Report calls Israels Ethiopian Jews black underclass

JERUSALEM — Misguided Israeli educational policies are "steadily transforming Ethiopian immigrants into a black underclass," according to a new report by the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.

Titled "Creating an Underclass: How Israel's Educational System is Failing Immigrant Youth," the just-published report accuses the government of providing substandard education to Ethiopian immigrants and of segregating them from other Israelis.

While acknowledging that many officials in the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Education and Absorption ministries have made "heroic efforts" to help Ethiopian olim (immigrants) succeed, the report charges the government with educational neglect.

The report, compiled four years after the Operation Solomon airlift brought 14,400 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, is subtitled "A Call to Action."

"While the problems posed by inadequate housing and job prospects are well-known," the report says, "the most critical obstacle to the absorption of the Ethiopian community is the education system."

The Ministry of Education rejected the report as biased. Ministry spokesman Yeoshua Amishav conceded that "serious problems do remain in the integration of Ethiopian youngsters, but such biased reports add nothing to the solution of such problems."

"This report was written without any consultation with the ministry," Amishav added. "It gives a black-and-white picture, which has no connection with reality.

"Just last week, we were happy to integrate the first group of Ethiopian teachers into the Israeli education system. This is just one example of what is being done in Ethiopian education," he said.

Noting that about half of Ethiopian adults are unemployed, the report says, "For the Ethiopian community, education is the only avenue to social mobility and a critical key to the future."

The education system, the report concludes, "has only contributed to a vicious circle of poverty, unemployment and juvenile delinquency."

As proof, the report finds that only 7 percent of Ethiopian 12th-graders received a matriculation certificate in 1994 — the lowest showing of any ethnic group in Israel. In contrast, 14 percent of Israeli Arabs, 40 percent of Israeli Jews, 50 percent of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and more than 80 percent of middle- and upper-middle-class students passed the exam.

Much of the problem stems from educational segregation, the report says. At the kindergarten level, nearly half of all Ethiopians are enrolled in segregated schools, many located in caravan sites throughout Israel.

And in elementary school, Ethiopian children are often sent to the weakest schools in the country. Between 15 percent and 20 percent of all Ethiopian second-to-fifth-graders are illiterate, according to the report.

Once they turn 12 or 13, more than 90 percent of Ethiopians are sent to Jewish Agency Youth Aliyah boarding schools, which also cater to "problem" youths. Of these, the vast majority are placed on vocational tracks or in scaled-down academic programs that do not lead to full matriculation.

This "massive uprooting," the report charges, "has dealt a devastating blow to the community's family structure, with broad implications for the future." One consequence has been the "burgeoning phenomenon of juvenile delinquency," which was "previously unheard of in the Ethiopian community."

The report recommended:

*To end segregation, Ethiopian children should be offered the opportunity to attend schools in neighboring towns, villages or kibbutzim.

*Parents should be involved in their children's educational progress through special programs.

*After-school enrichment programs should be developed for every Ethiopian child in need.

*The Ministry of Education and the Jewish Agency should devise plans to ensure, within five years, that the percentage of Ethiopian students matriculating from high school equals the national average.

"Barring a substantial transformation of the current educational conditions for Ethiopian students, all avenues of social mobility will be closed off to this community," the report warns.