The first Haredi and Ethiopian women in Knesset

#26 - Breaking glass ceilings: Pnina Tamano-Shata and Omer Yankelevitch

Pnina Tamano-Shata (L) and Omer Yankelevitch (photo credit: CANVA.COM)
Pnina Tamano-Shata (L) and Omer Yankelevitch
(photo credit: CANVA.COM)
Israel faces a turning point in its history amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s diplomatic successes this year.
“We see a huge awakening of aliyah that we haven’t seen since the 1990s,” says Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. Tamano-Shata is Israel’s first government minister from the Ethiopian Jewish community, a milestone in history that she says is a recognition of the community and the Jewish people’s accomplishment here.
Tamano-Shata was joined in this year’s unity government and Knesset by another first, Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevitch is also the first ultra-Orthodox woman to run a ministry. Yankelevitch sees a unique opportunity today for a different kind of dialogue, not only as the first ultra-Orthodox woman in the Knesset but also an opportunity “to connect the entire Jewish people to a unifying and inclusive discourse, to talk about what unites us and not what separates.” These two groundbreaking women from two different communities represent the diverse face of Israel and are contributing to influencing Israel’s role in the world and the Jewish people’s successful journey in the world. In late August, Tamano-Shata was one of the many victims of COVID-19 in Israel and she spoke to The Jerusalem Post from her home while recuperating.
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“The desire to come to Israel in the Jewish world during the pandemic illustrates how the Jewish community sees how important Israel is, and my office is working closely on their right to aliyah,” she says. She estimates that 12,000 olim may arrive this year with an additional 70,000 to 90,000 estimated to come next year.
“We see many families preparing to come as groups… I feel this is an historic period.”
Born in Ethiopia in 1981, she made the harsh journey through Sudan as a child to Israel as part of Operation Moses in 1984. An attorney, she was active in radio and media and as a social activist in the 2000s. She worked with at-risk youth and on empowering women and in the battle against racism in Israeli society. After service as Channel 1’s legal correspondent she ran for Knesset with the Yesh Atid party in 2012. She became the first Ethiopian woman to serve in the Knesset that year.
A deputy speaker and member of the Knesset lobby for the advancement of Ethiopians in Israel, she was also outspoken during the anti-racism protests in 2015. As part of that, she played a key role in the government’s efforts to address inequalities in Israeli society, discrimination against Ethiopians by law enforcement and in the armed forces. She served on various committees, including the committee on the rights of the child and in the 20th Knesset she established the Lobby for Prevention of Violence Against Women. She also fought for strengthening the periphery in Israel and for aiding distressed neighborhoods and working to strengthen relations with the Diaspora.
For her activism she was awarded the 2016 Unsung Hero Award, which is given by an organization led by Martin Luther King III. She returned to the Knesset in 2018 and joined the Blue and White Party in the recent elections. In May 2020 she became Aliyah and Absorption Minister. She says that a unity government is important for Israel today as we face an era of internal disputes and the country needs unity on the national level to confront challenges.
“COVID-19 is a challenge for humanity and we can overcome it together,” she says.
Tamano-Shata takes pride in working with those seeking to make aliyah, saying it is important for Israel to be here for olim at this time in history.
“Every Jew knows that their homeland is open to them and consulates are providing services even during the COVID-19 restrictions. We do interviews by Zoom and speak with the Foreign Ministry. Aliyah never stops.”
There are many hurdles for Israel this year, including the need to pass a budget and keep the unity government together. Tamano-Shata says it is important to continue this unity and to help provide olim with opportunities throughout the country to make them feel welcome and at home.
FOR YANKELEVITCH, the year has also had its challenges and opportunities. On August 28 she spoke with Elie Rosen, president of the Jewish community in Granz, Austria, after a hate crime against Rosen. Days before she had spoken virtually with Spanish-speaking Jews through an event hosted by the Chabad Center for Young people in Buenos Aires. The event included participants from 20 countries. On August 21, she also participated in a pre-Shabbat event with Jews from the United Arab Emirates.
“It is so exciting to begin this new chapter for both our countries,” she said.
It was an unprecedented moment as Israel and the UAE were normalizing relations and the first flight was Israel to Abu Dhabi on August 31 was being prepped.
“We in the State of Israel have been waiting for this historic moment for many years.”
As such, Yankelevitch is serving as minister at a turning point in history, not only in terms of Diaspora relations but also in Israel’s own relations with the Middle East.
Yankelevitch, like Tamano-Shata, is a member of the Blue and White Party. Born in 1978, she grew up in Tel Aviv but now lives in Beit Shemesh. Yankelevitch received a masters degree from Bar-Ilan and also studied in England at Gateshead Seminary. A former chief of staff of the director general of the Ministry of Social Equality, she was a legal assistant to Judge Ram Winograd and founded the Just Begun Foundation to push for social projects in the periphery. She is married and a mother of five children. Both Tamano-Shata and Yankelevitch, therefore, not only represent the diversity of Israel, but have committed to reducing inequality and supporting poorer communities that are not in the hi-tech center of the country. They both conduct outreach with communities abroad and represent the mosaic of a strong and diverse Israel.
Yankelevitch did not aspire to be in politics but through her social activism she was encouraged to run for the Knesset.
“I was faced with a dilemma – where could I have more influence on issues that were important to me? Before I got into politics I saw how hard it was to work to produce social impact and I realized that if you want to create real change to promote policy and have an impact, politics is a significant tool.” She wants to break glass ceilings and help promote women from the periphery or sectors outside the mainstream, helping integration in Israeli society.
“For each sector we should provide equal tools and opportunities for all,” she said.
She sees overcoming the current COVID-19 crisis as well as addressing growing gaps in Israeli society as among Israel’s challenges.
“The state must prioritize the integration of populations from the social periphery. Not to ‘do them a favor’ in affirmative action, but to give them tools so that they can deal as equals,” Yankelevitch said.
Toward that end she hopes to work to improve connections between Israel and the Diaspora. She said that current detachment between Israel and the Diaspora is a challenge and a threat to preserving the Jewish people. While Yankelevitch does not see herself as having been elected as a representative of the ultra-Orthodox public, she stands before the public as someone who can help all populations and listen to the unique needs of all, she said.