Ethiopian Israelis: housing, employment, education.

AuthorSwirski, Shlomo
PositionBrief Article

There are approximately 85,000 Jews of Ethiopian extraction in Israel, including 23,000 who are Israeliborn. Most immigration from Ethiopia came in two waves-8,000 in Operation Moses (1984) and 14,000 in Operation Solomon.

This report, written ten years after Operation Solomon, examines social policy in regard to Ethiopian immigrants in three main areas--housing, employment, and education--and asks how these Jews are faring in Israel.


Most Ethiopian Israelis reside in close proximity to one another in disadvantaged neighborhoods within a small number of cities and towns.

This is contrary to the declared intentions of the official absorption policy. First, that policy aimed to prevent the development of Ethiopian "ghettos." Second, the policy aimed to steer Ethiopian immigrants toward middle-class neighborhoods. Third, the official policy encouraged these immigrants to purchase homes in the center of the country, where employment and social services abound, and not in peripheral areas.

The first two policy aims have not been achieved; the third has been achieved to some extent.

Housing Situation

Data from the Ministry of Construction and Housing, released in 2001, show that most Ethiopian immigrants live in permanent housing that they own. Between 1988 and April 2001, 10,542 Ethiopian immigrant households purchased apartments with the help of a government mortgage (Ministry of Construction and Housing, memorandum, July 2001).

Most other households of Ethiopian origin live in rented public housing. In June 2001, according to the Amigur and Amidar public housing companies, 23,300 persons of Ethiopian extraction (29 percent of the Ethiopian community) lived in public housing (Amidar memorandum, July 11, 2001, and Amigur memorandum, July 5, 2001); 2,000 dwelled in mobile homes (Amidar, memorandum, July 5, 2001), and about 3,000 lived in immigrant absorption centers (Brookdale Institute, 2001:15).

Most immigrants who still live in absorption centers and mobile homes arrived recently. (In 1999 and 2000, there were about 2,000 immigrants from Ethiopia each year [Ministry of Immigrant Absorption,] and in 2001 there were approximately 3,300 [Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, 2002].) Some young singles who came in previous years are also still living in mobile homes.

Ethiopian Immigrants Mediated vs. Direct Absorption

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who arrived en masse in the 1990s, were integrated in a process termed "direct absorption," i.e., the authorities did not get involved in decisions such as choice of place of residence, employment, and lifestyle.

The direct absorption policy was not applied in the case of Ethiopian immigrants. When the first large group of Ethiopian immigrants reached the country, in Operation Moses, it was decided that the Jewish Agency would be responsible for their absorption and that the process would last five years. In the first stage, the immigrants would be given temporary housing in immigrant absorption centers, hotels converted into absorption centers, and public housing. In the second stage, a year later, they would be settled in permanent housing. During their stay in temporary housing, the immigrants would undergo medical examinations and receive medical care. After three months, they were to begin learning Hebrew and familiarizing themselves with life in Israel by means of intermediaries such as paraprofessionals from the community, social workers, and other caregivers. The first government plan described the anticipated process thus: "During the first period, they will undergo medical examinations and treatment and afte rwards devote their time to learning how to function at a basic level at home and in the [new] environment, and to learning Hebrew" (Ministry of Immigrant Absorption 4:1985). Absorption centers were also supposed to serve as "transit stations" until family members still in Ethiopia could be flown to Israel and families could be reunited before their transfer to permanent housing.

The plan was that in Stage Two, a year later, the immigrants would move into permanent housing and continue to receive help in various areas, including language study, vocational training, and social integration.

In fact, most of the immigrants stayed in absorption centers for more than one year.

The reason given for the decision to task the Jewish Agency with the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants, rather than to apply the direct absorption policy, was the immigrants' low educational level and lack of resources upon arrival. It may also have been due to the absence in Israel of a critical mass of old-timers of Ethiopian extraction who could function as guides in the direct absorption process.

An additional factor deserves mention: immigration from Ethiopia was a lifesaver for the institutions of the Jewish Agency, which were on the verge of dismantlement. Since the direct integration of former Soviet immigrants left the Agency with nothing to do, the Agency was about to hand over its traditional role in immigrant absorption, including absorption centers, to the government. The Ethiopian immigrant absorption project gave the Jewish Agency's absorption apparatus a new lease on life and funneled tens of millions of dollars--from the U.S. government, the Israeli government, and American Jewish philanthropy--into its coffers (Lazin, 1997: 45-46).

