The main component of Zionism as an ideology is for all Jews to live safely and equally in their ancestral homeland. So, is the current status of Ethiopian Jews in Israel going against Zionism’s main ideological framework, or has the citizen’s rights situation improved? Jono Mizrahi shares his thoughts.
Ethiopian Jews, also known as Beta Israel, have been settled in the state of Israel for over three decades. Despite a growing population of 150,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel (with just under a third being born in the state), the community appear to be regularly discriminated against by governmental organisations and have spent the majority of the three decades in the periphery.
In July 2019, Ethiopian Jews rioted in the streets of Haifa and Tel Aviv following the death of Solomon Tekah by an armed police officer. These grievances have become all too regular since the settlement of Ethiopians in the 1980s. Reasons for such outrage include civilian rights factors such as the treatment of the community by the government, as well as police brutality and political and economic discrimination.
Economic discrimination against Ethiopian Jews suggests that the group are marginalised. Previous analysis of 2008–9 government data by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute showed that poverty levels among Ethiopian Israelis were 41 per cent, compared to 15 per cent among the general Jewish population. In 2016, another report showed that “Ethiopian households earned less than the average Israeli household (net NIS 751,15 with compared, net month per NIS 254,11).” Some argue that this situation is the direct result of systematic discriminatory government policies. For example, programmes headed by the Immigrant Absorption and The Ministry of Aliyah have regularly demoted the Ethiopian community to poorer neighbourhoods and treat Ethiopians as immigrants. This is despite the fact that 70 per cent of the community are not ‘new immigrants’, referring to the normal definition of the term by the State of Israel. According to Fidel, the Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, “the term reflects the continued segregation of the Ethiopian minority, despite the fact that the majority have been resident in the country for more than 30 years.”
Discrimination is seen in other walks of life too. In education, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, standardized tests show that there are serious gaps between Ethiopian Israelis and the general population, with a rate of matriculation only at 53%. Furthermore, the Taub Centre for Social Policy Studies in Israel did research that highlighted that only 55% of Ethiopian Israelis are credible candidates for matriculation whereas 75% of all other Jewish Israelis are deemed credible. In politics, only seven Ethiopian Israelis have served in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) since 1996, when Adisu Masalla was the first Ethiopian Jew elected for the Labour Party.
All of these issues combine to suggest that there is a citizens rights issue in Israel regarding inequality and discrimination against the Ethiopian Jewish community.
Yet, within the last decade, improvements have been made to the economic, educational and political status of Ethiopian Jews, specifically through governmental legislation and programmes. Since 2000, the employment rates for Ethiopian men has increased from 62% to 80% as well as 37% to 74% for women. For the first time in history, employment figures among Ethiopian Israelis is not disproportionately different with 81% of Jewish men being employed and 80% being the figure for women. As well as this, Ethiopian Jews employed in janitorial services has dropped to 5% for the first time since the first Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel.
Improvements have also been seen in education, with 90% of the youngest generation graduating from high school, thus beginning to match figures seen by the majority of the Jewish population at 93%. As mentioned previously, the rate of matriculation is only at 53%, yet this is a huge increase compared to the first generation of Ethiopian Israelis with matriculation levels for them figuring at 16%. Finally, in politics, a 2005 amendment to the 1959 Public Service Law ordered that Ethiopian Israelis should be adequately represented at all levels of public office. This has been seen in recent times with the first male Ethiopian judge, Bialin Elazar, being appointed to Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court in November 2018. Moreover, in 2013, Prina Tamano Shata was the first female Ethiopian Jew to be voted into the Knesset.
To conclude despite improvements regarding equality and anti-discriminatory legislation being implemented,figures highlight that there remains citizen rights issues for Ethiopian Jews. As we move into the next decade, the question has to be, will discrimination still feature, or will this trend of improving equality for Ethiopian Jews continue?