Knesset to swear in 2nd Ethiopian MK

Kadima's Shlomo Mula plans to "focus on the Ethiopian community... long-neglected by politicians."

MK Shlomo Molla 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
MK Shlomo Molla 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Shlomo Mula begins nearly all his speeches with the same sentence: "I walked 800 kilometers from Ethiopia to Sudan." On Monday, Mula will take one more journey, as he is sworn in to the Knesset as the second Ethiopian MK in Israel's history. Mula is replacing Avigdor Yitzhaki (Kadima), who officially tendered his resignation Thursday due to "serious doubts over [Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert's ability to lead the government in the wake of the Winograd Report." Mula's politics are relatively untested, though he is entering the Knesset at a particularly volatile time. With Olmert barely weathering the results of the report, MKs from across the spectrum are planning for yet another possible inquiry into his leadership during the war. But Mula is not interested in commenting on the report. "I plan to focus on the Ethiopian community, which has been long-neglected by the political establishment," said Mula. "I come from them and I understand them in a way which allows me to advance their concerns in the best possible way." Mula, who will leave his job as the director of the Jewish Agency's Department for the Absorption of Ethiopian Immigrants, already knows what his first piece of legislation will be. "I plan to propose a bill for rental assistance and housing subsidies for low-income Ethiopian couples," he said. "I think this is the most important issue for Ethiopians today, to give them opportunities to develop beyond the communities that many of them are currently trapped in." Mula has been vocal about the issue of "Ethiopian ghettos," which he says many new immigrants are trapped in. "These are Ethiopian ghettos, like Harlem," said Mula. "There are few opportunities to advance beyond the low-rent immigrant housing that they are segregated into." These communities, combined with an educational system that often separates Ethiopian students from other classmates, have stunted the ability of new immigrants to join Israeli society. Some Ethiopian youths have adopted the African-American identity as they see it on television, a culture Mula called "very distant" from their native, mostly rural, background. "I know we can join this society and be active, contributing members," said Mula. However, he adds that clear "racist" elements in Israeli society must change first. Mula has long been considered one of the leading representatives of the Ethiopian community - both Israel Beiteinu and Kadima tried to recruit him before the last elections. Mula eventually chose Kadima, after holding a meeting with former prime minister Ariel Sharon. "I knew that I wanted to be in politics to change things from within," said Mula. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews were evacuated to Israel in Israeli airlifts in 1984 and 1991. Of the 80,000 Ethiopians in Israel, only a small percentage have fully integrated into society, according to various polls conducted by Ethiopian NGOs. Some 5,000 have graduated college, and another 2,000 are in university or college. Another 10 percent of Ethiopian teenagers are taking exams used for placement in the army and university admissions. According to the Jewish Agency, however, some 20,000 Ethiopian teenagers aged 13-20 have dropped out of school without plans to join the army or go to university. "It's not enough to rescue people dramatically," said Mula, who arrived in Israel at the age of 17 via Operation Moses, a 1984-1985 mission that brought 7,500-18,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, according to different estimates. Mula, who first walked from Ethiopia to Sudan, was airlifted from the Sudanese capital of Khartoum when a severe famine hit the region. The operation was a secret cooperative effort between the IDF, the CIA, US officials and Sudanese mercenaries. "The beautiful thing about this country's democracy is that whoever wants change can fight for it... and truly make a difference," said Mula.