My profile of the week is Pnina Tamano-Shata, Israel’s first black cabinet minister.
Reincarnating Makeda (The Queen of Sheba).
The mystery of the Queen of Sheba still remains. Depicted as being white by some and black by others, although she was indeed black. Her life story is shared by Muslims, Christians, Persians, Jews and of course Ethiopians who call her Makeda. The Dynasty of the Ethiopian Kingdom ended with the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. This Dynasty is traced back to Menelik I, who was the son, the Queen of Sheba (Makeda) is supposed to have had with King Solomon. Volumes have been written about this, and volumes more will still be.
“Operation Solomon” is the name that was given to the amazing fit pulled off by the Israel’s MOSSAD between May 24 and 25 1991. 14,310 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel. This is the exodus of Ethiopians that is most talked about in view of the charged political context in which it took place. A civil war, fast approaching rebels and the final days of the Mengistu regime. Before “Operation Solomon” of 1991, in 1985, there was “Operation Moses” under which 7000 Ethiopian Jews were evacuated from Sudan. They had fled Ethiopia and walked through the desert to Sudan where they stayed in refugee camps where 1,500 of them, lost their lives. Amongst this 1984 contingent of 7000 Ethiopian Jews who were airlifted to Israel under “Operation Moses”, was a young three-year-old girl accompanying her five brothers. They were the grandchildren of a kais, or Ethiopian Jewish rabbi, a prominent Ethiopian Jewish family that traces its roots back to the legendary Abba Mahari, the famed Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leader whose failed 1862 attempt to reach the holy land is seen by Ethiopian Jews today as a prophetic harbinger of their move to Israel over a century later.
This three old girl was to become a social activist, a journalist a lawyer and a politician and Member of the Israeli Parliament or the Knesset. Today she is Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata who broke new ground with her appointment to the Israeli cabinet in May 2020. She is the first Ethiopian cabinet minister in Israel’s history. Cabinet Minister, Pnina Tamano-Shata is my profile of the week.
Tamanu-Shata was born in 1981 in the village of Wuzaba in Ethiopia, and in 1984, at age three, she immigrated to Israel through Sudan as part of Operation Moses. Her family initially lived at an absorption center in Pardes Hanna, and in 1988 they moved to Petah Tikva, where she resides to this day. Tamanu-Shata was educated at Ulpana Tzfira, the Carmit boarding school and ORT High School in Givat Ram, Jerusalem. She was recruited to the IDF in 1999 and served as an operations sergeant in the Home Front Command. She also sang in the Home Front Command from time to time, until an official band was formed. In 2002, Tamanu-Shata began her law studies while also serving as an instructor for at-risk teens and being socially active in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Petah Tikva.
Tamanu-Shata began her public career in 2004, after being elected chairperson of the Ethiopian Israeli Student Union. In 2006 she was one of the founders of the Headquarters for the Ethiopian Jews’ Struggle for Social Equality, and led protests against racism and discrimination, mainly in relation to the blood donation affair, religious discrimination and the discrimination against Ethiopian Israeli students in the education system. During this time Tamanu-Shata also took her first steps in the media world, and in 2005 she began hosting the ‘Friday at Five’ news program on Channel 1. In 2006 Tamanu-Shata was chosen to serve as a public representative on the Israel Press Council, and in 2007 she received a license to practice law. Tamanu-Shata worked in this field for a short period of time before she began working in the media industry full time in 2008.
In recognition of her social activism over the past decade – mainly the struggles she has led against discrimination and racism – Tamanu-Shata received the 2016 Unsung Hero Award from the Drum Major Institute. The award was presented to her by President Reuven Rivlin and Martin Luther King III, the son of American civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. and President of the Drum Major Institute. In 2015 Tamanu-Shata received the Fellowship Award from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and she was also on The Marker newspaper’s list of the 100 most influential Israelis for that year.
