Immigrants & Bureaucrats: Ethiopians in an Israeli Absorption Center: An Israeli Absorption Center / Best Brother: The Identity Journey of Ethipian Immigrant Soldiers

By Kaplan, Steven | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Immigrants & Bureaucrats: Ethiopians in an Israeli Absorption Center: An Israeli Absorption Center / Best Brother: The Identity Journey of Ethipian Immigrant Soldiers


Kaplan, Steven, The Middle East Journal


Immigrants & Bureaucrats: Ethiopians in an Israeli Absorption Center, by Esther Hertzog. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999. xxviii + 195 pages. Bibl. to p. 200. Index to p. 204. n.p.

Best Brother: The Identity Journey of Ethiopian Immigrant Soldiers, by Malka Shabtay. Tel Aviv: Cherikover, 1999 (Hebrew) 205 pages. Tables to 213. Notes to 223. Bibl. to 240. n.p.

In a famous and oft-quoted remark, the American historian Oscar Handlin noted, "Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history." Much the same can be said about Israel and Israeli history. Although Israel's military and security situations have traditionally garnered the bulk of international attention, the integration, or as it is commonly referred to "absorption" of immigrants has been a no less constant theme in Israeli history. Beginning with European survivors of the Holocaust in the 1940s and the immigrants from Asian and African countries in the 1950s, Israel has witnessed the arrival of wave after wave of immigrants, each with its own particular cultural background and social configuration. Indeed, even today the immigration of over a million people from the former Soviet Union and their impact on the social fabric of Israeli society is one of the most complex issues facing the country.

Compared to previous waves of immigrants, the 55,000 Ethiopians who have arrived in Israel since 1977 are not particularly numerous. Even when the more than 20,000 Ethiopian children born in Israel are included and their number rises to over 75,000, they comprise only slightly more than 1% percent of the Israeli population. However, the Ethiopians have always attracted more attention than is warranted by their mere numbers. Their symbolic significance for the Israeli process of self definition has always been greater than demographic impact. The "rescue" of thousands of Ethiopians who were living as refugees in the Sudan (1984) and Addis Ababa (1991), have often been depicted as vindications of the vision of Israel's founders. Moreover, the incorporation of a people so physically and culturally different from the rest of the country's Jewish majority has raised fascinating questions about the religious and racial borders of the Jewish people.

Among the many institutions Israel has developed to assist in the integration of new immigrants is the absorption center. Whether located in a hotel, a series of apartment buildings, or a caravan site, absorption centers concentrate new immigrants in a single area during the initial period after their arrival in the Israel, in order to provide them with Hebrew instruction, health services, job training and a variety of other services. During the 1980s, about 17,500 Ethiopian immigrants were housed in such centers for periods of time, ranging from a year to (albeit in exceptional cases) a decade.

Esther Hertzog, a social worker turned anthropologist, resided in one such center for much of her 18 months of fieldwork. As Hertzog documents in great detail, during the 1980s immigration authorities treated Ethiopian immigrants as a special group demanding close attention and considerable resources. Not only were the immigrants largely confined to absorption centers, but access to them was strictly controlled by center bureaucrats. Thus, rather than learning the skills needed to function as independent citizens, many immigrants developed a dependence on their patrons. While this may not have served the long-term interest of the immigrants, it was very much in the economic and professional interest of those who worked with them. Bureaucrats not only controlled the immigrants and the resources intended for them, but were also able to inculcate values and behaviors which they deemed appropriate. Family life and gender roles were two areas in which the impact of outsiders on immigrants was particularly intrusive.

While much of this was known from anecdotal evidence prior to Hertzog's study, it has never been documented in such detail. …

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