By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
TEL AVIV, Israel, March 14 (Reuters) – Once a poor immigrant from Ethiopia, Mehereta Baruch has leapt to fame in Israel as a star on a reality television show.
The 30-year-old actress is one of a tiny minority of the tens of thousands of black arrivals in the past two decades to achieve even a measure of prominence in a country where Ethiopians complain of routine discrimination by fellow Jews.
“Their dream hasn’t been fulfilled. As far as being equal and belonging, it just hasn’t happened,” said Baruch.
Baruch was a finalist on a popular reality show called “The Ambassador”, where young Israelis competed for a job as an envoy selling the country’s image abroad.
Though she did not win, Baruch was happy she had proved she could overcome: “stereotypes and prejudice that I encounter a lot.”
Jews of Ethiopian descent, tracing their roots to the biblical King Solomon, number about 105,000 among Israel’s six million people today.
Most, like Baruch, were flown in during huge airlifts in the 1980s.
Another 20,000 Ethiopians are expected through 2007 after a pledge to speed up immigration of the Falasha Mura, Jews whose families converted to Christianity in the past 200 years and now want to come to Israel.
Nobody doubts that many of the Ethiopian Jews were happy to leave Ethiopia not only because of their religion, but also to escape one of the world’s poorest countries and a land haunted by war and famine.
While they may be financially better off in Israel than in Ethiopia, they are struggling compared to most other Israelis.
Some 60 percent are considered to be living in poverty compared to 20 percent of the general population, according to figures from Meyers-JDC-Brookdale, a prominent Israeli social research institute.
“We are making an effort to stop this through new programmes,” said David Yasu of Israel’s Immigration Ministry, adding that Ethiopians get more state aid than other immigrants to Israel.
Encouraging immigration is a cornerstone of policy in a country where officials worry about the faster birth rates of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians than Jews and falling immigration from other parts of the world.
Still, newcomers have traditionally complained of being hard done by – whether they are Jews who emigrated from Arab countries in the 1950s and 1960s or from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.
As Ethiopians came with little more than the clothes on their backs and could neither read nor write any language, their difficulty adapting was hardly a surprise.
But Ethiopian immigrant leaders express disappointment that many of their Israeli-born children with fluent Hebrew have fared no better and complain that the real problem is discrimination by white Israelis.
“These aren’t isolated incidents, it’s pure discrimination,” said Batia Eyob, director of an immigrant advocacy group that has documented a rise in anti-Ethiopian behaviour in the past five years.
Ethiopians complain of problems finding employers to hire them, but say the discrimination starts at school.
Figures show a dropout rate among Ethiopians of 23 percent by the age of 17 compared to 15 percent for other Israelis. Ethiopian youngsters say they find themselves the butt of racial slurs from some teachers as well as pupils.
Asher Balata, 18, said he hit his school principal “because he called me a nigger” and ended up expelled just months before high school graduation.
Alemo Beleta, 29, an immigrant who works with teenagers, said they often end up caught between parents who practise Ethiopian customs and Israel’s mixture of western and Middle Eastern culture.
“They live in two worlds, one world at school and another at home. Often that leads to rebellion,” said Beleta.
That has helped give rise to a thriving Ethiopian youth culture with roots in Reggae and rap music.
On the negative side, there is alarm at growing numbers of suicides and domestic violence among Israelis of Ethiopian origin.
For new television star Baruch, it comes down to a feeling of helplessness – though she says she never felt it herself.
She arrived in Israel aged 10 without her parents, who followed years later. She went from a boarding school for immigrants to pursue a masters degree before joining theatre groups.
Baruch said she had gone on the television programme to further her own career rather than represent Ethiopian immigrants, but was happy to be a role model for any who might be watching.
“The youth now need to see success stories. They see that I am accepted and that maybe they can achieve that, too,” she said. “It makes them feel that anything is possible.”