After serving with The Ethiopian National Project (ENP), whose purpose is to help Ethiopian immigrants and their families succeed in Israel, I asked myself one question: Why do Ethiopian-Israelis have a harder time integrating into Israeli society than other immigrant groups? Coming from a Markets and Culture perspective, I realized that one very influential reason is that there is a huge culture gap between Ethiopian-Israelis and Israelis. Transitioning from a “developing nation with a rural economy” to a “Western country with a high-tech market economy” does not come without its problems (“History”).
Israel maintains a very innovative, high-tech economy, having “the highest concentration of engineers and research and development spending in the world” (Senor & Singer, 9). Not only that, but “more Israeli companies are listed on the NASDAQ exchange than all companies from the entire European continent” (Senor & Singer, 11). With all of its innovations, it is no wonder that one of Israel’s leading exports is high-technology equipment (“Middle East: Israel”).
Ethiopia, however, is still a developing country and the innovations the majority of Israelis can enjoy may only be experienced by the rich minority in Ethiopia. Agriculture is central to Ethiopia’s economy and “accounts for 46% of GDP and 85% of total employment” (“Africa: Ethiopia”). Rather than getting attention for its technology, Ethiopia has received foreign demand for its textiles, leather, and coffee (“Africa: Ethiopia”). Acquiring skills and finding jobs in a country that has a completely different economical focus than your native country is difficult and is one of the challenges immigrating Ethiopians face.
Another difference between Ethiopia and Israel is that Ethiopia is a collectivist society and Israel has evolved into a more individualistic society. Israel has a collectivist history, apparent by organizations such as its Kibbutzim, which are communal agricultural communities where people share the property and wealth. In the kibbutzim’s earlier days, even children lived in communal children’s houses. However, today Kibbutzim have become more individualistic with more individual choices such as housing options and educational pursuits. Most kibbutzniks, people who live on kibbutzes, make and enjoy their own salaries instead of salaries going directly into the Kibbutz’ ownership and then being shared evenly among its members. In an individualistic country, individuals tend to focus on the individual rather than the whole group. They pursue their own personal goals rather than group goals. In Ethiopia, emphasis is placed on the group. The group’s etiquette, norms, and values tend to align with each other. Trust is given to the group and everyone in the group looks after each other. Perhaps if Ethiopians had immigrated at an earlier time when the collectivist Kibbutz was prevalent, their assimilation might have been a little easier.
Israel is also a low-context country. Low context countries tend to have a need for order. Life is governed by laws. Business agreements can occur through written agreements even with strangers. There is high trust among Israelis because each Israeli believes others will follow the same rules they live by. This is opposite of a high-context country such as Ethiopia, in which trust must be earned before agreements and other transactions can occur. Nepotism is very common in high-context countries, which makes it even more difficult for Ethiopians who may be moving away from their family and friends with whom they have already built relationships with or with integrating Ethiopians into Israeli neighborhoods where they might be further away from other Ethiopians.
Israel is a very low power distance country, meaning decision making can happen on all levels of society and status is not very important. Israel is a country “with fewer class differences than most” and a big reason is this low power distance aspect (Senor & Singer, 52). Israelis have a lot of chutzpah, a word similar to assertiveness which can mean “incredible guts.” Chutzpah is seen in the way “university students speak with their professors, employees challenge their bosses, [and] sergeants question their generals” (Senor & Singer, 30). The attitude of chutzpah further closes the gap between Israeli citizens and Israeli authority figures. Another way in which people in positions of power continue to stay close to home is the use of nicknames. Israelis commonly use nicknames and authority figures are no exception. Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is known as “Bibi” (Senor & Singer, 31).
All of this is the opposite of the high power distance Ethiopia where decisions made by authority are not usually questioned. Class systems are prevalent in Ethiopia and may be based upon age, wealth, gender, or ethnicity. There is a huge gap between the rich and poor and status is very hierarchal. Social interactions reflect this hierarchy. For example, religious and political figures are seen to possess more authority than teachers or other workers, and this authority is not challenged. There also seems to be a lack of trust between people in positions of power and those with less power, such as the government and its people. The youth at my center definitely had no problem talking back to their counselors, they are already learning about chutzpah. I can imagine how this might disrupt their life at home, where kids are expected to obey their elders.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) play a huge role in Israel’s low power distance culture. Army service is required for both men and women at the age of eighteen (exceptions may include Israeli Arabs and Hasidic Jews). Although duration of service may differ depending on which unit one enters, women typically serve for approximately two years while men serve for about three years. After completion of these required years, Israelis continue to serve in the army reserves for a few weeks out of the year. Although specific army units have different levels of prestige (similar to the way different universities in America have different rankings), the IDF has a lack of hierarchy which generates a lack of hierarchy in civilian life (Senor & Singer, 52). Unity is created through compulsory army service, where people share the common experience of sleeping in bare tents or going without showering for days, and places Israelis on equal footing. Not only this, but the IDF unites under fighting for the “existence of their country” (Senor & Singer, 54). This equal footing diminishes the gap between those in positions of power and those who are not.
In Ethiopia, army service is not compulsory and as a result, the same equal footing that Israelis experience is not seen in Ethiopian society. Ethiopians also do not possess the same assertiveness and questioning that Israelis do. Even those that voluntarily join the military would not question generals, sergeants or others in officer positions as Israelis might do. Ethiopians must adjust from a country with voluntary army service to a country where the army is not only compulsory, but its culture also greatly emphasized even beyond the military itself.
There are national cultural differences and there are familial cultural differences. Ethiopia is a male-dominated society and elders are respected. In Israel, the youth of Ethiopian-Israeli children have adapted faster than their parents due to their young age and exposure to Israeli culture in schools and other places. Because of this, they have a better understanding than their parents of the language and cultural customs of Israel. This causes parents to rely on them, creating a role reversal where the children act as the “head of households” (Kaplan & Hagar, 136).
Ethiopian women are encouraged to take a greater role in Israel than in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, women do not have as many freedoms in the male dominated society. However, in Israel women are given more responsibility and autonomy than in their native country (Kaplan & Hagar, 136). Ethiopian-Israeli women now have the choice to make decisions about their education and family, for example, how far they would like to pursue their education, or the number of children they would like to have. More of them work outside of the home and they all join the Israeli army. To see women with so much independence from men would be very unusual in Ethiopian society. The loss of control males once had in Ethiopia causes them to be resentful (Kaplan & Hagar, 136). These new cultural behaviors often clash with their old ones and adjusting is difficult.
Ethiopia is a collectivist, high-context, high power distance country whose economy is agriculturally based. Israel is the opposite – an individualistic, low-context, low power distance country with an innovative high-tech economy. These cultural differences play a huge role in the current struggles of Ethiopian-Israeli integration into Israeli society.
“Africa: Ethiopia.” Cia.gov. Central Intelligence Agency, n.d. Web.
“History: In the Beginning.” Iaej.org. Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, n.d. Web.
Kaplan, Steven, and Hagar Isaac. Salamon. “Ethiopian Jews in Israel: A Part of the People or Apart from
the People?” Jews in Israel: Contemporary Social and Cultural Patterns. Hanover: Brandeis UP, 2004. 118-48. Print.
“Middle East: Israel.” Cia.gov. Central Intelligence Agency, n.d. Web.
Senor, Dan, and Saul Singer. Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. New York: Twelve, 2009. Print.