A voice for ‘invisible’ populations

Yesh Atid MK Pnina Tamnu-Shata, the Knesset’s first female Ethiopian member, says she’s not waiting to fight the racism she has encountered

Pnina Tamnu-Shata521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Pnina Tamnu-Shata521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When MK Pnina Tamnu- Shata (Yesh Atid) gave her inaugural speech in the Knesset, not a dry eye was left in the plenum.
Tamnu-Shata, 31, recounted “vague memories between hope and despair” of the journey she made from Ethiopia to Israel at age three in Operation Moses: IDF soldiers handing out water and candies and prayers that her mother would join her from the refugee camp in Sudan.
“Here I am, 28 years later, standing in our legislature. A daughter of Israel, a proud member of the magnificent Ethiopian Jewish community, a woman, a Jew, with brown skin, whose identity was designed under these parameters,” she said.
Tamnu-Shata stood on the stage of the plenary and said she will not wait to fight racism and discrimination, which she faced growing up in boarding schools and bad neighborhoods, becoming a lawyer and a journalist (she was Channel 1’s legal reporter), but at the same time, called to “set aside grievances and arguments, to improve the destiny of the entire Israeli society, as one.”
In fact, Tamnu-Shata stood behind her words, and has proudly represented Israel around the world, speaking to Jewish communities and pro-Israel groups through United Israel Appeal and the Jewish Federation, showing them what she calls “the beautiful side of Israel.”
At the end of her speech, the first female Ethiopian member of Knesset stood up and said the “Shehecheyanu” blessing, thanking God “who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.”
Now that the new government has been formed, and Tamnu-Shata can start parliamentary work in earnest as a coalition member, she spoke to The Jerusalem Post about her past, her new life as an MK, and her hopes for the future.
Why did you decide to enter politics?I’ve always wanted to make changes, starting as a young girl who made aliya and found injustices in our society. I found myself facing an impermeable establishment. When blood donations by Ethiopians were thrown out [in 2006], and I saw Ethiopian children aren’t accepted to all schools, I became more active. You know, Ethiopians don’t get regular religious services. We don’t have our own rabbinate. There is discrimination in many areas.
I grew up in a very Zionist family, and we still see the cup as half full, but I have to act to change the things that make our community feel like we’re still behind the curve.
I’m not any less Israeli than anyone else. I came at age three, and had friends of all kinds, growing up in boarding schools, and I don’t see any good reason for the current situation to continue. I realized that all of the battles [against racism] ended with a protest. I felt a need to use my abilities as an ambassador of the community to the place where decisions are made.
The Knesset is the place where people’s fates are decided. Even if I can’t change everything, I’ll make sure people act.
Do you think previous Ethiopian MKs successfully represented their community? The fact is that [former] MK Shlomo Molla (Hatnua) passed a lot of laws, but most of them didn’t focus on the community.
I don’t plan to focus exclusively on the Ethiopian community, either.
Still, the job of an MK isn’t just passing laws. It’s about hearing the hidden voice of “invisible” populations. I want people from our community to be in places of influence.
Are Ethiopian lawmakers necessary to pass legislation that can help them? At first, I thought it doesn’t matter who is in what committee in the Knesset, but I realized that the mix of people influences decisions, because their considerations are not just professional, they’re political.
I will be like MK Ahmed Tibi (UALTa’al), who faithfully represents his people.
I’ll remind MKs that this isn’t just some community – it’s poor children, people with no opportunities. We forget the individuals, the children who fight to survive. They shouldn’t have to live like that! The fact that I’m here changes the discourse.
The fact of the representation is not insignificant.
What are the first bills you plan to propose? The most important bill would ensure that schools that discriminate do not get government funding. We should take away their money, hurt them in their pocket, so they understand there is no place for racism. In serious cases, I think schools need to be closed.
Second, my heart goes out to contract workers. I’m learning more about the issue, but I think a large amount of money is taken from them, and they are not given good working conditions. Someone orders a service from a contractor, pays NIS 100, and then the worker only gets NIS 20. Weaker populations have these jobs, like new immigrants and single mothers.
In addition, over the years, it has become apparent that municipalities ignore weaker neighborhoods.
Every city has them, but they develop new neighborhoods and only remember the weaker ones before a municipal election. There may need to be a bill to develop the periphery and these neighborhoods.
TAMNU-SHATA is a married mother of two, who gave birth to her second son in June, four months before the last election was called. The Yesh Atid MK explained that her home life, together with the struggles she has overcome, have informed her political path – from the party she joined to the way she campaigned.
Why Yesh Atid? There are amazing people in Yesh Atid.
When I got there, I looked for the glass ceiling, because I had encountered them my whole life. I didn’t find any! It was inspiring.
What was the most interesting experience on the campaign trail? First of all, I felt that this is the time and place to make a change. The election was about social issues, and you couldn’t miss the feeling that the public wants change.
It made me so happy, because only a few years ago, my ideas of equality were viewed as less important than others.
Israelis are no longer embarrassed by serious social issues.
Every moment was great. I loved meeting the older people in my community and speaking my child-level Amharic with them, and meeting the whole Israeli public – not just Ethiopians – and seeing so much love and desire to bring a change.
That amazed me.
Do you think the difficulties you’ve faced in your life brought you to where you are today? I’m happy that I went through these stations in my life. If not, I don’t think I’d be here. My law degree means I’m not afraid of legislation. I worked in the media, so I know how to talk to the press. My experience in public diplomacy strengthened my nationalism and exposure to the world, where I spoke to ambassadors and important people, and taught me how to speak in public.
This Knesset has a record high number of women and religious people. How do you think this will affect the way it functions and the kinds of changes it brings? I’m traditional; I believe in God and keep Shabbat. I’m the granddaughter of a Kes [Ethiopian spiritual leader] and I love the land, but I live a liberal life. I started keeping Shabbat a year ago.
I think women will have a big influence.
We’ll bring manners and elegance, I hope.
I also think we’ll bring the ability to make decisions that bear fruit in society.
Research shows that the more women are involved in decisions in the government, economy and society, the better the results are.
How does it feel to make it into the Knesset? Sometimes I sit in my chair in the plenum and say: Wow, I’m here, I have the opportunity to make a change.
I see myself as part of a symbol of the State of Israel. I won’t even litter. I’m working on myself as a public representative, and every MK should do the same. It would prevent embarrassments.
I’m so excited, but I haven’t cried yet! I don’t know why. I guess it’s because I’m determined. It must be a defense mechanism, because I want to get settled in here first. I’m waiting to start crying. Someone will play a nice song – I like to sing – and I’ll sing along and get excited and cry. It’s not a bad thing to do.
I’ve had success, and even won a prize as a “Groundbreaking Woman” and gave a speech in the Prime Minister’s Office, but I still felt like a fighter, a survivor. Today, I feel like I succeeded.