Meet the First Ethiopian-Born Minister in Israel

“That 3-year-old girl who came to Israel barefoot, without a mother, and after a very long trek, has finally made it”

By Yossi Aloni |
Meeting the first Ethiopian born minister in an Israeli government.
Photo: Avshalom Shoshani/Flash90

Among the numerous changes instituted with the establishment of a new government in Israel was the appointment of Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian to serve as a government minister in the Jewish state.

Pnina Tamano-Shata, Israel’s new Minister of Absorption and Integration, said in a statement:

“This is an emotional time for me. On the one hand, I feel a sense of closure and on the other, that a new chapter has been opened in my life. I feel that with me today is that 3-year-old girl that came to Israel barefoot, without a mother, and after a very long trek. I vividly remember the difficult moments and years at the Absorption Center. It’s exciting to think about how that girl persevered and has now become a minister in Israel’s government. There’s something very symbolic and powerful about being the Minister of Aliyah and Integration. It doesn’t matter how many years an oleh chadash (new immigrant) has been in Israel; they always remain an oleh chadash. The spirit of making Aliyah and the excitement about being in the Land continue to fill our hearts. Aliyah is the heart of the State of Israel. This is how the country was established.”

Tamano-Shata’s appointment comes as recent years have witnessed the ministry being pushed to the margins. However, the Absorption Ministry now appears to be regaining its relevance as there is an expected wave of Aliyah likely to occur. Israel estimates that between 50,000 to 100,000 Jews will decide to make Aliyah following the Corona crisis.

Tamano-Shata’s statement continued:

“As a country, we need to not just be prepared for Aliyah but also remember that after arriving, there is a process of absorption and integration for which we are responsible. We must not just love Aliyah but also love the new immigrants themselves. I was thrilled to see that as part of the current government’s principle guidelines, it promises to place emphasis on Aliyah and absorption, as well as to strive to increase Aliyah from Jewish communities all over the world. This is in the ’10 commandments’ of the new government and my mission is to be as prepared as possible for its realization. I expect Aliyah to be a first priority on the new government’s agenda.”


A life of perseverance and activism

Tamano-Shata is currently 39 and was born in 1981 in Wuzaba, a village located near the city of Gondar in the Amhara Region of northern Ethiopia. In 1984, when she was just three, she made Aliyah during the evacuation of Ethiopian Jews via Sudan, also known as “Operation Moses.” Upon arriving in Israel, she lived with her family in Pardes Hanna and in 1988 they moved to Petah Tikvah, where she lives to this day. In 1999, she enlisted in the IDF and served as an operations sergeant in the Home Front Command. She studied law at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono near Tel Aviv. During this period, Tamano-Shata was heavily involved in social activism in underprivileged neighborhoods.

Pnina began her career in public service in 2004 when she was chosen to serve as Deputy Chairman of the national Ethiopian Student Association. In 2006, she helped found a center for promoting social equality for the Ethiopian community in Israel. She also headed a number of campaigns herself against racism and discrimination targeting Ethiopians in Israel. She is well-known for her leadership role in the campaign against the former ban on blood donations from Ethiopian-born Israelis.


A turn towards the Knesset

Because of Tamano-Shata’s extensive social activism throughout the last decade, and particularly because of the campaigns she led against racism and discrimination, she was awarded the Unsung Hero Award in 2016, given by the Drum Major Institute, founded by the son of Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2012, she ran for a seat in the Knesset with the Yesh Atid party and was elected at the age of 31. She was the first Ethiopian woman to be elected to Israel’s parliament. In 2015, she helped lead the Ethiopian campaign against police brutality.


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