TEL AVIV, Feb. 27 (JTA) — The sound of lilting music grows louder as the camera zooms in on a face in shadow. In the corner of the television screen the person’s statistics are flashed: age 25, lawyer, represents Israel abroad.
A light is then cast onto the face, revealing a young Ethiopian Israeli woman wearing a business suit. In accentless Hebrew she says with a hint of defiance: “You did not expect to see me, did you? There are many others like me.”
The same format is used to highlight other Ethiopian Israelis, including a soccer star, a deputy battalion commander in the army and one who recently earned a doctorate.
The ad is part of a campaign launched by the Israeli Ministry of Immigration Absorption and the Jewish Agency for Israel to boost the image of the country’s 100,000 Ethiopians. In the eyes of many Israelis, Ethiopian immigration to Israel has been a failure. Most encounter Ethiopians through the media, where they are depicted as unemployed, poor and plagued by family violence. The younger generation is seen as adrift and drawn increasingly to a life of crime.
The campaign aims to show the Israeli public young Ethiopians who have found success such as Maj. Shlomi Vicha, 27, a company commander in the Israeli army. In charge of three combat platoons, Vicha said he feels it is now his time to give back to the country that took him in as a young child who immigrated without his parents — and housed and educated him and his siblings.
“I have no doubt that the army is the best place for having an equal chance for success just like everyone else,” Vicha added. “Everyone is equal here and whoever wants to succeed will succeed.”
He has spent time speaking to Ethiopian youth. “I do what I can to contribute and explain to them about the army and how they can contribute,” he said. “It’s important that there are success stories so the public at large will see the other side and also so there can be models for the schoolchildren so they know that they too can succeed and go forward.”
The statistics, however, are discouraging. Research conducted by the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews has found that among those who are employed, the majority work in blue-collar jobs and live below the poverty line, Ethiopian students drop out of high school at twice the rate of the general population and juvenile crime is rampant.
The aggressive advertising campaign, being promoted on television, radio, the Internet and in newspapers, is aimed at casting a positive light on the community by focusing on its success stories. It also marks the arrival of the first major arrival of Ethiopian Jews to Israel 30 years ago.
“We’ve decided we need to make an overture to the public, to include the public in their absorption,” said Jewish Agency spokesman Yarden Vatikay. He said that he hopes the campaign, entitled, “Thirty Years Since the Aliyah from Ethiopia — Success Depends on Us” will boost awareness about the community and draft Israeli volunteers to help integrate Ethiopians more completely into Israeli society.
Integration has been the major stumbling block for the community. The majority arrived penniless, unable to speak Hebrew — and complete foreigners not only to Israeli culture but to the modern, Western world. Most had been raised in an agricultural, subsistence economy and were not all prepared for life in Israel.
Unlike their highly educated Russian immigrant counterparts, the Ethiopians have struggled to integrate into competitive and aggressive spirit of Israeli culture and many are now dependent on government assistance.
A phone number is provided in the ads for a hotline that gives information on how Israelis can either “adopt” an Ethiopian family — sharing meals and holidays with them — tutor students or give an internship to a young Ethiopian.
Daniel Yosef, a 35-year-old architect, is among those in his generation of young Ethiopians who have found professional success. His siblings have as well: among them is a musician, a graphic artist and a fashion designer.
Yosef said he hopes the campaign accomplishes its goal of showing “the other side, the side of success within the community.” But he added that it what is most important to him is not to boost awareness among today’s Ethiopian youth that success is within reach.
“The campaign is one that has to be within our own society so we can raise our own self-image,” he said. “we need to provide a good example to the youth.”
Employment remains a problem. Only some 76 percent of the community is employed, compared with almost 90 percent of the general workforce. Meanwhile, thousands of Ethiopian Israelis who have graduated from college often cannot find work in their fields. Many Ethiopians with law degrees, for example, can be found working in communal organizations or even as security guards instead of in law firms. Only some 15 percent of those with law degrees actually work in law firms, according to Jewish Agency statistics.
An estimated 60 percent of Ethiopian Israelis who have academic degrees end up taking working class jobs when they cannot find work in their professions, research has found.
“The campaign is not the solution to the problem, but part of the process. We want people to ask themselves whether they display racism, and whether they give equal opportunity to people at job interviews, or are they influenced by stereotypes,” said Immigration Absorption Minister Tzipi Livni told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.
Despite the initial jubilation in the country during the airlifts of Operation Moses in 1984-85 and Operation Solomon in 1991, racism and discrimination persist. In September, an Israeli mayor tried to bar Ethiopian students from attending an elementary school in his town.
Avraham Neguise, an Ethiopian rights activist running for Knesset in a new party aimed at Ethiopian voters, said the ad campaign should show not only the success stories, but also the challenges that face the community.
“It seems like this is taking a few individuals who really did good work and succeeded which is good. However it looks like it is hiding the real problems,” he said.
Vicha, the army major, thinks the situation for Ethiopians will improve when the younger Ethiopians feel less stuck between cultures and embrace what is good in both Israeli society and their heritage.
“We need to take from both,” Vicha said.
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