Battling to integrate: The IDF’s misunderstood Ethiopian recruits

Battling to integrate: The IDF’s misunderstood Ethiopian recruits

One in every three soldiers of Ethiopian heritage serves time in the army’s jails. Slowly but not always surely, the IDF is trying to reverse a dire trend that, many argue, is rooted in wider Israeli ignorance and racism

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

A soldier of Ethiopian heritage in a Nahal Brigade drill in the Golan Heights (photo credit: Nir Gal/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A soldier of Ethiopian heritage in a Nahal Brigade drill in the Golan Heights (photo credit: Nir Gal/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

An Ethiopian-Israeli soldier, born in Israel — let’s call him Yitzhak — was drafted into a rear echelon role in 2012. At the time, he was not in touch with his father; his mother had passed away; and he shared a government housing project apartment with his sister, who had embraced ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Nonetheless, he wanted to serve.

After several months in the Southern Command, his financial aid from the IDF — for help with rent and food and other necessities — stopped coming through, apparently because he failed to process the paperwork.

Frustrated and serving under a career sergeant who took little interest in his predicament, Yitzhak left the base and did not return. For the first 21 days of his absence he was considered AWOL. After that, he was designated a deserter. And, not too long after that, the Military Police came and arrested him.

Yitzhak was sentenced to 40 days in a military prison for Israeli soldiers — known in Hebrew as Kele Arba — located in the military police compound in Tzrifin. During that time, the army did not pay the financial aid, aka “tash,” and, worse, the other inmates accused the shy soldier of being a police informer. He was ostracized in jail and beaten up repeatedly. When he was released and returned to his army base, he was deep in debt. He turned to loan sharks and to friends and then, again, went AWOL.

This time, when the MP came to take him back to prison, in August 2013, he cowered in a corner of his apartment’s third-floor balcony and, under somewhat ambiguous circumstances, tumbled to the ground. While he was recuperating in the hospital from multiple fractures and two hours of surgery, the military police returned, put him in a wheelchair, shackled his wrists to the armrests, and wheeled him back into custody.

Eventually, Cpt. (res) Avtamo Yosef and another Ethiopian-Israeli officer in the IAF were able to intervene. Yosef, a former paratrooper who recently finished his army service and started an NGO that aids and empowers Ethiopian-Israeli soldiers — more on that later — testified on his behalf and managed to help set a precedent: Yitzhak received no jail time. Instead, he was given a year’s medical leave and is hoping to return to service in September 2014.

Cpt. (res) Avtamo Yosef (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Cpt. (res) Avtamo Yosef (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

This story, relayed by Yosef and also known to MK Penina Tamanu-Shata (Yesh Atid) is an extreme example. (Yitzhak, still officially a soldier, told The Times of Israel that, without official authorization, he could not speak on record). But the hard numbers regarding the service of male and female IDF soldiers of Ethiopian heritage are equally grim, and have been for some time.

Among the 130,000 or so Israelis of Ethiopian heritage, for instance, motivation to serve in the IDF is high, with 89 percent of teenage boys and 62% of teenage girls joining the army. Yet one out of every four soldiers from the community does not complete his or her service. Often this is due to desertion and an ongoing cycle of incarceration – with one out of every three soldiers of Ethiopian heritage serving time in prison during his or her service, a figure that helps explain why community members, representing 3% of the army’s population, constitute 13% of its prison population.

This situation, which Tamanu-Shata said in the Knesset was “simply like creating a factory for criminals,” has triggered an array of changes within the IDF. Early in 2013, the army’s first female Maj. Gen., Orna Barbivai, the head of the manpower division, set aside funds, despite across-the-board cuts in the IDF budget, for the establishment of a department devoted solely to the advancement of soldiers of Ethiopian heritage.

The army now runs a 24-hour call-in center in Hebrew and Amharic for soldiers, pre-draft teens, and parents. It streamlined the process of requesting financial aid, by requiring only the recommendation of an officer and an NCO and not the bevy of bank statements otherwise necessary. It mandated yearly home visits by direct commanders, beginning no later than eight weeks after a soldier’s draft date. It removed several score-related barriers on the path toward the officer’s training course. It continues to offer parents a taste of army life, bringing them in small batches to IDF bases for a day, clothing them in uniforms, allowing them to fire weapons at a range, eat in the mess hall, and experience, however briefly, the nature of army orders. It helped establish the Ethiopian Jewish holiday Sigd as a vacation day for all members of the community [the first national institution to do so]. And it offers career advice courses for soldiers close to discharge. “But the first and central challenge is in the preparation for army service,” said the commander of the unit, Maj. Hila Halpern.

