January 1996

The Absorption of Ethiopian Immigrants in Israel: The Present Situation and Future Objectives

Ministry of Absorption


Ethiopian Jews maintained a close link to their Jewish identity and traditions and a longing for Jerusalem since ancient times. In the 20th century their dream of immigrating to their homeland became a reality.

In Ethiopia they lived primarily in small villages in the mountainous regions where they were subsistence farmers, with a close-knit social structure and family life.

The largest concentration of Ethiopian immigrants came to Israel in two major waves: Operation Moses in the early and mid 1980’s (8,000 immigrants) and Operation Solomon in 1991 (14,000 immigrants). Other immigrants arrived before Operation Moses (3,500) and between Operation Moses and Operation Solomon (13,500) as well as after the end of Operation Solomon (6,000). Approximately 10,000 children have been born to Ethiopian Jewish parents in Israel.

Today there are a total of some 56,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Ethiopian Jews tend to have large families; some 60% of the population are children. In addition, there is a very high percentage of one-parent families, more than twice the rate for other Israelis.

The immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel has raised some major challenges, in particular how this group can become an integral part of Israeli society.

There were major differences in the conditions which the two major waves of Ethiopian immigrants faced on arrival. Those who came in the course Operation Moses were a smaller group who arrived over a number of years at a time when total immigration was low. The number who came during Operation Solomon was much larger, the bulk of them coming over a single weekend. They came at the peak of the massive immigration to Israel from the Former Soviet Union, at a time when unemployment in Israel had reached a peak of over 11%. Most of those who came in Operation Moshe came together as families; in Operation Solomon, in many cases family members were left behind in Ethiopia and many children arrived without their parents.

The Principles of National Policy

The State of Israel has made a major commitment to the full integration of Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society.

It has addressed this challenge in partnership with the Jews of the Diaspora, who have contributed to this effort through the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and many other organizations, and in full cooperation with the voluntary and private sectors in Israel.

Therefore, the Ministry of Absorption and the Israeli government have established a number of principles:

1. The adoption of a clear policy of preferential treatment (affirmative action) for the Ethiopian population with regard to housing, education and integration into employment, a policy which has expanded and become much more comprehensive in the past three years.

2. A commitment to their becoming integrated into the major societal contexts as opposed to remaining a separate group and segregated at the margins of society.

3. The allocation of special resources for the absorption of this population in Israel. The State of Israel invests an average of three-four times as much in the absorption of each Ethiopian immigrant as in immigrants from other countries.

4. Development of leadership within the Ethiopian community and involving the immigrants who had come in the earlier waves in the governmental decision making process.

5. Placing special emphasis on the preservation of Ethiopian Jewish culture and giving opportunities for the continuation of their cultural tradition and their contribution to the mosaic of Israeli life.

The Present Situation: The Integration of Ethiopian Immigrants as of 1995

I. Housing and Social Integration

The immigrants who came in Operation Moses were integrated directly into local communities into which they for the most part established permanent residence based on the provision of public housing.

At the time of the arrival of the immigrants in Operation Solomon the public housing stock in the central cities of Israel had been used up.

With the election of a new government in Israel in 1992, when it became clear that the housing plan for Ethiopian immigrants was based on their residing together in public housing in peripheral areas of the country

(Ofakim, Dimona, Sderot, etc.), the Ministry of Absorption initiated a special mortgage program. The mortgages are equivalent in value to 99% of the price of the apartment, with a ceiling of $120,000. The mortgage includes a grant of 85% of the cost of the property and the monthly payments are $56. The program is intended to enable Ethiopian immigrants to purchase apartments in established areas in the center of Israel, and above all, to prevent their concentration in weak peripheral towns and cities which lack means to enable the genuine absorption and integration of this community.

Special efforts had to be made to help the Ethiopian Jews overcome their suspicion and reluctance to take upon themselves long-term mortgage obligations.

  Table 1. Assistance to Ethiopian Immigrant Families   Family  Size   Amount  of   Of this,   Monthly                 Mortgage      Grant      Payment    Up to  5 Persons      $100,000     $89,000      $56   5 Persons      $122,000     $110,000     $56    or more  

The Ministry of Absorption monitors the mortgage program and prices in the housing market and updates the amount of the mortgages in various cities on a regular basis. The last update was on September 15, 1995.

The program began in May 1993 and by the end of 1995, 85% of the 3,720 families that had lived in mobile home sites in May 1992 had purchased homes or, in special cases, had moved into public housing, in over 65 communities throughout the country.

