Pnina Tamano-Shata: From desert exodus to member of cabinet

“Just Pnina” doesn’t do justice to the historic moment of her ascending to her new position, as the first-ever minister of Ethiopian descent.

PNINA TAMANO-SHATA, newly appointed aliyah and integration minister and the first Ethopia-born minister in the Israeli government (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PNINA TAMANO-SHATA, newly appointed aliyah and integration minister and the first Ethopia-born minister in the Israeli government
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Only three days into the job, Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata was only beginning to really internalize her new situation. More messages of congratulations came in through Whatsapp than she could keep up with. She stiffened with discomfort at being addressed as “the minister” by her staff.
“I’m just Pnina,” she said. “The girl who arrived in Israel barefoot is still me.”
“Just Pnina,” though, doesn’t do justice to the historic moment of her ascending to her new position, as the first-ever minister of Ethiopian descent.
“This isn’t just my moment,” she said. “It’s the [Ethiopian-Israeli] community’s moment… It’s an important milestone for Israel. It’s the first time there was a woman from the community, the first time there was someone black in the government.”
WITH DEPUTY Public Security Minister Gadi Yevarkan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the memorial ceremony for Ethiopian Jews who died in Sudan on their journey to Israel, one of her first public events as a minister. (Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)WITH DEPUTY Public Security Minister Gadi Yevarkan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the memorial ceremony for Ethiopian Jews who died in Sudan on their journey to Israel, one of her first public events as a minister. (Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
But she once again brushed off the honors and added: “Now I have to prove myself with hard work, with modesty – but with determination.”
TAMANO-SHATA’S story begins in 1981 in Wuzaba, a village near Gondar in northern Ethiopia.
When she was three years old, her family, like thousands of other Jewish families, was facing starvation and abuse in a refugee camp in Sudan. They began walking through the desert towards their rescuers from the Mossad. Her mother was heavily pregnant, so her brother carried her on his back.
“Israelis don’t really know the story of what happened in Sudan,” Tamano-Shata said. “It’s a heroic story of people who loved Jerusalem and were willing to do everything for it, including making the greatest sacrifices. They knew it would be a difficult journey – but they knew it was time. That’s what we need to tell as a part of the story of the Jewish people.”
Eventually, they reached the trucks meant to bring them to a plane that would take them to Jerusalem, the land they had dreamed of and prayed to return to, in what came to be known as Operation Moses.
Tamano-Shata was on one truck with her father and most of her siblings, while her mother and a sister ended up on another truck that broke down.
The minister teared up as she remembered the trauma of being separated from her mother, who did not make it to Israel with her baby and older daughter for another year.
“After she gave birth, she was dying, and my sister took care of her and the baby,” she said. “The refugee camp in Sudan was just tents, and we were in a Muslim country in 50 degree [Celsius] heat. The people who remember it say people were afraid to go to the Red Cross. I have friends my age whose parents died there... My husband lost two sisters, who were two and three years old, on the way to Israel. I was privileged to have made it.”
PNINA (IN red) at an absorption center with her sister, who was born in a transit camp in Sudan.PNINA (IN red) at an absorption center with her sister, who was born in a transit camp in Sudan.
Once she arrived at an absorption center in Pardess Hanna, she faced another traumatic separation – from her teenage brother who had carried her through the desert. He was sent to a religious boarding school, and little Pnina was left without her mother and her father figure, though her sisters and father were with her. She described that first year as very difficult and traumatic.
Still, Tamano-Shata joked that even as a little girl, she displayed the traits of a politician.
“I’m very open, I like people. When we lived in the absorption center my sisters were six and eight and I was three. Whenever we’d go outside and walk around, I would say hello to everyone, to every white person. We came from a small village where everyone always greeted everyone, but my sisters would stop me and tell me we don’t do that here,” she laughed.
Tamano-Shata attended religious-Zionist schools, got a law degree and worked for five years as a journalist for Channel 1. She was first voted into the Knesset with Yesh Atid in 2013, serving as an MK until 2015, and then from February 2018 until now.
Yet when confronted with her rise from modest beginnings, she points to her siblings’ stories as much more impressive, crediting her mother with valuing education and saying “even if she doesn’t have food to eat because of it,” she would get her children through university.
For example, Tamano-Shata said of her brother, who arrived at age 18 and was placed in 10th grade: “He was a shepherd. He had to learn to read and write and do math, and now he has an MA. I came at age three. It was a bigger breakthrough for my older siblings.”
“They are my beacon,” she said.
NOW, AS aliyah and integration minister, Tamano-Shata has a vision of a friendlier ministry that helps Israel feel like home to new arrivals.
‘NOW I have to prove myself with hard work, with modesty – but with determination.’ (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)‘NOW I have to prove myself with hard work, with modesty – but with determination.’ (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
“Every oleh (immigrant) should know that he has someone to turn to,” she said. “All Jews feel that Israel is home, even if they don’t live here. We encourage everyone to move to Israel, but there is something important about feeling at home. We have to make sure they have a place to go.”
If Israelis complain about bureaucracy, imagine how much worse it is for a new immigrant, Tamano-Shata said.
“For immigrants, there is even more bureaucracy to deal with, and when there’s a language barrier, it’s like you’re deaf… In my view, accessibility is key. Olim have rights, and I’m here to increase them and make sure they are accessible,” she said.
