September 20, 2018

Thirty four years after the airlifts of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980’s, the younger ones are Israeli born, and, most helpfully, native Hebrew speakers.  That has helped somewhat to equalize their potential for education and a good job — but only somewhat.

The ESRA volunteer program hooked me up in 2018 with a 26 year old Ethiopian young man who participated in a special program in Netanya, Israel.  He was one of several Ethiopian college students who received a free apartment while going to a local college studying for a degree.  In exchange for the free housing, he had a small group of perhaps 4 elementary school kids that he mentored during the week.  Mainly Ethiopian and Russian immigrants live in the same neighborhood with him and were his students in the small groups.

The elementary school students are selected by school social workers who choose children who are serious about learning, but need extra help.  The college mentor serves many functions in the lives of the elementary school students, especially as a role model.   Since there are several such groups in the same neighborhood, the college students also work together to provide activities and support for the younger ones.  Happily, the program is successful for both the college students and the younger ones.

Since army service is compulsory in Israel starting with 3 years after high school, the college students begin college at an older age.  Having extra lessons in English meant adding more responsibilities to an already full week for my student.  In February every year, the college students go through a grueling month of exams.  At that point, my student had to quit his English lessons.

But, getting to know him briefly for a month helped me to see the promising side of Ethiopians born in Israel who are native Hebrew speakers and have a drive to get a college education.

And so I moved on to individually tutoring four 6th grade students at the neighborhood elementary school.  This school was predominantly Ethiopians and Russian immigrants.  That’s where I saw the harsher side of life in the Ethiopian Jewish community.

Generally, the Ethiopian communities in Israel are mired in poverty.  They do receive help from the Israeli government and various helping groups like ESRA, but the older generations came from an agricultural third world country.  They are hard workers, but mostly unskilled for good jobs in Israel.

When one of the teachers learned I had been in Israel in the early days of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel, she asked me, “What were they like?”  I immediately recalled the gentle, patient, sweet people I had known then.

Sadly, those were not the words I would use today to describe the elementary school where I volunteered.  What I saw in the school was continuing bedlam, with students running through the halls, lots of yelling between the students and with the staff, and aggressive hitting that required constantly breaking up fights.

How different was this school from most other schools in Israel?  I admit that I haven’t spent much time in elementary schools in any country, but I did teach Israeli Arab students in the 1980s who were enthusiastic and well behaved students.  I recently spoke with a friend of mine who still works in the Israeli Arab school system and he says that is still the way it is.

However, I know that some Israeli schools of today can also be quite aggressive, unhappy places of physical bullying.  I actually attended a court hearing on behalf of a 13 year old Romanian new immigrant who was so badly beaten at his school by 6 classmates that he was hospitalized for more than 2 weeks.  That got press attention.

The sixth graders I tutored at the school for my last 6 weeks in Netanya were well behaved.  Three were Russian, and one was Ethiopian.  While two of them had low level English, the other two had somehow magically learned English on their own as a third language (Russian, Hebrew, and English) and were quite interesting to teach.

And so, I left Israel with a mixed picture of how the Ethiopian Jews have adjusted to being literally catapulted  from a third world Ethiopian, all black country, into a dynamically changing Jewish homeland.

As expected, the older Ethiopians have had trouble coping with a new world to them that included racism, while the younger native born in Israel are making their way into the Israeli society.  They are tech savvy and have more possibilities for their futures.  Although I saw very few groups of mixed Ethiopians and other Israelis, I did see a few.  And I even saw a few mixed racial couples.  A precious few Ethiopians are in high positions in the Israeli government.

I am sure of one thing — the Ethiopian Jews are in Israel to stay.  They have a large, strong family system.  They have been Jewish for centuries, suffered persecution because of being Jewish, but clung to their Jewishness.  They belong in Israel and are recognized as equal citizens.  And, while there is racism, the Israeli police don’t shoot them and incarcerate them.  And they are respected for their skills as soldiers.

If I ever return to Israel, I can be reasonably sure that the Israeli Ethiopians will continue to make progress integrating into Israeli society.  And I will remember those 42 Ethiopian teens I had been a house mother to in an Israeli boarding school through their early transition to Israel in 1984.

As a very exciting postscript to all the newspaper clippings and other material  a friend had faithfully sent me from Israeli newspapers between 1989 to the present, I was able to donate them to an archive that is being established in Israel in a new center that will be dedicated to Ethiopian Jewry.  Hooray!!

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