With the transfer to permanent housing in the various municipalities, the Ministry of Absorption designed an absorption program for each community providing assistance in the following areas: educational enrichment to students studying in the school, employment programs for adults and women, upgrading language skills, and, in particular, cooperative programs between the general Israeli population and the Ethiopian immigrants in the community.

A survey published by the JDC – Brookdale Institute in November 1995, of all the immigrants who had moved into a number of these communities has revealed that the immigrants view the transition very positively.

The vast majority:

75-88% were satisfied with their new apartments

80-86% were satisfied with their new neighborhoods

76-96% viewed the relationships with their non-Ethiopian neighbors as positive

97% of the Ethiopian children play with non-Ethiopian children in their community.

On the one hand these findings are encouraging, however there are a number of problems which need to be dealt with immediately:

The economic problems of the Ethiopian immigrants

High levels of unemployment among women

Low rates of participation of children aged 0-4 in preschool settings

The generally positive experience was confirmed in special sub studies of the non-Ethiopian residents of some of these neighborhoods.

Future Objectives:

To vacate the mobile sites and complete the transition of Ethiopian immigrants to permanent housing by providing special mortgage programs and public housing in communities in the center of the country.

To expand programs of special assistance in cities with high concentrations of immigrants in order to guarantee successful and suitable integration into the community.

II. Employment:

The efforts to integrate the Ethiopian Jews into employment focused on providing basic skills, assisting them in making the transition from subsistence agricultural work to the careers available in an industrial society through a specially developed system of vocational training programs.

Studies conducted by the JDC-Brookdale Institute in 1992-93 of those who came in Operation Moses in the early 1980’s indicated that many had been successful in bridging the gaps. The findings revealed that:

The overall rates of employment for men were similar to that of other Israelis

The employment rate for women was significantly below that for other Israelis, but increased over time and was influenced by the large number of children and one-parent families.

A significant percentage, some 50% were in skilled jobs, as a result of having participated in special training programs.

In mid 1992 the Ethiopian Jews who had come in 1991 in Operation Solomon moved into mobile home sites throughout the country, which were operated by the Ministry of Absorption in cooperation with the local municipalities.

Between September 1992 and January 1993, responsibility for 22 mobile home sites was transferred to the Ministry of Absorption.

At that time, a special emergency program was launched to integrate them into the local workforce. The program involved a special network of employment entrepreneurs to link the Ethiopians and potential employers.

Paraprofessional mentors from the earlier waves of Ethiopian immigrants served as cross-cultural mediators with employers and special job subsidies were provided.

Within some six months, the vast majority of the men had obtained employment and small groups of women began entering the labor force.

The rate of unemployment among Ethiopian immigrants residing at mobile home sites had declined to 10% by the end of 1995.

With the transition to permanent housing in 1994/5 the Ethiopian Jews found it necessary for the most part to leave their jobs and begin again.

The survey published by the JDC-Brookdale Institute of the immigrants who had moved into a number of communities indicated that for the most part the Ethiopian community was capable of reintegrating into the labor force. They were assisted by the same network of special employment assistance that had operated in the temporary housing sites.

The survey found that:

The younger men (up to age 35) had achieved employment rates comparable to other Israelis.

Unemployment rates among men were low; however, middle-aged and older immigrants had much lower employment rates than other Israelis, with the gap widening with age.

The women were only beginning to enter the labor force, although their participation was gradually increasing over time.

Over 50% of those employed were in skilled positions.

Future Objectives:

To implement professional training programs to guarantee an improvement in the quality of employment of the immigrants and their integration into more prestigious occupations in every area of the Israeli economy.

To increase the rate of labor force participation of those over age 45.

To develop special programs to increase the participation of Ethiopian women in the labor force.

III. Education

Access to education was limited in Ethiopia and thus the majority of adults had little or no education.

Most of those who came as children had participated in some kind of educational framework in their villages, but on arrival were well behind their Israeli counterparts.

Policies with respect to the educational integration of the Ethiopians differed by age group. For those of elementary school age, the policy was to integrate them into school in their local communities. As most of the Ethiopian parents preferred to send their children to Israel’s national religious school system, they tended to concentrated in a relatively small number of schools. This often meant that the Ethiopian children represented 15-25% and sometimes more of the total number of children.

It is estimated that there are 20,000 Ethiopian children in the school system, about 5,000 of them in boarding schools, in the 1995/96 school year.

