Since the first wave of Ethiopian immigration to Israel in the early 1980s, Ethiopian-Israelis have struggled to assimilate into mainstream society. While it’s difficult for any immigrant population to find their place in a new homeland, Ethiopian-Israelis have struggled mightily in the face of additional obstacles that previous immigrant groups were not forced to confront, including radically differing cultural and social norms, vast discrepancies in economic and developmental circumstances, overt and implicit racism, as well as continuing controversy regarding their status as Jews.
Though these eager immigrants underwent mass conversion to quash doubts surrounding their status many years ago, the uncertainty still plays a role in how Ethiopian-Israelis are viewed by Israeli society. And no matter how hard they try to blend in, the ugly specter of racial tension looms large.
However, in recent years, Ethiopian-Israelis born and bred in Israel have made significant progress, weaving their way from the fringes of the country’s periphery into the social tapestry of mainstream Israeli society. More and more, young Ethiopian-Israelis are carving out their own path, establishing themselves across many sectors of Israeli society and creating their own immigrant success stories. For many, the beginning of these stories starts with access to opportunities in higher education.
Meir Asras made Aliyah with his family when he was just three years old. Though he’s proud of his Ethiopian heritage, he says that he feels “totally Israeli,” a sentiment that his parents do not share. While his parents were a source of strength for him as he grew up, Asras learned from a young age that in order to be successful in his new homeland, he would have to expand his support system beyond his home. Thankfully, a host of talented educators provided him with the support he needed to thrive.
“Growing up in Israel, I experienced a very different life than my parents,” Asras explains. “And once your life is significantly different from your parents, who are your support system and your safety net, you understand that education is the only way to cope with all the challenges you have to face. There is just no other way.”
Asras knew that he wanted to study business, but he struggled to find a place where he could pursue his dream. Finally, a close friend recommended that he take advantage of Ono Academic College’s Program for the Advancement of Ethiopian-Israelis for Leadership and Higher Education. Now the Vice President of Investments at Bank Leumi, Asras admits that he made a wise decision. Thanks to his hard work and dedication in college and the business world, Asras manages investments totaling a net worth of NIS 7 billion, analyzes new market opportunities, and conducts meetings with fund managers, among other administrative and financial responsibilities.
While Asras lives more comfortably than he once did, he hasn’t forgotten where he started and openly talks about his reliance on financial aid while earning his degree. Thanks to a generous scholarship, he was able to focus more on his studies instead of juggling a job as well, like so many college students must do. Asras saw the opportunity as a “godsend” and a true “win-win situation.”
Still, despite his own success, Asras acknowledges that Israel still has a long way to go to help its Ethiopian population overcome the cultural, educational and social gaps that still exist. While the number of Ethiopian-Israelis that have enrolled in higher education have risen by over 327% between 2001-2016, how they fare in the job market is another story. Approximately 18% of Ethiopian-Israeli men and 26% of Ethiopian-Israeli women are employed as unskilled workers, while the same is true for just 3% of the general Jewish population.
Still, Asras believes that the availability of educational opportunities is the key to propelling the promising trend of Ethiopian-Israeli college enrollment forward, as the population’s inability to afford the education required to secure higher paying jobs perpetuates a cycle of economic stagnation and social immobility.
“Israel is home to varied populations, and when you have the opportunity to meet so many people who are not exactly like you, people who you wouldn’t have met in any other place, you realize that there are so many who just need to be given a shot, and they’ll put in the work to make it happen,” says Asras. “Education is a very powerful tool. It can buoy the Ethiopian-Israeli population and bridge the gaps in our society.”
Amir Getahon, another young Ethiopian-Israeli who benefitted tremendously from his higher education experience, agrees that drastic action must be taken to improve the situation for minorities in Israeli society, Ethiopian-Israelis chief among them. While Getahon serves as the Chief Accountant at the Ministry of Education, a prominent governmental position, he still doesn’t always receive the respect he deserves from his colleagues. He feels that the degrading effects of racial bias have played a huge role in keeping Ethiopian-Israelis from achieving success, no matter how hard they work to achieve it.
“Not everyone believes that Ethiopian-Israelis can be successful or qualified for a job,” he says matter-of-factly. Early in his career, Getahon was dismissed from multiple job interviews for no reason other than his appearance noticeably surprising the interviewers. “They expect to see X and they get Y. And in their eyes, there is no common denominator. There aren’t very many Ethiopian accountants yet. Our community still struggles for acceptance, as it’s still difficult for us to secure higher paying jobs.”
Despite the obvious setbacks of racial profiling, positive memories of his college experience keep hope alive for Getahon. “On campus, I experienced what Israeli society could be like in the future. Populations that are usually excluded were embraced without question – Ethiopians, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox students studied together with everyone else. Not only did they embrace us, but they also tried to help us and push us to be better, to achieve more.”
Eden Tapet is a shining example of what members of minority populations can achieve when given the necessary opportunities and support. Tapet has served as an officer in the IDF’s border patrol Magav Unit, earned a law degree, and achieved international fame for becoming the first female Ethiopian-Israeli officer on the country’s police force. Tapet’s story has been published in numerous news outlets, a short film about her life was broadcast on Israeli public television, and she is a highly sought-after public speaker who inspires other young women of color to pursue their personal and professional dreams.
Tapet earned her Bachelor of Laws degree at Ono and is now studying for her Master of Laws degree. While her professional life is still widely seen as something of an anomaly, Tapet feels as though she is treated as just another student when she is on campus. In fact, it’s that feeling of belonging that allowed her to develop her trailblazing spirit.
“When everyone is accepting and you feel that every door is always open, you can achieve anything,” she says. “It’s only a matter of time until this positivity and spirit of inclusion spills out into Israeli society at large. It starts on campus, at inclusive and forward-thinking institutions, and it will reach every professional sector in due time.”
While these success stories, and others like them, are evidence of an Israel that is embracing diversity and inching towards inclusivity at the highest levels of industry, it is clear that real progress takes time. For this generation of Ethiopian-Israelis however, there is plenty to be thankful for.
One of Getahon’s fondest memories is of a school-sponsored celebration for the holiday of Sigd, a sort of Ethiopian-Jewish festival with a spirit similar to that of the American holiday of Thanksgiving. “In Ethiopia, on the holiday of Sigd, Jews would go up to the highest mountain, face Jerusalem, and pray all day to be ‘next year in Jerusalem.’ Today, we are here, so our prayers of yearning and longing have transformed into prayers of thanksgiving and gratitude. We are thankful to be here and thankful to have the opportunities to realize our personal and professional aspirations, even if we have to struggle to achieve them. Our story in this land has only just begun.”
By: Ma’ayan Gutbezahl