Maj. Hila Halpern, right, the commander of the IDF department charged with integrating and advancing soldiers of Ethiopian heritage (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Maj. Hila Halpern, right, the commander of the IDF department charged with integrating and advancing soldiers of Ethiopian heritage (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Halpern, six-months pregnant and therefore dressed in civilian clothes, said that much of the malaise can be traced back to test results, which are low and lead to lowly placements, and, in turn, dissatisfaction, alienation, and desertion. The psychotechnic tests, she said, “do not reflect the qualities these kids have.” Calling the standardized exams “Western” and an inappropriate gauge of capability for Israelis of Ethiopian heritage, even those who were born and educated in Israel, she said that poor results –less than 2% of community members test in the highest kaba bracket as compared with nearly 26% in the population at large – “funnel them” into menial positions as drivers and clerks. “Without any shadow of a doubt,” she added, the drop-out rate is higher among those serving in such roles.

The army, therefore, for the past year, has drafted those who performed poorly on the exams several weeks before their non-Ethiopian peers and offered them several courses — improving their Hebrew language skills, readying them for service in the IDF’s field units, and, most significantly, providing an opportunity to alter their earlier evaluation results. One course, known as Amir and open to men and women, “offers cognitive evaluations that check the soldiers’ learning capacity,” Halpern said, rather than just their existing aptitude. The Fuerstein Method that is used, she added, allows the IDF to post the soldiers to positions in the air force and military intelligence that would not have been open to them based on their test results — a step that, she felt, was not “just a military mission but a national one.”

MK Pnina Tamanu-Shata. (photo credit: Flash90)
MK Pnina Tamanu-Shata. (photo credit: Flash90)

Nonetheless, the notion of segregated courses, solely for Israelis of Ethiopian heritage, has been widely denounced. MK Tamanu-Shata said in a phone interview that while Maj. Gen. Barbivai’s heart is in the right place, the Amir course, among others, “is an embarrassment and a disgrace and a certificate of poverty.”

Suggesting that the funding for such courses comes from the inexhaustible pool of North American contributions for such programs, she said that the mandatory attendance for soldiers who tested poorly means “that you put the weak with the weak and everyone gets weaker.”

Can you imagine this happening in the US Army, she asked, “a course only for African-Americans?”

A Nahal Brigade beret march en route to Massada (photo credit: Alexi Rosenfeld/ IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A Nahal Brigade beret march en route to Masada (photo credit: Alexi Rosenfeld/ IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

A former command room radio operator who wanted to serve as a squad leader and as an officer but was barred from both, Tamanu-Shata said that “so long as the army does not digest [the fact] that there is racism in Israeli society and that it trickles into the army, the situation will not improve.”

The brunt of the army’s focus, she felt, should be on the commanders, acclimating them to the Ethiopian-Israeli soldier and the community he or she comes from – a process, she said, that should not be facilitated by “white professors” but by other Ethiopian soldiers and former officers.

Knesset Member Shimon Solomon from the Yesh Atid party, February 3, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)
Knesset Member Shimon Solomon from the Yesh Atid party, February 3, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

Her Yesh Atid party colleague, the Ethiopian-born MK Shimon Solomon, who, like Halpern and others, dismissed the financial factor as peripheral, said he experienced racism as a young paratrooper in south Lebanon in the early nineties. “There were statements that were hurtful. There was an officer that didn’t even want Ethiopians [in his unit], but I said to myself, no one is going to throw me off course. Had I taken the path of emotion, all I would have done is fight and get angry,” he said. “Sometimes you have to suffer, and sacrifice, to get to a higher place.”

To his mind, the difference between his experience – he served as an officer in the paratroopers and continued on to a series of successes that brought him to the Knesset at the age of 44 – revolves around the attitude and unformed identity of the community members born in Israel. “I, who served as an officer, always understood that I was an Ethiopian-born Israeli,” he said. “I knew who I was and where I was going. The folks who were born here, are neither here nor there. They have identity problems.”

Ambiguity in action

Much of the identity-related ambiguity was evident one recent evening at the Brenner High School in Petah Tikva, where community members, young and old, met with Halpern and several other officers, soldiers, politicians and social workers to discuss the army.

Deputy Mayor of Petah Tikva Itay Shonshein spoke first and promptly betrayed a lack of understanding about the community: he waved off social worker’s Destaey Semai’s offer of a simultaneous translation into Amharic and asked for a show of hands of community members uncomfortable with Hebrew. With none, predictably, held aloft, he said “I’ll speak slowly” and began.

The mixed crowd of middle-aged men and women in their Saturday best and teenagers in hoop earrings and elaborate hairstyles listened politely as Shonshein laid out an optimistic view of Petah Tikva [“the fourth largest city in the country”] and encouraged the teens to come to the army with matriculation certificates already in hand. “Go to the best units,” he said. “Fight for it.”

