Israel's first Ethiopian MK recalls his career, accomplishments

Addisu Messele: "We proved that anything is possible, that we are an integral part of Israeli society, and that we deserve to be in positions of power and influence."

 ADDISU MESSELE , late ‘90s: Speech people remember to this day.  (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
ADDISU MESSELE , late ‘90s: Speech people remember to this day.
(photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)

Former MK Addisu Messele was elected to the 14th Knesset in 1996, becoming the first member of Knesset hailing from Israel’s Ethiopian community.

“I broke through the glass ceiling,” Messele asserts. “We proved that anything is possible, that we are an integral part of Israeli society, and that we deserve to be in positions of power and influence.

“There’s no place for discrimination, like when Magen David Adom threw away bags of blood collected from members of the Israeli Ethiopian community. This horrible incident, in which the country disseminated one of the gravest lies, served as the catalyst for one of the biggest protests to take place in the history of our community in Israel.”

Messele was a member of Knesset from the Labor Party.

“There were, admittedly, members of Labor who treated me as an outsider, since I had held seat No. 29 on the party list. Labor had garnered 34 seats in that election, and spot No. 29 was reserved for an immigrant. My name was added to the ticket despite [party leader Shimon] Peres’s strong opposition – he’d been pushing for appointing Sofa Landver,” Messele recalls. “When I was victorious, he added her name at a lower spot on the list.”

 ETHIOPIANS PROTEST racism outside the Prime Minster’s Office in Jerusalem, 2006. The demonstration was motivated by blood banks’ alleged refusal to use donations from their community.  (credit: Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty Images) ETHIOPIANS PROTEST racism outside the Prime Minster’s Office in Jerusalem, 2006. The demonstration was motivated by blood banks’ alleged refusal to use donations from their community. (credit: Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty Images)

Messele wasn’t reelected to the 15th Knesset.

“I was ousted from the immigrant spot in a really ugly way,” Messele continues. “When it came time to decide on the final list, both Sofa Landver and I were vying for the immigrant spot. Some of her supporters convinced party members from the Druze community to support her. I felt like they had stolen the seat right from under me. I view myself as a pretty straight shooter, and I took the ruse really poorly. In fact, I was so upset at the time that I spontaneously got up on the stage and gave an extemporaneous speech that many people still remember to this day.

“In this way, the Labor Party remained a veteran elite party made up of white members that does not strive for diversity and to accept people who are from different cultures.”

“In this way, the Labor Party remained a veteran elite party made up of white members that does not strive for diversity and to accept people who are from different cultures.”

Addisu Messele

Messele experienced his final knockout in Israeli politics, when he joined Amir Peretz in the newly formed Am Ehad Party, which failed twice in its bid to reach the required threshold of votes.

“I certainly don’t blame Amir Peretz, who in my opinion was and still is one of the most honest people in Israeli politics,” Messele states. “Thanks to him, I held a senior position in the Histadrut leadership, until Ofer Eini took over, at which point I quickly found myself out.”

Nowadays, Messele does not align himself with any particular party.

In 2007, Messele found himself unemployed for the first time in his life, which lasted for two years. “I was too ashamed to claim governmental unemployment assistance, so we just subsisted on my wife, Zahava’s salary, and from the meager savings we’d acquired.”

Since then, Messele has been representing Israeli companies that are searching for investment opportunities in Ethiopia, and splits his time between Addis Ababa and Bat Yam.

“I decided to take a break from my public service activity and harness my many contacts within Ethiopia. I’m really good at opening doors and solving bureaucratic glitches,” Messele continues. “I knew I wasn’t going to get rich doing this kind of work, and I also have remained actively involved in the Ethiopian community in Israel. It saddens me to see that even after all these years, we’re still used as a punching bag by Israeli society, and especially by the police. And yet, I am an optimist by nature, and so I truly believe that things will improve.”

Messele, 68, arrived in Israel in 1980 with his parents and seven siblings. “For some reason, when I reached Israel, my age was listed as 19, even though I was already 26. It was quite humiliating. And hurtful and arrogant. I tried to make a difference when I was a member of Knesset, but it looks like I failed.”

The journey that brought Messele and his family from Ethiopia to Israel lasted 32 days, most of which involved walking by foot along the coast under harsh conditions, as they made their way to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.

“It’s actually unbelievable how many disasters and tragedies took place along the way,” Messele recalls.

He then spent a year there helping other Jews who’d arrived in Sudan make their way to Israel.

“When I finally reached Israel, I was shocked to find that it was definitely not a country of milk and honey as we’d been told since we were little. And it certainly wasn’t a holy place like we’d been led to believe.

“It was outrageous that after living our entire lives as Jews in Ethiopia, they were requiring that we undergo a giyur l’humra, precautionary conversion. When we asked what they were going to do to us, they replied that we were going to be given a vaccine. When we were handed the conversion certificate, we tore them up into little pieces, and at that very moment I swore that I would do everything in my power to prevent this from happening to any future immigrants from Ethiopia.”

