Pnina Tamano-Shata is a trailblazer. Not only was she the first Ethiopian-born news presenter on Israeli TV, she is now the first woman Knesset Member from that country.
In a cold Birmingham this week for the Limmud Festival, Blue and White MK Tamano-Shata, who arrived in Israel, aged three, in 1981, said she explained how her she has taken a stand for her community, which is “facing racism and discrimination because of our skin colour”.
Brought to Limmud by the World Zionist Organisation, Tamano-Shata told Jewish News that she has found that “by telling my story, I am convey the situation of my community and also that of Israeli society, in all its complexities”.
It has been quite an arduous journey for Tamano-Shata. Born in the village of Wuzaba in Ethiopia, she emigrated to Israel after her family trekked through Sudan as part of Operation Moses, “where we lost 10 percent of those who made the trek”.
Her family arrived in Israel “without my mother, who was left behind when the doors of the plane closed before she could get on”, she said.
That story does have a happy ending, however. “After one year, they found her and brought her to Israel,” she added.
Like many Ethiopian immigrants, she lived for four years at an immigrant absorption centre in Pardes Hanna, near Netanya, and in 1988 they moved to Petah Tikva, where she still has a home with her husband and two children.
In 2002, Tamano-Shata began her law studies “at the age of 26”, while also being an instructor for at-risk teens and being socially active in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Petah Tikva.
Tamano-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.
What prompted her to take a stand was “the blood donation affair”.
In 1996, an investigative report by Israeli daily Maariv found that Israel’s blood banks systematically disposed of blood donations from Ethiopian immigrants, allegedly because they had higher risk of carrying Aids. That policy was only rolled back in 2016.
She also fought against religious discrimination and the bias against Ethiopian-Israeli students in the education system.
During this time Tamano-Shata also took her first steps in the media world, and in 2005 she began hosting the ‘Friday at Five’ news programme 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.
“This journey has made me what I am today,” she said. “The fact that I part of a community that is unique and different because of the colour of our skin, led me to social activism and to ‘accepting the other’.”
She feels that “the problems facing Ethiopian Israelis are no longer because of what is called ‘difficulties of absorption’ into Israeli society. It’s now an issue of racism and because of the colour of our skin”.
Tamano-Shata recalls that she, like other Ethiopian immigrants were told, “every wave of immigrants suffered, everyone felt hurt, every wave of immigration this has happened.
“I didn’t accept this. I was told: ‘Pnina, wait another generation, it’ll all pass’. I said, sorry that is completely irresponsible because that way you are denying the dreams of so many children who feel Israeli. What are you actually telling them? Suffer in silence? That’s not acceptable.”
In July 2019, a series of protests erupted after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Solomon Teka by an Israeli police officer in Kiryat Haim, near Haifa. “I mean, really, when have the Israeli police used live fire on any other Jewish group?” she said.
And it was not the first incident of police violence against Ethiopian immigrants.
In 2017, uniformed soldier Damas Pakada was beaten up by a police officer in Holon, central Israel, in an incident that was caught on video. Thousands of Ethiopian Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv against the police violence and were dispersed with tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon.
Ethiopian Israeli activists say at least 11 young Ethiopian Jews have died in incidents with police in the past two decades. According to official figures, the proportion of Ethiopian citizens who have faced criminal charges (3.5 percent) was nearly twice as high as the figure for the population as a whole.
Tamano-Shata said that “the community’s modesty and general compliance with the law was seen as a weakness by the police and other Israeli authorities. Our parents are quiet, modest people with good manners.
“The next generation paid the price. And what was the price? When the police came to our neighbourhoods – the poorest in Israel – it always ended in arrests. And at some point, the younger generation decided that it was not willing to accept this situation any longer.”