Pnina Tamano-Shata’s earliest childhood memory is receiving a bag of fudge at a refugee camp in Sudan. Since then she has traveled a long way, becoming the first Ethiopian woman to hold a seat in the Israeli parliament and host her own current affairs show on mainstream TV.
Born into a religious Jewish family in the Wuzaba village in northern Ethiopia, Tamano-Shata’s grandfather was a Rabbi (Jewish spiritual leader). He could trace his lineage to the first Jews who arrived in Ethiopia between the first and sixth centuries. A staunchly religious community, they practiced their rituals completely isolated from Jews in the rest of the world.
When Tamano-Shata was three years old, word arrived of a new way to travel to the Jewish homeland, Israel, and thousands set off.
“We were very afraid of the Ethiopian authorities at that time. On the way we were attacked by robbers, women were raped and children disappeared. We ran out of water before we reached the refugee camp in Sudan and a lot of people from our community died,” she recounts.
From 1934 to 1999, four waves of Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel. They number more than 125,000 today.
“Trucks came to take us to an airplane that was waiting for us at a secret meeting point. I remember the Israeli soldiers. They gave us water and candies and bananas.”
Tamano-Shata, her father and four siblings were separated from her pregnant mother and two sisters.
“Our truck arrived on the tarmac but my mother’s had broken down along the way. People were dying in the refugee camp and we didn’t know if she had also died or not. It was a very hard year for me until the Mossad (Israeli secret service) located her and brought her to Israel. I always say I am lucky because I found my mother and since then God has been taking care of me.”
But life in Israel was also difficult. The country was struggling to integrate these newcomers from mostly rural, remote regions of Ethiopia into a relatively modern country. Tamano-Shata received her first pair of shoes only after arriving in the Jewish State.
“In the first two decades after we came to Israel, the government’s policy was to help and help and help. It was like we were the poor in need. They invested a lot of money but forgot a really important thing – to ask us what we wanted. Only in the third decade did we find our voice and start saying to the government it’s not a problem of money, you need to work more on integration.”
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As a new immigrant, she was painfully aware of the language barriers, cultural differences and lack of knowledge of how their new country worked that prevented many Ethiopians from advancing. She became an activist at an early age, studying law and then moving to journalism and ultimately politics.
“Because of its history, Israel was created to be the home of the Jewish people no matter where they came from. But I don’t think the government understood the challenges black immigrants faced, which are different to those experienced by Jews who came from Russia and elsewhere. For Ethiopian Jews, a Jewish minority in Ethiopia and a black minority in Israel, there was suspicion on both sides at first.”
Over the years that suspicion has eroded in no small part because of the integration and success of people like Tamano-Shata. In recent years, she has turned her attention to getting more women into government because although 52% of Israelis are female, less than 30% hold high office.
“We see progress at the municipality level but unfortunately the ultra-Orthodox (very religious) parties still motivate for legislation that keeps women from top positions. Also, Israel’s biggest problem is security and that’s another reason why women are kept outside the main issues.”
She has always been a great advocate of social issues, arguing that they are part and parcel of security.
“We need to speak loudly and work hard. But never forget where we came from. Our old generation sacrificed a lot to come home to Jerusalem, to the land of our forefathers.” – Written by Paula Slier and Andre Toporvski Dryzun