Educating Ethiopians is critical, activists say in S.F. panel

"What the [Ethiopian] community and Israelis who care are waiting to see is if there is really going to be any significant action taken," added the Berkeley-born Orthodox rabbi, who made aliyah in 1988.

Violence erupted in Jerusalem Jan. 29 between police and Ethiopian Jewish demonstrators after disclosures that the Israeli government had thrown away blood taken from Ethiopian-born soldiers, fearing it had been contaminated with the AIDS virus.

The government has since apologized for discarding the blood, but tensions have continued to simmer among Ethiopian Jews, many of whom saw the blood incident as exemplifying their mistreatment in Israeli society.

During a recent panel discussion in San Francisco, Odenheimer and two other activists, Elisha Wolfin of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay's Israel Center and Barbara Gordon, offered their recommendations for improving conditions for Ethiopian Jews and thereby preventing further unrest. The discussion, titled, "The State of Ethiopian Jewry," was sponsored by the World Affairs Council, the Commonwealth Club and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Re-lations Council.

Of primary concern, the panelists said, is improving the quality of education so that Ethiopian Jews can enter the Israeli mainstream.

"Education is the single most critical issue," said Barbara Gordon, who founded the New York-based North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry in 1982. "I do have the ideal solution: Put more money into the schools. But governments don't usually work like that."

Gordon, whose organization has helped in the rescue and absorption of Ethiopian Jews, said Ethiopian children — more so than other immigrants — often attend overcrowded, understaffed schools.

That problem, she said, is worsened by Israel's short school day, which ends at 1 p.m. Many Israeli children attend costly after-school classes that can make the difference between academic success and failure. However, such classes are usually too expensive for immigrant parents, many of whom teach their children at home, Gordon said.

Gordon cited evidence to show Ethiopian students can, given support, excel academically. Since 1993, the NACOEJ has opened free, after-school programs in a number of Israeli schools. The programs enable participants to join classes with other Israelis, sometimes after just one semester.

Most experts agree that mainstreaming Ethiopian children at an early age is crucial, panelists said.

"What fueled [the riots] was the tolerance the Israeli government has shown towards segregativeness," said Odenheimer, pointing out that some schools are up to 80 percent Ethiopian.

He charged that Ethiopian children have been concentrated in the weakest schools and placed indiscriminately into non-academic vocational tracks.

The combination of economic and educational deprivation makes Ethiopian Jews feel like outsiders in Israeli society, he added.

"There's no question that for the kids who are already out of school, who have dropped out or who have not been integrated into high schools, their sense of identity is linked to a feeling of having been discriminated against, or having been pushed to the margin," Odenheimer said.

"It doesn't matter what the case is…the end result is going to be the creation of a feeling of having been discriminated against because of race."

With the peace process shifting some Israelis' attention away from military security, domestic concerns are making their way into the political forefront.

"People have the leisure now to look around and have a better life," said Gordon. "I hope [it] will be available to everyone."