A man in a white shirt and matching white tweed cap stood up to ask a question. The children don’t listen to the adults, he said. The slightest assertion of authority in the home, he added, “and they can call the police. They are not willing to take any sort of orders.”

Shonshein told a story about friends of his and their troubles with their own children’s insubordination, including a tidbit about the near involvement of the police. “It’s the same everywhere,” he said.

A young man, a veteran of the Paratroop Brigade’s recon force who works in the security establishment and therefore asked that his name not be used, stood up and told the deputy mayor, “you didn’t answer his question at all.” The older man wasn’t speaking only about the police, he said. That’s an extreme case. What he meant was that there is something broken generationally. “The parents need to be empowered. They don’t know if their child is on leave or a deserter. They don’t even know what to ask.”

Nor, he said, “do they know how to ask for help.” By us, he added, “people don’t make demands. They have to be told how to ask for help.”

Maj. (res) Abebe Biyenson, a deputy battalion commander in the paratroops, came up to the podium, in uniform, and told the audience he would be speaking in Amharic. “What about us?” a group of teenagers groaned.

Maj. (res) Abebe Biyenson (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Maj. (res) Abebe Biyenson (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Biyenson replied in Amharic and drew cheers from the parents’ generation. On the way out of the auditorium I spoke with Biyenson, whose long address, even in a language I don’t know, visibly impacted the crowd, jerking it from its previous passivity. “They know me, because my father was a general in the Ethiopian army,” he said, “so I just spoke about my own experience.”

When he finished high school, he said, his parents threw a party. They even slaughtered a sheep in his honor. When he was drafted into the army, though, they didn’t even take him to the base. They didn’t know it was necessary. “They don’t know what a forced march is. They don’t know what it means to call before an ambush. They don’t even know that you are allowed to visit your children in the army,” he said.

He called on many of the parents to change their ways. “Whatever was happening in Ethiopia is not happening here,” he said he told the crowd. “You need to be friends with your children.” You need to ask how they are doing. You need to ask what successes and failures they have met. And, he said, he told them that if their soldiers are coming home for the weekend and they have a girlfriend or boyfriend and they want them to sleep over, then the request should be favorably considered.

Like the social worker Semai, who said in an interview that she tells high school students that the army “is not a-tailored-for-you experience,” and that it takes fortitude to succeed, Bayinson also said that many Ethiopian-Israeli soldiers come into the service with a chip on their shoulders. “They need to be looked straight in the eye,” he said, “and then pulled forward.”

His happiness

Cpt. (res) Avtamo Yosef, a paratroops officer who sought but inexplicably did not receive the nomination to head the IDF’s Ethiopian integration department in 2012, today runs a parallel program that, as opposed to the IDF’s model, is based primarily on pre-army guidance and hard-nosed mentorship during service. It was the luck of having a mentor, he said during a recent interview at his hometown of Ofakim, that made the difference in his own service.

Yosef, 29, came to Israel at age six, to Beersheba, to a trailer park, and from there to the development town of Ofakim, where, he said, “the color of my skin may have deterred some people but from my perspective it was an advantage, because it stands out, so I’ll stand out for the better.”

In 2005, he volunteered for the Paratroop Brigade and was accepted to the 101st Battalion. The integration, he said, was easier in the army than at school because the very nature of the uniform acts as a leveling of the material playing field, but he encountered discrimination already during his first interview with his commanding officer. Wondering why he didn’t have a Hebrew name and inquiring about the meaning of his given name, Avtamo, the officer, having learnt that it means “his joy,” suggested that he take the similar Hebrew name, Osher.

Yosef declined, saying he would stick with the name his parents had given him.

“Of course,” Yosef said, he was the fastest runner in his company and, after excelling during Basic Training, he was made the company commander’s radio operator. Several months later, he was made a squad leader and seemed to be on the fast track for officer’s candidate school. “And that’s where the trouble started,” he said.

In October 2006, three weeks before he was to begin the officer’s course, his company commander ordered him to take his squad to donate blood. This was ten years after the Israeli public first learned that the national authorities were discarding all blood donated by Israelis of Ethiopian heritage, even from those who had never been to Africa, and only days after the matter resurfaced, when it was revealed that the regulations remained unaltered. Yosef explained this to the company commander. The officer said he should serve as an example to the soldiers and give blood, nonetheless. “Anything but that,” Yosef said. The officer re-wrote an earlier evaluation of him and informed him he would not be eligible for officer’s training school after all.