The next shocking incident took place in the Jewish Agency absorption center in Beersheba. All the immigrants were issued their new ID cards, but to their shock, they had all been given new Hebraicized names. His name, Addisu, which means “new” in Amharic, had been replaced with David, and his last name, Heilo, which was his father’s first name (traditionally used as children’s last name), was changed to Messele.

He recalls how the director of the absorption center addressed him, “Say thank you – it’s a great honor to be named after King David.” But Messele was having none of it, and told her, “I’m not King David, and I’ve no desire to try to fill his shoes. I’m Addisu Heilo!”

Were you victorious?

“Yes, but only because I staunchly persevered. I was born Addisu, and to this day I remain Addisu.”

Another traumatic event for Messele was when they watched the documentary Pillar of Fire in his ulpan class. “Until then, I’d never heard any mention of the Holocaust. Nobody prepared us for what we were about to see, and watching the horrors on the TV screen was overwhelming and horrible. We all began crying hysterically. That was a difficult day.”

In 1983, Messele, who had chaired the umbrella organization for Ethiopian Jews in Israel, spearheaded the community’s first protest. “We stood in front of the Knesset and called for the government to bring the rest of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel. There are still between 8,000 and 10,000 Jews stuck in Ethiopia.”

What is your response to the claim that not all of them are actually Jewish?

“What could possibly be our motive to bring someone who is not Jewish to join our community here in Israel? We risked our lives so many times because we insisted on remaining Jewish.

“I believe that somehow we will succeed in bringing everyone over, despite the opposition of Israel’s chief rabbis. In August of 1985, we began a strike that lasted 32 days in front of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem. Abie Nathan brought us mattresses so we wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground, and so many sweet people brought us food. We absolutely refused to budge until they canceled the giyur l’humra decision.

“Another area in which the Israeli government totally failed our community was with respect to housing,” continues Messele. “People complained that if black children would learn in school with their kids, then the level of learning would worsen. Others said that if Ethiopian immigrants were to live in their neighborhoods, the value of their homes would fall. Not one city willingly welcomed Ethiopian families into their community.

“There is one particular incident that is etched into my memory. One day, a few Ethiopian families were moved from an absorption center to an apartment building. When they arrived, other tenants in the building physically blocked their entrance, demanding that they be taken back to wherever they’d come from. I knew that if the authorities broke under the pressure, that this would set a precedent, and similar confrontations would arise in cities all over the country.

“So, I personally went there and told the tenants that over my dead body would these new immigrants be thrown out of the building. And so, the tenants finally agreed to let the new families move into the building.

“We organized a festive meal to show our goodwill and demonstrate how Ethiopian culture is not scary or threatening, but none of the residents showed up. So, we ate all the traditional food by ourselves and danced to Ethiopian music.”

Did you feel humiliated?

“I had stopped being bothered by these types of incidents long before that. Anyone who tries to humiliate us just ends up humiliating themselves.”

In his autobiography, From the Underground in Gondar to the Knesset in Jerusalem, published last year by Docostory, Messele, a social worker by training and the father of three daughters, describes how, when he was young, he was an activist in the Marxist-Leninist Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, an underground political party that fought against Mengistu Haile Mariam, the cruel dictator of Ethiopia.

“We were all willing to fight until the last drop of our blood,” he writes in the book. “Even if this meant we would be caught and killed. I knew I was not going to go down without a struggle, and if I’d find myself in a confrontation with the regime’s soldiers, I would return fire, try to escape by using my rifle, pistol or a grenade. And if none of that worked, we all carried poison pills with us.”

“Even if this meant we would be caught and killed. I knew I was not going to go down without a struggle, and if I’d find myself in a confrontation with the regime’s soldiers, I would return fire, try to escape by using my rifle, pistol or a grenade. And if none of that worked, we all carried poison pills with us.”

Addisu Messele

You write in your book that “membership in the underground was the most important thing you’ve done in your life.” Do you truly believe that?

“Israel is, thank goodness, a democratic country, and so there is no need for an underground. What I meant by this sentence is that it was the most formative experience of my youth, and it shaped my personality greatly. That experience helped me greatly in later years to unite the Ethiopian community here in Israel, to organize demonstrations and bring about social change.”

In his book, Messele also describes how the family dynamics among the Ethiopian immigrants changed once they arrived in Israel in the 1980s.

“Back in Ethiopia, the men were the head of the household, and their word was final, with no discussion,” Messele explains. “In Israel, however this all changed. More women went out to work, and usually had higher salaries than their husbands. For the first time, Ethiopian men found themselves dependent on their children, and in many households, this led to crisis and explosive dynamics. I don’t remember any incidents of murder or suicide in the Jewish community back when I lived in Ethiopia. But here in Israel, the number of incidents that made headlines in the newspapers kept growing.”

Addisu, do you look back fondly on the time you spent as a member of Knesset and in politics in general?

“Yes, very much so. I am a political being by nature, and my desire to be an activist will always be part of me.”

Have you ever thought of making another run for the Knesset?

“Absolutely. If I were to identify an attractive opportunity, I would grab it.” 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.