work according to values and strategies that promote equal opportunity of all citizens.


This paper will present background information on Ethiopian Israelis, examine the claim that Ethiopian Israelis should be treated differently from the rest of society and will propose a different framework for thought and action to deal with the community’s social and economic marginality.

The perception which views Ethiopian Israelis as different and that people act according to it will be examined in two ways:

  1. Through official declared policy of Israeli government and authorities for 3 decades. This policy relates to Ethiopian Israelis as a homogenous collective that requires special treatment (or lack of treatment) by the authorities. In other words, this is a patronizing, if not racist, policy.
  2. Through examining the de facto expression of state policies regarding Ethiopian Israelis through the special frameworks that were established for them.

We submit that this precept of “uniqueness” has disintegrated, since evidence of the authorities’ failure can be found on many levels: housing, children in the school system and the economic status of Ethiopian Israelis after 3 decades.


Following are statistics on Ethiopian Jews in Israel:


According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Ethiopian Israelis make up 2% of the country’s population which numbered 132,000 at the end of 2012. A small population group with great disparity within, in a variety of aspects. About one-third of the group (36%) was born in Israel while about two-thirds (64%) were born in Ethiopia. About 70% of Ethiopian Israelis do not fall under Israel’s standard definition of “olim” (new immigrants). (Only about 30% have been in Israel for less than 10 years.) 31% of Ethiopian Israelis are children aged 0-14.

Within the veteran Ethiopian Israeli population (approximately 70%) there is great variance relating to background, language and culture of the geographical area in Ethiopia from which they come, when they made aliya (in the 1980′s, 1990′s or 2000′s), how long they have been in Israel, and of course where they live and what they do in Israel. A majority of Ethiopian Israelis live in Central Israel (about 38%), while approximately 24% live in southern Israel. Again, this is a small, veteran, varied population.


According to the Ministry of Education, in the 2013-14 school year, 33,359 Israelis of Ethiopian descent attend school, making up 2.97% of students in the Israeli education system. About two-thirds of them (67.5%) were born in Israel while about one-third was born in Ethiopia (32.5%). 48.7% of Ethiopian Israeli pupils are part of the general public school system, 47.4% are part of the religious school system and 3.9% attend Haredi schools.

Over 80% of Ethiopian Israeli pupils attend schools at which they comprise less than 20% of the student body. However, standardized tests (“Meitzav” in grades 2, 5 and 8, “Pisa” in grade 10 and the percentage qualifying for “Bagrut” (matriculation)) show that there are serious gaps between Ethiopian Israelis and the general population. The main question that must be asked is whether Ethiopian Israelis who complete the school system are prepared to compete in Israeli and global job markets?

Meitzav tests show that the gaps already exist at a young age – in grade 2. This, despite the existence of many programs for children beginning in kindergarten age that are meant to prepare them for proper integration at school. In light of these results, the question must be asked: How effective are these programs?

Furthermore, Meitzav results show that the gaps between Ethiopian Israelis and the general population in 4 subjects – Hebrew, English, math and science – are still large in grade 5 and that they tend to grow in grade 8. The gaps increase and deepen in time.

These gaps continue to increase in grade 10, according to Pisa results. Since Pisa tests also compare the results of students from different countries, the question arises as to how Israelis of Ethiopian descent will be able integrate in a competitive global market. Regarding Bagrut qualification – there is a significant gap in matriculation certificates granted to Ethiopian Israelis and the general Jewish population. This gap increases when it comes to high level matriculation. For example, in 2010 – 62% of students from the general Jewish population matriculated, in comparison with 42.5% of Ethiopian Israelis. In terms of high level matriculation, the numbers were 53.6% of the general Jewish population compared to 24.3% of Ethiopian Israelis. For 2011 – 62.9% of the general Jewish population and 43.5% of Ethiopian Israelis matriculated, for high level matriculation, the numbers were 54.2% and 22.6%. In 2012 – 60.5% of the general Jewish population and 47.3% of Ethiopian Israelis matriculated, while high level matriculation – 51% and 26.4%.

In sum, the educational gaps are significant, despite the resources apparently invested.

The school system and the organizations involved in informal education have identified progress with which they associate the great financial investment. However, though there has been certain progress, it has been slight natural progress that is not necessarily the result of the many educational programs that exist. The question remains, with such great investment of resources in education, why have the gaps not lessened? Are the students to blame, are the programs not effective or is it that there is no real investment of extra programming to begin with and budgets/ funding of their education has been placed in private hands?


Ethiopian Israelis live in cities in central and southern Israel and according to The Knesset Research and Information Center, at the end of 2010, 70% of Ethiopian Israelis lived in 17 urban centers, most from the middle socioeconomic cluster, and mostly in poor neighborhoods. According to the analysis carried out by the IAEJ (2010), Ethiopian Israeli families receive financial assistance only in 10 designated centers, and in certain towns a purchase of an apartment on certain streets will not qualify for assistance. In other words, the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption chose where Ethiopian Israelis may buy apartments and where they may not. More often than not, poor neighborhoods are those in which Ethiopian Israeli purchasers qualify for assistance, i.e. the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption directs Ethiopian Israelis to these neighborhoods.

Here’s how it works: the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption categorizes cities and neighborhoods, determining the level of aid per area. For example, Tel Aviv is considered Category A. The maximum aid allotted to Ethiopian Israelis for purchase of a home in Tel Aviv will enable them to buy an apartment in a poor neighborhood. The same amount would buy them a home in a good neighborhood in Rehovot, for example, but the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption considers Rehovot to be in Category B, and the sum allotted for Category B is smaller and would enable the purchase of an apartment in a poor neighborhood in Rehovot… Thus the Ministry sends Ethiopian Israelis to live in weak neighborhoods in different cities around Israel.

