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The current economic condition of the Beta Israeli community in Israel is indeed much better than their pre-Aliyah (pre-immigration)condition in Ethiopia. Such comparison,
however, is definitely misleading and can overshadow their actual economic status in Israel.
The Beta Israeli community as the only black immigrant group in a majority white, Ashkenazi Jewish nation, have lead to difficulties in assimilation which are manifested and can be measured through such factors as government housing projects, grade school education, disparities in income between the Beta Israel and the rest of the Israeli population, and job performance expectations for the Beta Israelis.In addition to race and religion, another characteristic of the Beta Israelis that has been perceived as making them different involves the perception by that they are primitive or backwards people who have not reached the same levels of modernity as the Israelis. Although the Beta Israelis’ existence in Ethiopia was communal and was based mainly traditional artisan and on subsistence farming, and although they certainly did find the transition to the technologically advanced Israeli society jarring, it is often the case that these difference in levels of modernity are conceived of or portrayed in pejorative terms. The Beta Israelis are often portrayed by the Israeli media as Tarzan-like peoples who have lived in the African wilderness and thus have no familiarity with modern life, which is often not the case.
The Hebrew press portrayed their first days of the Beta Israelis in Israel that some of them put their shoes in the refrigerator and washed their clothes in the toilet. Many of the Falasha had been introduced to or at least seen modern technology before immigrating to Israel. Nevertheless, Beta Israelis were typically portrayed by the media as “people from the 17th century coming off a plane into the 20th century”.
The presumption that the Beta Israelis were primitive was also used to excuse deficiencies in government programs aimed at absorbing the Beta Israel. When complaints arose over the problems with education and slow rates of assimilation, these were often dismissed as glitches in the transition of a people from subsistence in Africa to the high-tech society. The treatment of the Beta Israelis as different because of their race, religion and perceived primitiveness has resulted in their difficulty in being absorbed into Israeli society.
Religiously, life was also complicated. Although their Jewish status had been affirmed back in the 16th century Jewish scholars and again by leading Jewish figures of the 20th century, there were still many who doubted the authenticity of the community’s Jewish status and practice. To this effect, the Orthodox rabbis that largely control Israeli religious institutions demanded the Beta Israelis to undergo ritual immersion once they entered the country. When the Beta Israelis adamantly protested, the rabbinate responded by weakening their demand for ritual immersion as a condition for the acceptance of the Beta Israelis as “a community within the Jewish people”. The Beta Israelis since then complained that Israel’s religious and civil authorities treat them as somehow less Jewish than others.
The Beta Israelis’ experiences within the Israeli institutions such as schools, the military, public accommodations, social events and housing indicates that the Israeli perception of the Ethiopian Jews as being backwards, have lead to their social and economic difficulties. The Beta Israelis are unquestionably much worse off economically than native Israelis. Most of the Beta Israelis are living below the poverty line as defined by the Israeli government.
Since Operation Moses in 1995, the Israelis identification of negative expectations for the Beta Israelis in the workplace as a factor indicating the difficulties of the Beta Israelis in assimilating is only marginally supported by actual facts. The Ministry of Immigrants
Absorption in its report explained that if geographic concentration was the Israeli policymakers’ main concern in regard to housing, the chief source of worry with respect to employment was that an entire Beta Israeli group would gather at society’s lowest stratum. The government assistance matrix in the employment field didn’t enrich the Beta Israelis as expected.
A lot of the Beta Israeli families with many young children are headed by unemployed men in their late fifties and sixties. There is also high percentage of Beta Israeli single mothers who are often unable to work. This means that someone without independent income heads a very high percentage of Beta Israeli households. However, even those elderly men and single mothers who do work have difficulty making enough money to support their families since they typically work for minimum wage.
Most Beta Israeli families live in distressed neighbourhoods in concentrated “Ethiopian” pockets. The most worrisome aspect of this situation is that more and more reports of children who are out on the street, in malls, and near cheap gambling establishments until late at night. The parents often have little control over this because they have a small apartments and a feeling that they don’t know how to discipline their children anymore, especially because their children know very little of their native Amharic language and instead speak street Hebrew.
Juvenile delinquency is growing even among Beta Israeli children as young as 8 or 9 years old. There are reports that Beta Israeli youth gangs are already established in many of the cities where there is a concentration of Beta Israelis such as Rehovot, Rishon LeZion, Netanya, Beer Sheva, Hadera as well as in Tel Aviv. In neighbourhoods with a high concentration of Beta Israelis, there are several reports that Israeli criminals are actively recruiting Beta Israeli youths into drug sales and other criminal activities.
Concerning Beta Israeli employment, in 1986, the Absorption Ministry considers only 2,000 as presently employable out of the 8,000 who were brought in Israel in Operation Moses. This fact is somewhat questionable, considering that the majority of the Beta Israelis were previously farmers and well skilled artisans so perhaps could have been employed in such a capacity.
However, those skills would have had to be supplemented by education about more modern farming and artistry techniques, a project which the Israeli Absorption Ministry did not undertake. Leaving aside farming jobs, many of the Beta Israelis probably was unemployable because of their lack of proficiency in Hebrew. But, the Absorption Ministry’s efforts to train the Beta Israelis in Hebrew were inadequate. In 1999, 53% of the Beta Israelis aged 25-54 were employed compared with 76% in the general Israeli population. Today unemployment rates of the Beta Israelis are still significantly higher in this community than among any other Jewish Israeli group. Around 120,000 Ethiopian immigrants and descendants of Ethiopian immigrants live in the country, constituting 1.53 percent of Israelis, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Of these, 4,500 have an academic education, but only 782 members of the community are employed as civil servants.
Nearly 70% percent of the Beta Israelis live under the poverty line. The gap between the Beta Israelis and white Israelis is ever growing. For the Beta Israelis, it is visible in impoverished neighbourhoods, soaring unemployment, and the highest high-school dropout rate of any Jewish group in Israel.
Although some references to the economic hardships endured by the Beta Israelis seem few and far between in the press, some statistics gained from the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ) can aid in supplementing an understanding of the exact nature of the Beta Israelis’ economic situation. Facts about the Community, 2003 data stated the following. “Seventy percent of Ethiopian families have no incoming salary. Sixty-three percent of Ethiopians work in non-professional fields. The average Ethiopian salary is below the poverty line. Only thirty-one percent of Ethiopian fathers and ten percent of Ethiopian mothers are employed”.
Such grim statistics seem to be largely the result of the fact that the Israeli government’s attempts at educating the adult population of the Beta Israelis, especially in basic Hebrew proficiency, have been inadequate. Isolation is deepened by inadequate language training for adults, which is a handicap in the search for jobs. The creation of a black economic underclass in Israel has thus been largely unaddressed by the Israeli, as well as the international, press, and steps that might lead to the amelioration of some of the economic difficulties, such as better language and skill training for Beta Israeli adults, have not been taken by the government.