- Immigrants and Bureaucrats: Ethiopians In An Israeli Absorption Center
Before coming to Israel the Ethiopian Jews suffered from poverty and oppression but also from spiritual and physical isolation from the mainstream of Jewish life. As we might expect, the process of absorbing Ethiopian Jews in Israel has been painful and difficult. Conflicts arise as their place in Jewish memory and history is renegotiated and as they discover and create their contemporary place in the nation state. Tensions have arisen out of this painful reunification, for example, blood-letting in symbolic circumcisions.
Esther Hertzog has written a very good book on the important topic of bureaucratic treatment of the Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. Her tone is mainly pessimistic and critical. Her research is based on formal charters and materials from government agencies, participant observation, interviews, and living at an absorption center from September 1984 to October 1985 where she volunteered as assistant to the cultural coordinator. Hertzog’s book provides a tightly knit analysis that emphasizes the central role of state agencies and suggests that the integration of the Ethioipian immigrants is characterized by power-dependency relations that develop in bureaucratic settings, such [End Page 131] as absorption centers, where the immigrants are concentrated, frequently for long periods of time. Most recent studies of the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants emphasize the ideological aims of the absorbers in terms of the social, psychological, and educational services offered to the immigrants, who are supposedly in need of help to overcome the trauma of immigration. A few studies like Hertzog’s argue that the absorption of immigrants is better understood in terms of bureaucratic control.
In Hertzog’s work the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants is controlled by the often competing needs and interests of state agencies, particularly the Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Labor and Welfare, and the Ministry of Absorption and Immigration. A large budget was allocated for this very needy immigrant population, and the bureau cratic competition resulted in service structures that fought vigorously to sustain their distinctive bureaucracies while agreeing to sustain the image of the Ethiopians as needy and dependent. Thus, while the stated goal of an absorption center is to provide people with skills so they can become independent, the irony in this case is that center bureaucrats work vigorously to keep the Ethiopians dependent.
Hertzog describes the physical separation of the center from its nearby town. The concentration of immigrants within the center enabled resources to be obtained from outside and the interests of bureaucrats to be gratified. Center officials exercise control over the relationships between people on the inside and the outside, and they control immigrants’ access to organizations and services outside and access of outsiders to the immigrants. Hertzog claims the immigrants also conceive of their world as enclosed within the center. In the first chapters, as bureaucrats and center workers control entry and access to the absorption campus itself including the caravans where the immigrants live, services, language education, vocational training, and virtually all outside connec tions, the Ethiopian residents move in and out of the discussion like shadows rather than people. As the chapters unfold Hertzog picks apart the bureaucracy with great precision and detail. Gifts from the outside, winter jackets, for example, are distributed by the bureaucrats, sometimes based on their own criteria rather than those of the givers; the bureaucrats disburse benefits such as direct money grants, education, and vocational training to categories of immigrants by age and gender; bureaucrats organize living arrangements by their own flexible and often erroneous notions of “the traditional” Ethiopian Jewish family structure; bureaucrats discriminate against women in favor of men in job training programs and resource distribution, thus reinforcing female subordination to their husbands and fathers in families; bureaucrats manipulate and control medical care, for example, the decision to have an abortion; bureaucrats criticize and monitor immigrant women’s ability to keep house and care for their children; and, in what may rightly be considered a deep humiliation, bureaucrats even control, organize and host a child’s circumcision ceremony, inviting guests...