Today: June 15, 2024

Ethiopians and other immigrants

June 12, 2012

The New York Times has discovered racism in Israel.

(JP) An Israeli response to such a revelation is “Mazal tov. You’ve discovered America.”

The meaning does not deal with racism in America, which has been there since Columbus. In modern Hebrew, “You’ve discovered America” means you have said the obvious. What we have known for a long time.

The racism in the most recent article is directed against Ethiopian Jews. There are Israelis who do not accept them as Jews. Or do not hire them. Or do not pay them the same salary as other employees. Or do not rent apartments to them. Or do not accept their children into desirable schools. Some time ago we learned that blood banks routinely destoyed blood donated by Ethiopians due to the high incidence of HIV among the population.

All this is regretable, but should not surprise anyone except those who thnk that Israeli Jews should be more perfect than other populations on all dimensions of intelligence, skills, and morality.

The headline and theme of the article report that Ethiopians do not accept their status as second class citizens. They are marching and demonstrating.

Another discovery of America. It did not take Ethiopians long to learn that there is no justice without complaint.

The article is fair in noting the financial support provided to Ethiopians, and that earlier arrivals from Yemen and Morocco also had problems in finding acceptance.

The article also notes what is the most sensitive issue involving the Ethiopians.

“A recent parliamentary report said that 30 percent of the killings of women by their husbands occur within the Ethiopian community, though the 130,000 or so Ethiopians make up less than 2 percent of Israel’s population.”

One indication of Ethiopian maturity in Israeli society is an organization intent on dealing with domestic violence in their community. Among its complaints is official shame that gets in the way of treatment.

“A few years ago the Yachdav coalition successfully lobbied for anthropological research on domestic violence among Israeli Ethiopians, which was subsequently funded by the Ministry of Welfare. The coalition was outraged to learn . . . that the Ministry had intentionally hid some of the report’s findings in order to obfuscate its own failure to invest resources on this issue.”

Ethiopian immigrants have no monopoly on this problem. An organization concerned with domestic violence against women found that the murder rate of women among newcomers was more than twice than among veteran Israelis. The rate was also higher among immigrants from the former USSR than among veteran Israelis, but not as high as that among immigrants from Ethiopia.

The explanations resemble what has been conventional wisdom since sociologists began studying pathologies among European immigrants to the United States in first decades of the 20th century. The classic study, still useful, is W.I. Thomas and Florian W. Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in European and America (1918). Culture shock is the general problem, whose details vary from one population to another.

“The Ethiopian newcomers came from a vastly different society, mainly rural, where women had no access to money, and depended on tribal and religious leaders for solving all family problems. Ethiopian men found the loss of their power as heads of families overwhelming and difficult to cope with. . . .

Men often lose status in a new society, where the language, skills, education, occupation, culture, politics, climate are different to those they were used to. In a violent family this will trigger extra and unwarranted violence.”

Immigration is the story of Israel, with its positive and negative features. A million arrivals from the fomer Soviet Union included more than their share of world class physicians and other scientists, academics, musicians, chess players, and my friends.

The 15 percent increase in population that began with initial arrivals in the late 1980s no longer makes it necessary for middle-aged immigrants to go through my experience of being drafted into the IDF and sent to basic training. The military now has a large enough draft pool of young people, and has become more selective for the sake of quality.

Russian speakers also have higher rates of domestic violence than veteran Israelis, and have boosted Israelis’ consumption of vodka and other kinds of alcohol, along with the work it produces for the police, mostly on Friday evenings. .

Even in the best of circumstances, migration between counries is a difficult experience. I came to Israel 35 years ago as a tenured professor in the country’s most distinguish university. I had also written about the experience of immigrants in the United States, and was prepared for difficulties. Colleagues in the university and neighbors were outgoing and generous with their advice.

Language was my greatest challenge, but not the only one. For some years now I have felt more Israeli than American, but not entirely so. Varda’s late father and I talked often about his experiences and mine. He never felt entirely at home, even as he passed 65 years in the country and had reached a senior position in the Bank of Israel.

Among my earliest articles about Israel was “How to Cope with the Bureaucracy” (Jerusalem Quarterly, 1978). Immigrants deal with officials more often than established residents, and are likely to suffer from their ignorance of language, culture, formal and informal procedure.

Some years ago I advised a doctoral student writing her dissertation at the University of Gothenburg about the reception of refugees in Sweden and immigrants in Israel. Among her findings: the Swedes are more reliable in providing applicants with what the law required, no more or no less. Israeli officials are more flexible, and more likely to take initiative in going beyond the formal routines in order to help their clients. The negative side of Israelis’ disregard for the rules is that are more likely than Swedish officials to provide less than the regulations to some claimants. The positive side is that they are more likely to provide more than the regulations allowed to others.

Immigration is wrenching enough so that many of the migrants eventually return home. Earlier studies found that one half of the immigrants to Israel from open societies went back. Recent statistics are that half or more of Israelis who emigrate are previous immigrants. Sizable numbers of Europeans who made the long journey to the United States in the 19th century also went back home. The process continues with older Italians, Poles, and others receiving their monthly US Social Security payments in the villages they left as children or young adults. Air travel makes it easier now to live in one place and visit another. Reforms in what used to be the Soviet Union attract some migrants to Israel who thought they were making a one-way journey in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Regulations of the European Union make it easy for Europeans to work away from their native land and return home for an occasional weekend. Lots of Israelis have obtained second and even third passports on the basis of what had been their parents’ or grandparents’ citizenships. Some use those passports to find desirable jobs, and a few make intercontinental flights weekly between home and work. There has been some media attention to Ethiopian-Israelis who go back for a visit, but nothing that I have noticed about a permanent return home.

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