A. is an engineer with a degree from a top Israeli institution who recently ended his career army service overseeing major projects and representing the army abroad.
When he sent in his resume for a high-level job at a government company, the recruiter who called him back asked him how to pronounce his name, when he immigrated to Israel and why he has an accent.
Bibi gets immunity – just not the kind he really wants
A., who was born in Ethiopia, is used to questions like these. Still, he was surprised that in spite of his qualification and experience, he didn’t get invited for an interview. When he called the company, he was told that he wasn’t among the candidates still being considered.
A. didn’t take the rejection sitting down. He had scored 14 points higher than the next best candidate for the job and provided excellent recommendations from managers inside the company. He appealed the decision not to hire him; after intervention by a Justice Ministry unit created to fight discrimination, the company’s appointments committee was re-formed and A got the job.
“This is a story that repeats itself over and over again,” Aweke “Kobi” Zena, coordinator of the Justice Ministry’s National Anti-Racism Unit, told TheMarker in an interview.
“In the Ethiopian community, talented and educated people apply for management positions and are rejected. There’s no one with dark skin in Israel who hasn’t encountered racism and competing for management jobs, even in the public sector, is one manifestation of it,” he said.
“Even though 40 years have passed since the Ethiopian aliyah, even in 2020 integrating people of color into management jobs is a nearly impossible task,” Zena said.
Figures show that in the public sector, 85 percent of Ethiopian Israelis are in entry-level jobs that don’t demand any professional qualifications. They have no career prospects ahead of them. In the Health Ministry, for instance, 70% of the Ethiopians employed are doing janitorial or delivery jobs. “All you need to do is visit a government ministry to see who’s cleaning it,” said Zena.
Ethiopian Israelis account for 1.6 percent of the population, but only 0.4% are in jobs that require a college degree. In the upper echelons of the civil services, “grades” 42-44, there are only three Ethiopians and two of them are in posts dedicated to the needs of the Ethiopian community (one of them is Zena himself).
In the local authorities, not a single Ethiopian holds a senior management position. “How can that happen in a place like Kiryat Malichi, which has such a big concentration of Ethiopians?” Zena asks and provides his own answer: “The mechanisms of exclusion are horizontal. You can find them in every organization in the civil service and public sector.”
One tool that is supposed to counter that is the Law for Adequate Representation of the Ethiopian Community, which has been in force since 2012. However, Zena noted that the law does not specifically require adequate representation of managerial posts and that’s where the “bleaching process” takes place.
“Take, for example, the story behind filling the role of deputy director of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women, which is a dedicated post,” Zena said.
“They tried to eliminate it. Only due to the intervention of the (Justice Ministry) unit did they reopen the case, and today an Ethiopian by the name of Oshra Friedman has the job. Another post in the Social Equality Ministry, which was designated for Ethiopians, was about to disappear when the Ethiopian who held it left and a call for candidates was opened to everyone. I have no problem with unsuitable workers being fired, but why bleach the job?”
The claim is that the system leads to unqualified people getting jobs. What is your response to that?
“That claim doesn’t hold water. It’s important to remember that in the past the same claims were made about women. Amazingly, the minute they passed a law requiring women to be on boards of directors, they found women for the jobs. For years, Ethiopians have been hearing that ‘there aren’t any suitable people.’ It’s simply not true. The problem isn’t candidates but that the system isn’t built to take responsibility for its racism problem.
“People ask how much are Ethiopians willing to accept positions that require managing other people, evaluating them and hiring them. We’re well acquainted with that kind of thinking. First they told us ‘They won’t come’ [for job openings] and when they came they said ‘they don’t have the skills’ and so the hierarchy protected itself. Even today, discrimination is managed by counting heads and coloring positions, thereby fixing the reality. We shouldn’t be managing discrimination but eliminating it.”
That’s not happening?
“Unfortunately, no. The government is involved in Ethiopian culture, in (the Ethiopian holiday of) Sigd and folklore, but not in basic socioeconomic change. Treatment of Ethiopians is the true face of the country – we experience an attitude of superiority and a perception that people of color have lesser abilities.
“I have a gifted 9-year-old son. He thinks that he’ll go to Mars, but I know that the chances of his realizing his potential in Israeli society, as it is today, are small.”
The unit Zena heads was formed three years ago following a wave of protests by the Ethiopian community and its supporters after a young Ethiopian serving in the Israel Defense Forces, Damas Pakada, was subject to a beating by police. The protests not only targeted the police but discrimination in employment, education and health care.
An interministerial committee headed by the Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor concluded that there was racism in the civil service and that a governmental unit should be formed to address it. Zena, who had a distinguished career in the IDF and Justice Ministry, was named to head it. But the unit has no enforcement powers, which limits its effectiveness.
“The fact that we’re a coordinating unit allows us to accept complaints and investigate them, but we can’t issue directives to ministers,” said Zena. “Even gathering data is outside our purview. Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn supports expanding our authority and right now the preparatory work is being done that will hopefully lead to legislation. It’s a first step, but not enough.”
What else needs to be done?
“We need to significantly expand the number of managerial posts held by Ethiopians because in their wake other workers will come, too. We should also be changing the staffing of the hiring committees to include more Ethiopians. Women weren’t being chosen for jobs when the examiners were all male. All of this needs to be done quickly because the struggle against racism is Sisyphean and exhausting.”