The children were first placed in separate classes within the schools in order to provide them with the basic language instruction and background that they would need in order to be integrated into regular classes. They participated in these classes for about a year and in a special survey conducted in 1993 by JDC-Brookdale, 70% were found to have been integrated into regular classes. In 1995/96 the rate of those studying in integrated classes is 95%.

In order to assist the schools in addressing this challenge, a range of special assistance was provided. The assistance included:

* An allotment of extra teaching hours per child (1.7 hours per week with no time limitation for those who came after January 1, 1991).

* Supplementary afterschool programs

The teenage population was integrated into the Youth Aliya network of boarding schools (a project of the Jewish Agency) in consideration of the fact that their families were living in temporary housing sites. With the transition to permanent housing, there has been a shift in policy to encourage teenagers to remain in their communities. The JDC-Brookdale survey indicates that a significant percentage of the 14 year olds were studying in their local communities in 1995.

This network of programs has been successful in largely preventing dropouts among the Ethiopian population and assuring that almost all of them complete 12 years of education. There remain, however, very significant gaps in performance, both in the elementary schools and in those completing high school relative to other Israeli children and there are reports that there may be problems of irregular attendance among subgroups, although these have not been documented. Reported dropout rates are higher in the general Israeli population and much higher in the lower-income groups in Israel than they are among the Ethiopians.

Future Objectives:

The State of Israel recognized that it will require a long-term commitment to a special effort in order to address the educational gaps between Ethiopian immigrants and other Israelis.

At the end of 1994, the Ministry of Education established a steering committee to focus on the education of Ethiopian immigrants, headed by Dr. Gadi Ben Ezer. The steering committee operates in the following areas: coordination within divisions of the Ministry of Education, coordination with external bodies which deal with educational areas, developing long-term policy in the area of the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants, and cooperating with the communities in developing and applying these policies.

For the 1996 school year, the steering committee will have a total budget of 15 million shekels. (Approximately 5 million Dollars.)

Approximately 380 Ethiopian children who have been identified as gifted are studying in 1996 in the top schools throughout the country, within the framework of a special project to identify and encourage gifted children among the Ethiopians.

IV. Higher Education

A special effort has been made to integrate the Ethiopian population in higher education, to promote social mobility and create leadership and role models.

Thus, the government has developed special programs granting broad assistance to each student of Ethiopian origin for the duration of his studies, including those born in Israel. This is in contrast to students from other countries, who are entitled to less assistance nd conditional upon their beginning academic studies during the first two years after their arrival in the country.

The assistance has included:

* Special scholarships to attend institutes of higher education.

* Special preparatory classes (for one or two years) are available in Israel’s universities and post-secondary institutions to prepare the Ethiopians for the entrance exams.

* Student housing is provided at the government’s expense to most students

* Living stipends are provided (only to Ethiopian students) to help them to devote themselves more fully to their studies.

* Special supplementary high school years of study to enable them to complete their high school matriculation exams, which are a prerequisite for higher education.

These efforts have borne fruit. The number of students is shown in Table 2.

 Table 2. Number of Ethiopians Studying in  Post-Secondary Institutions and Attending  Preparatory Courses in Israel, 1992-95.    Year     Preparatory   Degree      Total           Students      Students   91/92                                145 92/93        55           185        240 93/94       131           219        350 94/95       172           306        478 95/96       411           480      1,021  

Future Objectives:

* Strengthening the ongoing integration of th Ethiopians into academic studies and in institutions of higher learning

* Integrating Ethiopian graduates of higher education into the decision making process in a range of areas in Israel

* Improving the system of assistance and accompanying the Ethiopian students throughout their years of academic study by developing additional programs to fill the educational gaps and improve learning skills.

V. Military Service

The vast majority of young Israelis serve in the army and this is considered to ba a major channel for upward mobility and social integration and is viewed by many as considerably important in encouraging Israeli identity. Thus a special effort was made to enable the Ethiopians to serve in the army and overcome the obstacles posed by their backgrounds.

Today approximately 1,500 Ethiopian soldiers are serving in the army.

Within the army, a number of special programs to provide them with the special support they need have been implemented.

Special efforts were made to channel the more talented and motivated into officer’s positions.

Participation in the army, as a result, has been very high. Among men, more than 95%. Ethiopian women, as they come from religious families, have the option of not serving in the regular army. However, a growing percentage are choosing to serve.

Today there are 23 officers and a growing number of soldiers in combat units.