In 2012 Tamanu-Shata left the media world and ran for the 19th Knesset on behalf of the Yesh Atid party headed by Yair Lapid. At 31 years old, she was elected to the Knesset for the first time, making her the only Israeli woman of Ethiopian origin to be elected to the Israeli parliament. She was even appointed Deputy Speaker of the Knesset during her first term.
In the 19th Knesset, Tamanu-Shata was a member of the House Committee, the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, the State Control Committee and the Special Committee for the Rights of the Child. She chaired the Knesset Lobby for the Advancement of Ethiopian Immigrants and the Lobby to Promote the Rights of Victims of Criminal Offenses in Israel, and was active in other lobbies, including the Lobby for Strengthening the Periphery and the Lobby for Strengthening the Jewish People. Tamanu-Shata also headed the Israel-Africa Friendship Association and played a key role in the efforts to strengthen the bilateral relations between Israel and African countries, in the framework of which there were exchanges of delegations (in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and the establishment of friendship associations in Ghana.
The Times of Israel on September 6, 2020 published an interview it had with Tamano-Shata captioned “Trailblazing minister battles to get things done in a do-nothing government” The Times had this to say about Tamano-Shata.
“Breaking new ground does not mean old inequities are ended, of course. Tamano-Shata hails from a new elite in the community, one that has risen from a hardscrabble immigrant existence to break through entrenched glass ceilings across the spectrum of Israeli institutions and career paths, from academia to the military to politics and the corporate world. But most Ethiopian Jews in Israel still struggle with the aftershocks of their aliya and a poorly conceived absorption policy in the 1980s and 1990s. The Ethiopian Jewish community’s move to Israel traversed the largest economic and cultural gap of any immigrant group since the 1950s. Tamano-Shata’s very success, from a childhood in an absorption center to a career as an activist, journalist and politician, has instilled an intense sense of responsibility for that community,…” In an earlier article published in June 2020 after the brutal murder of an African American police officer the Times of Israel wrote “The killing of African-American George Floyd while in police custody on May 25, and the massive anti-racism protests that event unleashed — both in the US and around the world — has struck a chord with Israel’s Ethiopian community as well. And the country’s first Ethiopian-born minister has told The Times of Israel that police and the government must “wake up now” to institutional racism in law enforcement. More than 144,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent live in Israel, and community activists have long complained of institutional racism and violence at the hands of law enforcement”.
Africa’s premier Pan African Magazine the New African in its December 2020 edition designated Tamano-Shata as one of the 100 most influential Africans of 2020. This what the New African had to say “Her appointment as Immigration Absorption Minister traversed a huge cultural divide. Ethiopians make just 2% of the country’s population and face daily racial discrimination in areas ranging from renting accommodation to finding jobs and are among the poorest in the country. Yet today the 39-year-old is able to draw on her early experience in an Israeli absorption centre where she spent her first four years- to equip new immigrants with the tools to navigate the linguistic, housing and employment barriers to settling in their new land. Her achievements in office include fighting through bureaucratic glass ceilings to raise the nation’s financial aid allocation for immigrants to $51. From her plight fleeing her homeland during the Eritrean conflict. To her integration struggle and ascent to the heights of Israeli power, her acclaim as simply Israel’s first Black Minister fails to do her justice”
The Queen of Sheba is primarily known for her visit to the Israeli King Solomon to witness his wisdom. The traditions vary about the visit itself, but it appears first in the Bible and later in the Quran and in a number of more elaborate, extra-scriptural writings such as the Talmud and Midrash and Ethiopian literature. Tamano-Shata’s struggle and travel to Israel and the beacon that she is presently for the Ethiopian Jewish community is beyond any doubt. She is might as well be the reincarnation of “Makeda” or the Queen of Sheba. The over 140,000 Ethiopian Jews still have their daily struggles but the exploits of the likes of Tamano-Shata can only give them the hope to go on. In the words of the late British Prime Minister, “Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” Tamano-Shata, my profile of the week.