Down a dark, smokey stairwell and in a Tel Aviv basement disco of swirling colored lights, the music grows louder — a thumping beat with lilting Amharic lyrics piped through speakers and echoing onto a packed dance floor of young Ethiopian Israelis.
In the jostling crowd that is almost exclusively Ethiopian, women in tight jeans and tank tops and men sporting baggy rapper-style pants and denim jackets dance in small, traditional Ethiopian-style circles.
“I’m here to see people, to laugh, to soak up the atmosphere. I prefer Amharic music, because it is my language,” said Muluzta Sami, a 21-year-old sporting a goatee. Sami, who speaks flawless Hebrew, immigrated to Israel in 1991 from a village near Addis Ababa.
The mix of Western and African culture at the Zamena club, one of a small number of discos that cater to Israel’s young Ethiopian immigrant set, appears to be an extension of these young Ethiopians’ experience in life in Israel, in general.
Some were born in Israel or came here as young children. Along with their parents, they made their way to Israel as part of the modern exodus-style airlifts of Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984-85 and 1991.
They are members of the Ethiopian Jewish community known as Beta Israel. For centuries, its members — some rabbis speculate they are the lost Israelite tribe of Dan — dreamed of Jerusalem and observed Temple-era Jewish rites from their thatched huts in remote rural villages in Africa.
Today they are young Israeli university students, army officers, lawyers and social workers. But 20 years after the first major wave of immigration to the Jewish State from Ethiopia, there also are disproportionately high numbers of unemployed and high school dropouts among them.
The youth and their parents are a community in transition, the euphoria of their arrival having long been replaced with the hard realities of making a life in modern Israel.
“In recent years, the economic situation in Israel has been very difficult, but the ones who have suffered most are the Ethiopians,” said Adisu Massala, a former Knesset member who now chairs the United Ethiopian Jewish Organization, an umbrella organization of Ethiopian groups.
“They are new to country, have no inside connections when it comes to getting jobs, lack language” skills, he said. “This is a community that came here with nothing.”
The problem, Massala said, is not that there is a dearth of money allocated for the community’s absorption but a lack of qualitative, smart programs that will help lift the community out of poverty and into the Israeli mainstream.
The majority of Ethiopian families struggle financially. A recent survey by the JDC-Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem revealed that in up to 56 percent of households with children, neither parent has a job. Furthermore, most adults who are employed are in low-wage, menial jobs. Many families say they are living in apartments that either are overcrowded or poorly maintained.
Of approximately 90,000 Ethiopians living in Israel, an estimated 70 percent are illiterate in Hebrew. That, experts say, contributes to the high rate of unemployment: 53 percent for men and 65 percent for women.
Research shows that the longer an immigrant has lived in the country, the more likely he or she is to be employed. Similarly, the length of time an immigrant has been here also appears to affect how much they are socially integrated into the fabric of Israeli society.
Israel faced an unprecedented challenge when it began absorbing the Ethiopian Jews en masse — a community that previously had known only rural life in Ethiopia. Its members had to be instructed not only in Hebrew and the basics of Israeli society, but in the basics of modern living — starting with how to flush a toilet and cook on a stove.
The success of their absorption has been mixed in part due to mistakes made in the immediate aftermath of Operations Moses and Solomon. For example, for most of them, their first home in Israel was in isolated mobile-home communities in remote parts of the country or on the edges of Israeli cities.
Many children were sent off to religious boarding schools, sometimes rupturing delicate family bonds and tradition. The children then “live in conflict, feeling on one hand that they are part of Israeli society, but when they go home, they must go back to cultural codes of the community,” said Chaim Salem, who works in the Ministry of Absorption’s Ethiopian division and emigrated from Ethiopia in 1984. “They are neither here nor there, but in the middle, which creates a conflict between themselves and their parents.”
Former Ethiopian boarding school students also complain that their educations were substandard. The focus was study of Jewish texts and training for professions like auto mechanics and sewing, instead of preparation to pass bagrut exams — high school matriculation exams that pave the way for university study.
In recent years, fewer and fewer Ethiopian children have been attending boarding schools, and although the linkage is not clear, the number of those passing bagrut exams has soared. In the early 1990s, only 10 percent passed the test; today, more than 40 percent do.
In the Ethiopian community, where about 60 percent of the population is younger than 19, ensuring that the young are properly educated is the best strategy for ensuring successful absorption into Israeli society, said Chen Lifshitz, a senior researcher at Brookdale who has done extensive research on Ethiopians in Israel.
One of the biggest challenges in education, she said, is a lack of confidence among Ethiopian students in the classroom. This, in turn, Lifshitz added, affects their future success.
“They do not have support from home; they often don’t understand what is happening in class,” she said, adding that the result often is that students tune out — they are physically present but not absorbing the material.
In part, Lifshitz said, this is because they return home from school to parents with poor Hebrew who cannot help them with their homework or afford private tutoring.
In a move to make Ethiopians homeowners, the government has provided generous mortgage packages that allow them to buy their own apartments — but, as when they first immigrated, the only homes available often are in remote, disadvantaged areas, where schools and social services are less than adequate.
Some critics say the tragedy of the story of Ethiopian immigration to Israel is that despite all of Israel’s good intentions, the government took a community that had been functional and independent in Ethiopia and created in it a great dependency on the social service network.
Meanwhile, the economic gaps in Israeli society, in general, are widening as government benefits to the poor are cut, and Ethiopians, like other immigrant groups, are especially hard hit. Resources, in general, for the Ethiopian community are shrinking as philanthropic funding has fallen, along with a decline in the number of volunteers working in the community, research has found.
Some of the money earmarked for the absorption of earlier Ethiopian immigrants is now going to newcomers — members of the Falash Mura community. The Falash Mura are Ethiopians whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under great pressure, but who now are returning to Judaism with the help of international Jewish aid agencies and are immigrating to Israel.
One innovative job-creation program for Ethiopians trains them as bus drivers in the Tel Aviv area. About 80 people are enrolled in the training program, and a few dozen are already on the roads. Once hired, they can expect a salary of about $1,330 a month after taxes — roughly the average Israeli salary.
“We know that when parents work, the model is different, the absorption is different, everything changes,” said Zipi Pinkus, who oversees immigration and absorption for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which sponsors the training program. “When they do not work in professions, they have menial jobs that do not always help them break out of the cycle of poverty.”
Back at the Zamena club, the young revelers greet each other according to Ethiopian tradition — with kisses on both cheeks. Discussing their sentiments toward Israel, some express bitter alienation. Others say Israel is 100 percent their home.
“We are Jews; we love Eretz Yisrael,” said Asher Mukat, 18, a soldier serving in an armored infantry unit in the Gaza Strip. “But I don’t feel Israeli. The American Jews who helped get us out, I hope they will now help me get to America. Here people look at us like rubbish — that is how I feel. I don’t see my future here.”
But 21-year-old Aviv, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said it is different for those, like her, who were born in Israel.
“My whole life is here,” she said, pushing back her long braids and flashing a bright smile.