“I came home and sat outside and cried. I was destroyed,” Yosef recalled. Not having the native Israeli’s recourse to “an uncle who was a brigadier general” or a father who had old friends from the army, he spoke to a local activist, Moshe Achayon, who had taken him under his wing in high school. Achayon did something simple, which never would have occurred to Yosef or his father: he called the company commander’s superior officer. The battalion commander summoned Yosef and said that he sympathized with him and that he could serve again as a squad leader and that, if he did well again, he would have another opportunity to attend the course.

Three times, during a period of 18 months, he said, he nearly stumbled. Once with the blood donation; once when his body broke down during the officer’s course and he was told he would not be able to continue [again Achayon intervened, got him an appointment with a senior physical therapist, and easily rectified the situation]; and again, toward the end of the course, when his brother got into trouble with the law and he nearly left the course in order to help him navigate the legal system. [The battalion commander convinced him that forging ahead and becoming an officer would do more for the family than attending legal proceedings and assisting his father.]

But he said that there were two main things that led him to start working with Ethiopian-Israeli soldiers. The first was when, as a squad leader, a soldier of Ethiopian heritage who had no mother, had little contact with his siblings and whose father had just died of a disease, stalked off with his weapon and started talking about suicide. The soldier’s squad leader summoned Yosef to talk to the soldier. He brought the soldier’s uncles into the picture, secured leave for him and, after guiding him through the rough patch, recently was a guest at his wedding. “That was the first time I saw how something small can lead to something big,” Yosef said.

Soldiers of Ethiopian heritage near Beersheba (photo credit: Serge Attal/ Flash 90)
Soldiers of Ethiopian heritage near Beersheba (photo credit: Serge Attal/ Flash 90)

The next time was in January 2012, when the public learned that a group of Kiryat Malachi residents had committed to not renting or selling apartments to Israelis of Ethiopian heritage. Yosef, at the time a captain in the IDF’s ground forces branch, told his commanding officer that he was going to break the rules and attend the protest, in uniform. The officer said, ‘Wait, I’m coming, too.’

Standing there, looking at the placards, particularly the ones that related to the willingness of society to spill Ethiopian blood in wars but not to accept it in hospitals, he decided to contact Maj. Gen. Barbivai. He wrote the manpower chief an email, saying that she should be aware that “this sort of noise influences those in uniform and those who are not yet wearing it.”

“I said, ‘listen, if you do not do a complete turnaround then we are headed toward catastrophe.”

She wrote back 10 minutes later, cc’ing her deputy and inviting him to a meeting.

In the room, surrounded by senior officers, he was stunned by the nature of the discourse, which revolved around making financial aid more accessible. “Excuse me, officers,” he said, “but I don’t know why everyone is scared to say this but the problem has little to do with financial aid. It has to do with the racism in Israeli society.”

The violent protest over blood donations in January 1996 (photo credit: Flash 90)
The violent protest over blood donations in January 1996 (photo credit: Flash 90)

Discrimination, he said, created a situation in which many soldiers came into the army unwilling, when tested, to contribute to a greater good, which, they felt, had failed them and their families.

This gap, he reckoned, could be best bridged by using the “army’s most valuable asset, its Ethiopian officers.”

With Barbivai’s blessing he and several other officers started going to Prison Four, conducting interviews, probing the situation. As opposed to many of the non-Ethiopian officers that the inmates had encountered, Yosef, if he felt the situation was anything less than dire, did not do a lot of nodding and sighing. “Stop fucking with my head,” he said he told one soldier who complained that he had gone AWOL because he had been called the Hebrew equivalent – which is really not an equivalent at all – of the n-word. “So what, so he called you that. What are you going to do when that happens on the outside? When you have a wife and kid to support? And what about our parents? You think you have it hard? What about them? They came to a new country in the middle of their lives, didn’t know the language.”

In 2012, although he had been promised the position of head of the new department charged with integrating the Ethiopian Israeli soldiers, was told in fact that the interview process was but a formality, “the institutional politics beat me,” and Halpern, whom he called utterly worthy, was given the post.

One year later, he was discharged from the army and returned to Ofakim, a development town in the desert, and launched a civilian program, Tzaida La’derech, that is based on pre-army guidance and mentoring. He has a growing list of 50 officers from the community, neatly bundled into a Whatsapp group, whom he can call or message to intervene on a soldier’s behalf, if warranted, or to accompany a soldier during service.

The army, he said, is one of the best institutions in Israel when it comes to combating racism, but it is saddled with “the failures of the governments of Israel” and it receives 18 year-old soldiers with abysmal achievement records and plenty of resentment. “It is really trying, and the head of manpower is really doing her best,” he said, to fulfill the army education corps’ own motto of A People Builds an Army Builds a People. “But the route” it is taking – which Yosef called segregation in the name of inclusion – “I don’t want to say it’s bad, but it isn’t the best.”

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