Exercises in Absorption, by Shula Mola, Chair

30 October 2014
In The Media

The recent State Comptroller’s report strongly criticized the mismanagement of the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, responsible for the planning and implementation of the Five Year Program for the advancement of Ethiopian Israelis. Among other things, the State Comptroller exposed the dynamic in which the resources designated to benefit Ethiopian Israelis were “absorbed” by the walls of the system.

For many of us, this criticism is not news. However, the content of the report validates what we have known ever since we began working actively with the absorption, education and welfare authorities and their subdivisions. Although the phenomenon does exist in other arenas, it seems that this situation is unique in terms of its complexity and intensity.

On the one hand, special programs have been created for families and individuals belonging to the “Ethiopian community” and who face objective challenges in many areas, while on the other hand, 30 years of “unique programs” for the community have not significantly improved its socio-economic advancement in Israeli society. In her book, “Immigrants and Bureaucrats, Ethiopians in an Israeli Absorption Center,” Esther Herzog describes how the daily activities of the absorption agents cause absorption center residents to relinquish responsibility for their own lives.

 As an “olah”, I remember the woman who taught us how to fry schnitzel and eggs. I remember how she scolded my mother when the dishes we received from the Jewish agency broke or we lost the key to our apartment. So, it’s not surprising that paternalistic relationships developed quickly and stuck. And these brought about dependency relations between the olim and their “caregivers”. In such a relationship, the caregiver easily falls into a diagnostic approach vis à vis the “patient’s” faults and issues. From there, it is a short leap for the patient to internalize the portrait of his faults proffered by his caregiver’s “professional diagnosis”– and in this case it is the “white” person analyzing the “black” person. Most of us are the product of this type of relationship.

It is my understanding that the first lesson in the repair process is exposing the racist and paternalistic hypotheses that accompany us from the moment we arrived in Israel. These hypotheses caused the state to create separate, inferior services for us. One example of the separation is evident in the education system – while children who emigrated from Ethiopia and as well as those who were born in Israel attend regular schools (though most are under-achieving schools), a special department in the Ministry of Education is responsible for them, the Department of Immigrant Absorption.

 This department contracts external organizations to deal with Ethiopian students, such as JDC (PACT – Parents and Children Together), the Ethiopian National Project, etc. These contractors hire third parties to work directly with the students. Thus, the students are passed on from one to the other and traded off through outsourcing and contractors. Similarly, municipalities have also found a way to deflect Ethiopians away from their corridors, establishing “absorption hubs”. Heading up these centers are ex-”patients” of the system who continue in the same paternalistic manner: the main thing is that the target audience remain captive, otherwise their livelihood will suffer! According to accepted practice, it is still only in “The Land of Ethiopia” (a nickname for the separate system for the management of Ethiopian issues) that an Ethiopian Israeli may take on a leadership role.

 When one is familiar with the absorption story, it is easy to see the inherent malfunction of the current government initiative, called the “New Way.” Once again, the government put the Ministry of Aliya and Immigrant Absorption in charge of running the program, despite its poor track record and learning disabilities. In order to circumvent its failures, the Ministry hired the services of a relatively young external consulting firm with the old-new rhetoric of “public involvement in policy planning.”

 Many community members cried “Stop the fictitious program!” And as the cries grew increasingly deafening, those responsible for the program, led by the consultants, made increasing colonialist efforts to divide and conquer. These efforts resulted in the fact that some of the Ethiopian organizations have joined the discussions with the Ministry of Absorption regarding the new program. Not surprisingly, even before they sat down at the table, ministry officials sent out letters to the Jewish federations in North America, asking them to increase their donations designated for Ethiopian Israelis. In effect, the letters exposed the fact that the discussions are a cover for the real process that is taking place under our noses and without community input. Unfortunately, the conclusions of the next State Comptroller’s Report are already evident.

Shula Mola, Chair

Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews

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