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Ethiopian Jews and the IDF

The hardships that Ethiopian IDF recruits face signify that the path to integration will be long and arduous

A news item last week called attention to a painful Israeli social problem. Israel’s 125,000-strong Ethiopian Jewish community has about 5,600 of its sons and daughters serving in the IDF. The enlistment rate for this community is significantly higher than among the general population. But according to IDF radio, 50 percent of those young men and women, a shockingly high percentage, spend time in military jails in the course of their service.

The IDF’s record of integrating its Ethiopian Jewish recruits is mixed. A few findings of a Knesset research study from a year ago illustrate the problem. About 20 percent do not complete their full term of service, five percent higher than for the general population of soldiers. Most of these were cases of soldiers going AWOL. At any given time, Ethiopian Jewish soldiers make up about 11 percent of the total number of Israeli soldiers who are incarcerated.

About a year ago Haaretz reported that the main causes of desertion are poverty and cultural differences. Many Ethiopian Jewish families still live in dire economic conditions. The salary of teenage children can be an important component of family income. The army has several service paths that allow soldiers from such backgrounds to spend considerable time working at home and helping to provide for their families. There are also special welfare payments. But many young soldiers feel overwhelmed with guilt at not being available to support their families. As a result, they go AWOL and find work.

Haaretz also notes the deeper challenge of cultural differences. Not having served in the IDF, many Ethiopian Jewish parents cannot help their children deal with the often harsh adjustments to military life. For non-Israelis, this requires some explanation.

Any service in a military entails a rough period of basic training and tough psychological adjustments. In the Israeli system families fill a crucial role in providing support. Israeli popular culture is full of funny stories of how parents intervene to critique the way commanding officers treat their offspring, and young commanding officers tell anecdotes suggesting that the reality is not far from the humorous descriptions. In 1964, the late singer Rachel Atas immortalized the situation with her anthem for mothers of IDF soldiers. Called “My Haimkeh,” it speaks of how only her Haimkeh knows how to march correctly, when he is the one out of step. Only her Haimkeh knows how to wear his beret properly with the insignia facing backward. And of course, when only her Haimkeh waves from the middle of the parade and shouts “Mommy, here I am,” he shows that only Haimkeh truly loves his mother.

Amidst the humor lies a great sociological truth. The fact that the country is so small poses a major security challenge to Israel. But since the battlefields and army bases are usually less than a few hours’ drive from home, the IDF makes use of the psychological advantage of returning a conscript regularly to the bosom of his or her family.

However, in immigrant families parents are unfamiliar with this role. They can have a hard time providing their own children with this important support. And when the system is built around this component, other support mechanisms can wither. The resulting deficit for young Ethiopian Jewish soldiers can be quite damaging.

Also, there is the broader cultural difference between Israel’s notoriously egalitarian, brash societal norms and the self-effacing conduct encouraged by conservative Ethiopian Jewish society. Where an Israeli soldier will often channel feelings outward, in the direction required by the military environment, Ethiopian Jewish soldiers can be seen internalizing aggressive behavior directed toward them, and may often respond by withdrawing into themselves.

To its credit, the IDF has hardly been indifferent to the situation. It has several programs aimed specifically at the preparation and mentoring of its Ethiopian Jewish soldiers. Yet, the challenge remains. Last summer the Personnel Branch instituted a program supplying each of them with an older mentor from the regular army who assists the young recruit from the point of preparing to join the army, through the challenging initial period of basic training, and placement in their units. It is too soon to tell whether the new mentoring system yields results.

To judge from historical experience with previous waves of immigration, the path to full integration is at least a generation long and achingly difficult, as many of us who live in Israel with our foreign accents and histories of acculturation can testify. Israeli society today is much better at integrating immigrants than it was decades ago, and there are positive signs today. The Ethiopian Jewish community has sent an Ethiopian Jewish ambassador to Ethiopia; it has three members in the new 19th Knesset; it has rising income and rising levels of higher education, although both remain below the national average. It is a young community with an average age in the early twenties, and full of energy. There is much to be proud of, but, as the IDF Radio report shows, much work for Israeli society yet to do. About a year ago I wrote about “Ethiopian Jewry: The half-full glass.” The glass is still only half-full.

About the Author
Ed Rettig is the Chair of Shomrei Mispat, Rabbis for Human Rights.