Israel's first Ethiopian-born woman Knesset member describes her journey

Who is Blue and White MK Pnina Tamano-Shata and what makes her tick?

Pnina Tamano-Shata (photo credit: PR)
Pnina Tamano-Shata
(photo credit: PR)
We sat down to get the skinny on MK Pnina Tamano-Shata – a lawyer, journalist, politician and proud member of the Ethiopian community – becoming the first Ethiopian-born woman MK in 2013 as part of Yesh Atid.
Journey to Israel
“My earliest memory is from when I was just three years old, during the long journey my family embarked on from Ethiopia to Israel via Sudan in 1984. I remember so clearly the bowl of porridge we received in the refugee camp in Sudan, probably since it was one of the few times we had something real to eat during our journey, which many people didn’t survive.
“I also recall the night that was most critical for my family. Thousands of Jews were gathered at a specific meeting place in the middle of the desert, and there were trucks waiting to take us from the refugee camp to an Israeli airplane, which would fly us to Israel as part of Operation Moses. This was the first time I came into contact with IDF soldiers – they handed us bags with water, food and candy inside of them.
“My next memory, from when we were already in Israel, is one of overwhelming sadness that my mother and two sisters had remained back in the refugee camp in Ethiopia, since the truck they’d been riding in had broken down on the way to the plane. After surviving another year in the refugee camp, they were finally able to join us in Israel, and we were once again reunited. In my mind, my mother and sisters are my true heroes, and I am so proud of the way they supported one another through that difficult time.”
Absorption center
“The absorption center in Pardess Hanna was like a warm protective glove for us. It was there that we were exposed to all the beauty and warmth of Israeli society. People really took care of us.
“When I was in second grade, however, we moved to a community near Petah Tikva, and I was forced to deal with the tough reality of life on our own. All of a sudden, we had to fend for ourselves, without the help of counselors helping my parents to adjust to their new life in Israel. They didn’t speak any Hebrew, and had barely had time to begin adjusting to living in a Western country.
“And so at this young age, my siblings and I became the representatives of our family when dealing with the authorities: health fund, school, the welfare agencies, etc. I began to see how much my parents gave up by following their dream of moving to Israel, the land of our ancestors. Their faith in Judaism was so strong, and they’d yearned all their lives to finally reach the Promised Land.”
My childhood
“From a very young age I took charge so that I could achieve what I wanted, even before I went away to live in a dormitory for school. I knew that if I wanted to join the class trip, I’d have to ask for a scholarship on my own. And if I wanted to join an afternoon activity, I had to figure out a way to find the funding by myself.
“We lived on an extremely tight budget – my parents worked as cleaners – and they did everything in their ability to make us feel happy. When I was 11, I began cleaning in hospitals and old age homes – without my parents even knowing – and I encountered plenty of employers who took advantage of my age and didn’t pay me for my work. These experiences served as an impetus for me to strive for bigger things.”
Dormitory life
“When I was a kid, I felt like I had a great life. Only looking back as an adult do I realize how challenging it really was.
“When I was 12, I was sent to live in a dormitory for school, just like my older sisters had been. This was very common in the Ethiopian community. I was happy to go, but the transition was not without its challenges and bouts of homesickness. But I quickly got used to my new life, and I think living in the dorm played an important role in forming my personality and my outlook on Israeli society.”
THE YOUNG Pnina (right, with her little sister) began cleaning in hospitals and old-age homes at age 11. (Credit: Courtesy)THE YOUNG Pnina (right, with her little sister) began cleaning in hospitals and old-age homes at age 11. (Credit: Courtesy)
Music and IDF service
“From a very young age, I’ve loved to sing, and I admit I think that I have a pretty nice voice. I have many memories of my parents planting me in the middle of the living room when I was a little girl and telling me to sing the songs about Jerusalem. I was always picked to sing in the school ceremonies, and I was the Israel representative in Europe for the 50th anniversary celebration, which was attended by the chancellor of Germany.
“To this very day, music still plays an important role in my life. Singing energizes me, makes me feel centered and motivates me to remain active.”
College and social activism
“After completing my IDF service, I began engaging in community activism and also studying for a law degree. This subject interested me greatly, since I had always been busy investigating my rights. I also worked as a counselor with at-risk teens, so that they, too, might have a chance to get an academic degree and succeed in life. I also initiated a group of women activists in Petah Tikva.
“The more I became involved with other people, the more I realized that my experiences growing up as an Ethiopian in Israel had prepared me well to help others, too. I felt like I had a responsibility toward Israeli society to make things better. I began fighting against the racism that I’d experienced all my life. Soon enough, I found myself establishing the headquarters for the struggle for equal rights for Ethiopian Israelis.”
Marriage and family
“I met my husband, Zion, at my grandfather’s synagogue in Ashdod when I was very young, but we began dating only when I was in my 20s. My grandfather was a kes, a Jewish Ethiopian religious leader, and I used to go to his synagogue every Yom Kippur. That is where I met the love of my life. I can’t really explain why, but when I was still very young, I told my good friend Keren that one day Zion would be my husband. We began dating after I finished my IDF service.
“Our families gave us an extremely hard time when we said we wanted to get married, though, since it’s traditionally acceptable to marry only if there are seven generations of separation between the families, and we had only five. We hadn’t even known we were related! It got so crazy that some of our relatives stopped talking to us. But I never gave up on him, and I’m so glad because he’s the best part of my life and the most supportive partner I could have asked for. We have two gorgeous children together, Tahel and Ori, who bring me such happiness.”
CCEPTING THE Martin Luther King Award in 2016, in the presence of King’s son (to her left) and then-Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky. (Credit: Courtesy)CCEPTING THE Martin Luther King Award in 2016, in the presence of King’s son (to her left) and then-Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky. (Credit: Courtesy)
Journalism and gender equality
“As a young law student, and also later as a lawyer, I was involved in many social struggles dealing with racism and discrimination. It was through these endeavors that I was first exposed to the power of the media. Channel 1 TV anchorman Uri Levy was the first person to recognize my potential, and was helpful in leading me to a number of opportunities.
“I became a director in a number of companies, which is a very male-dominated environment. It’s very important to me to help more women reach such positions. We still have a lot of work to do in this area.”
“After my son was born in 2012, I decided to join Yair Lapid and the new Yesh Atid party. That was my first experience in politics. Lapid and I developed a very strong connection. I was very lucky to have been given the opportunity to serve in the 20th Knesset, even though at first I didn’t make it in.”
Martin Luther King Award
“In 2016, I received the Martin Luther King Award [2016 Unsung Hero Award] from King’s son [at a reception with] President Reuven Rivlin, in recognition of my social activism. Receiving this award from the son of such an important figure in the fight against racism was such a great honor.
“This gave me another push to keep active in this field, and proved to me that all my hard work is paying off. I’m so happy knowing that I’m helping to strengthen weak communities within Israeli society.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.