The Dispersion Policy

The Ethiopian immigrant absorption policy was influenced by the bitter residues of the absorption of immigrants from Arab countries in the 1950s and 1960s. Those immigrants were sent upon arrival to temporary camps, transit camps, and development towns that were typically far from centers of employment and culture, provided no more than rudimentary public services, and offered little opportunity for personal or collective advancement. To keep the problems of the 1950s from recurring, the government declared its wish to send the Ethiopian immigrants to fifty localities that ranked on the middle, rather than the bottom, of the socioeconomic scale. The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption even stipulated that efforts should be made to avoid having more than thirty to fifty Ethiopian households in one neighborhood and more than two or three Ethiopian households in one building or building entrance. In 1991, it was stipulated that Ethiopian immigrants should not constitute more than 2-4 percent of the population of an y neighborhood or locality (Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, 1985: 49-53; Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, 1991: 20-21).

It was also decided that Ethiopian immigrants would not be sent to localities in the two lowest clusters of the socioeconomic scale: "It is recommended that these immigrants be sent to localities that have sufficiently strong community infrastructure in education, employment, and socio-community services.... They should not be imposed on communities that have difficulty sustaining themselves" (Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, 1985: 47).

The localities on the original list were chosen because they belonged in the "average" socio-economic category, i.e., they were neither particularly poor nor particularly rich. A few more localities, such as Kiryat Malakhi, where Ethiopian immigrants who had settled before Operation Moses wished to be joined by relatives more recently arrived, were added to the list.

The list shown above was supplemented by an inventory of neighborhoods in major cities that were also defined as suitable for Ethiopian immigrants: Kiryat Hayyim, Kiryat Shemuel, and Kiryat Eliezer/Bat Galim in Haifa; Ramot, Kiryat Hayovel, East Talpiot, Pisgat Ze'ev, Givat Mordechai, and Gilo in Jerusalem; and Yad Eliyahu in Tel Aviv (ibid.: 49).

The 1985 absorption plan for Ethiopian immigrants stressed the avoidance of concentrations of recent immigrants from Ethiopia. It stated explicitly that absorption centers serving as temporary housing for Ethiopian immigrants should not be turned into permanent housing, lest this result in too many immigrants in those localities (ibid.: 49, 52).

The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption's 1991 policy document reiterated the principle of dispersion that had guided policy in 1985 and made minor adjustments in the list of recommended localities in view of the settlement patterns of the Ethiopian and former Soviet immigrants who had come after 1985. The 1991 document placed stronger emphasis on the importance of settling Ethiopian immigrants in major cities and the center of the country. Moreover, in response to the tendency of Operation Moses immigrants to prolong their stay in absorption centers, the document recommended moving immigrant families into permanent housing as soon as possible after their arrival: "Absorption centers should cease being a structured stage of the absorption process and should serve as temporary transit housing only for immigrants who are waiting for family reunification or permanent housing" (Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, 1991: 3).

Policy vs. Reality

Despite the declared policy of dispersion, Ethiopian Israelis now live, as stated, in several relatively large concentrations in a few localities (CBS, 2001 [A]). Furthermore, a large proportion of the immigrants found permanent housing in localities and neighborhoods that ranked low on the socioeconomic scale: Kiryat Malakhi; Netivot; Ofakim; Kiryat Moshe in Rehovot, the Gimmel, Vav, and Het neighborhoods of Ashdod, the Pe'er neighborhood of Hadera; Kiryat Nordau, Azorim and Shikun Hefzi-Bah in Netanya; Givat Hamoreh and Upper Afula in Afula; and the Shimshon and Atikot neighborhoods of Ashkelon. Israel's two largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, have very small populations of Ethiopian origin: about 1,000 in Jerusalem and only several hundred in Tel Aviv (ibid.).

At the end of 1999, seven localities had concentrations of 3,000 immigrants or more: Netanya, Rehovot, Haifa, Hadera, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Beersheva.

How Did This Happen?


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