Tamano-Shata recounted her experiences as a child accompanying her parents to the National Insurance Institute and health clinics.
“We had to be the grownups for them,” she said. “We would encounter people who didn’t understand our cultural sensibilities and how to treat the adults and the children.”
Tamano-Shata admitted that she knows more about the needs of immigrants from Ethiopia than other groups, but she wants to learn and help everyone.
One of the first things she plans to do is make sure there is air conditioning in all absorption centers, after learning that some do not have any.
But she plans to spend at least one day a week outside of her office, visiting absorption centers and other concentrations of immigrants to learn their needs.
“I want to know that the children of immigrants from France feel comfortable, integrated in schools and are not dropping out. I want to know that pensioners who emigrate from Russia are living in dignity,” she said.
As for English-speaking immigrants, Tamano-Shata said: “I want to know more about the Anglo community. They’re known as a strong community, that comes here and buys their own homes, but there is variety in every group and not everyone is the same. They have their own challenges.”
“I won’t tell olim what is good for them. I want to hear what they have to say. And I want to do it fast, because we have to pass a budget soon,” she said. “In 2020, the public needs to be part of the process… Not everyone needs the same response; there are different cultures.”
For example, the ministry runs day clubs for pensioners from Ethiopia with their own traditional food, like injera flatbread, because they tend to live with their younger family members and not in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
But Tamano-Shata also touted the work of her predecessor Yoav Gallant, who instituted policies to help immigrants during the novel coronavirus lockdown.
“There are 74 concentrations [of immigrants] with over 13,000 elderly people, mostly over 80. The ministry made sure to check their temperatures regularly, install security and make sure people didn’t get exposed” to COVID-19, Tamano-Shata said. “It was a very quiet operation to make sure they were protected. One woman died; thank God it was only one.”
A MOTHER tends to her sick son at Jerusalem’s Shaare Tzedek Medical Center in 1985, after Operation Moses brought Ethiopian Jewry to Israel. (Credit: Harnik Nati/GPO)A MOTHER tends to her sick son at Jerusalem’s Shaare Tzedek Medical Center in 1985, after Operation Moses brought Ethiopian Jewry to Israel. (Credit: Harnik Nati/GPO)
Moving forward, Tamano-Shata has made sure to get daily updates on the pensioners’ conditions and for the ministry to be prepared for a possible second wave of coronavirus.
The new minister didn’t want to express an opinion on the forecasts that there would be a spike in aliyah after many Diaspora communities were hit hard by COVID-19, but said she has been meeting with the leadership of the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh.
“I want the numbers to increase, but the first and foremost thing to do is prepare. We need housing, welfare, education, support,” she said.
It will be difficult to get more funding for the Aliyah and Integration Ministry at a time when across-the-board cuts are expected in order to fund the post-coronavirus economic recovery, but Tamano-Shata is optimistic. She pointed to article seven of the new government’s founding guidelines, which states that the: “government will emphasize immigration and absorption and will act to increase Aliyah from all the nations of the world and their successful absorption.”
“It’s a declaration of intentions that is necessary and correct. We will be prepared, with God’s help,” she said.
IT HASN’T all been smooth sailing into her ministerial portfolio for Tamano-Shata. She left Yesh Atid, the party that brought her into the Knesset, in order to join the Benny Gantz-led half of the Blue and White faction that decided to enter a unity coalition with Likud. Members of her old party accuse her of pushing Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid to put her in the top 10, displacing other potential MKs, and then abandoning them just to get a portfolio.
Tamano-Shata said she made the political move for ideological and pragmatic reasons.
“We came to Israel in 1984 because of two things... the love of the Land of Israel and of the Jewish people. I was raised to believe in unity as a value,” she said. “I would not vote against unity.”
THE ALIYAH and Integration Ministry takes different cultures into account. For example, it runs day clubs for Ethiopian pensioners that incorporate traditional foods like injera flatbread. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)THE ALIYAH and Integration Ministry takes different cultures into account. For example, it runs day clubs for Ethiopian pensioners that incorporate traditional foods like injera flatbread. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On the more practical side, Tamano-Shata felt that after three elections in a row, politics were at a standstill.
“Leaders have to make decisions and try to make things happen. My understanding and how I read the politics is that we’d have another election without a unity government,” she said. “It was clear to me that it was my responsibility to make sure we don’t have a fourth election. Everyone can choose to have an influence. I didn’t wait for [party leaders] to decide.”
As for the claims she just wanted a portfolio, she says that she was not promised one when she announced she was moving parties, and said of the Aliyah and Absorption Ministry: “In Yesh Atid, they think it’s just a job; for me, it’s my mission.”
Tamano-Shata also professed to have been inspired by Gantz’s step towards a unity government.
“I saw it was painful and hard for him to choose to make a decision that he didn’t like but knew was good for Israel and the public,” she said.
Plus, as Tamano-Shata pointed out, Gantz was one of the IDF officers who went to Sudan to help bring Ethiopian Jewry to Israel.
“Benny was there in the desert for Operation Moses. He saw it. He may have even seen me. He saw the children and knows exactly what we went through,” she said. “It was an honor to get this appointment from him.”