Economic Statistics

In terms of employment and welfare, 72% of the Ethiopian Israeli community is employed but poor (60% of the population is under the “care” of the Ministry of Welfare) since the large majority works in jobs in which they do not have the opportunity for growth or hope of promotion. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (2011), the per capita income of Ethiopian Israeli households is 36% lower than that of the general population and the per capita monthly expense of Ethiopian Israelis is 47% lower than the general population. The average monthly expense of Ethiopian Israeli families is 31% lower than the general population. The question arises whether the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption prepared the olim from Ethiopia for life in Israeli society. What is the Ministry of Economy doing so that Ethiopian Israelis will integrate into jobs with future growth opportunities?

Shattering the Concept

The bottom line is that Ethiopian Israelis are at the periphery of society in a variety of areas, as the statistics demonstrate. We believe that this is the case not because of a lack of resources, rather because of an incorrect perception from policy-making through planning and implementation. At the root of this concept lies the basic assumption that Ethiopian Israelis are “unique” and that the forces acting on them differ from the forces acting upon the general population. Therefore, traditionally, for the past three decades, the government ministry responsible for Ethiopian Israelis has been the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption. This despite the fact that 70% of the community is no longer “new immigrants”, according to the normal definition of the term by the State of Israel.

Olim who are not of Ethiopian origin are considered olim for a defined period of time after which they are deemed integrated into Israeli society. Ethiopian Israelis uniquely continue to be under the auspices of the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption even after three decades, even if they no longer de facto are eligible for “oleh rights”. This makes Ethiopian Israelis “abnormal” and an “exception”. The practical significance is that the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, including its branches in other ministries (the Absorption Departments in the Ministry of Education and the Welfare Ministry and the Absorption Centers in the municipalities, for example), has ministerial accountability for this population group. Again with no reference to how long they have been living in Israel.

The present situation is convenient for the absorption authorities since the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption has fewer new “regular” immigrants to deal with (their numbers have decreased) and is busying itself with Ethiopian Israelis. At the same time, other ministries and local authorities tend to shirk their responsibility for Ethiopian Israeli residents, since by definition they come under the auspices of the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption and its various departments.

In addition to the anomalous position of Ethiopian Israelis in terms of the authorities, the institutions themselves act in such a way that does not encourage the community to move away from society’s margins since they are motivated to do just the opposite. The fact that Ethiopian Israelis belong to the social periphery of Israeli society justifies the institutional approach. Thus, for example, over the past 20 years, the declared policy of the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption regarding housing for Ethiopian Israelis, which lists the cities and streets where they may purchase apartments, is to ensure that they will be spread out in economically strong cities. However, in fact, 90% of Ethiopian Israelis are concentrated in specific towns, mostly in poor neighborhoods. Thus, Ethiopian immigrants were guided by the Ministry to the towns and neighborhoods in which they live, without them having a true say in the matter.

Furthermore, the perception that relates to immigrants from Ethiopia as “different”, created frameworks that have confined them to the point that it almost doesn’t matter how strong the town is, since the municipal services are provided by “absorption centers”. The centers are funded by the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption and the municipalities but are not run by the local authorities.

In the same way, education of children of Ethiopian origin has also been “outsourced”. The Department for the Absorption of Olim is responsible for the education of all Ethiopian Israeli children, whereas the other departments of the Ministry of Education do not deal with Ethiopian Israeli pupils and their advancement. This department has the authority to run programs, sign contracts with educational external organizations (such as the Ethiopian National Project), so that, in essence, it functions as a mini “Ministry of Education” for all pupils of Ethiopian origin. With the department’s approval, the education of Ethiopian Israelis is massively privatized and with its support, all other departments of the Ministry of Education relinquish responsibility for Ethiopian Israeli pupils. And the educational gaps between Ethiopian Israeli pupils and their general Israeli counterparts remain.

In light of all of the above, we demand that all the relevant bodies think and act ‘normally’ in terms of Ethiopian Israelis.

Perceptual and Structural Changes in Dealing with Israelis of Ethiopian Origin

In the manner that the authorities have functioned thus far, we have reached a dead end in terms of the status of Ethiopian Israelis. As a result, as mentioned above, we wish to propose changes in the perception and manner in which one should act in order to change the status quo of Ethiopian Israelis from the social marginality that has been forced upon them. Following is our proposal:

Basic Premises

  • The Ethiopian Israeli population is heterogeneous and varied.
  • Ethiopian Israelis are not all the same and require differential treatment.
  • The various state authorities will be fully accountable for citizens of Ethiopian origin.
  • Accountability will be measured according to results attained, not by explanations making justifications for processes.
  • 30 years of malfunction call for courage, hard work and financial resources. Therefore, a national program is necessary.

Principles for a Different Program

  • The government must implement a program that relates to Israelis of Ethiopian descent. Each ministry will prepare a document that details how Ethiopian Israelis (as Israeli citizens) are part of their daily work, i.e. what they do in an ongoing fashion, and present a plan that will ensure positive change within a defined time period.
  • The relevant ministries include: the PMO, Ministry of Education, Ministry of the Economy, Ministry of Housing, Interior Ministry, Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption – each in its area of expertise and accountability and not only through the absorption departments in their ministries.
  • Each ministry is accountable for preparing and implementing its own plan according to its area of expertise.
  • Ethiopian Israelis will be main partners from the planning stages and through implementation.
  • A general budget will be allocated to implement the general plan.
  • A supervisory committee will be established to manage the general budget and follow up on implementation of the ministries’ programs.
  •  The Prime Minister will have executive responsibility for the committee whose members will include the various ministries, municipalities and public representatives. True cooperation between all of these authorities is critical in order to achieve the desired objective.

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