Pnina Tamano-Shata is no stranger to breaking through glass ceilings. She came to Israel at the age of three, barefoot, having survived the treacherous journey from Ethiopia to Israel via the Sudan in Operation Moses.
Despite the difficulties she and her community faced in their absorption and integration into Israeli society, Tamano-Shata went on to serve in the IDF, obtain a degree in law, qualify as a lawyer, become a well-known broadcast journalist, and in 2013 become the first black woman to be elected to the Knesset.
And following three tumultuous and divisive elections in 2019 and 2020, Tamano-Shata joined Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in leaving the anti-Netanyahu political bloc to form a unity government and became the first black woman to serve as a minister, filling the role of aliyah and integration minister.
In recent weeks, another black woman from a different country has also been celebrated for her accomplishments – the new vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris, who is of mixed Afro-Caribbean and Indian heritage.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Tamano-Shata discussed the significance of the breakthroughs of Harris and herself, the implications and messages of their success, her struggle to keep aliyah going despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and the political battles her party has fought in its brief lifetime.
“I WAS very moved when I saw Kamala Harris sworn in as vice president, it was very inspirational,” said the minister over a bowl of Yemenite beef soup and injera flatbread in the Blue and White campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv.
“As a proud Jewish, black woman, to see Kamala, a half-black and half-Indian woman, break through barriers through determination and action and education, to see her as the first woman vice president, and that she was the one to have made this history – that was the kind of message we want for girls and women and also men to see in this world,” Tamano-Shata enthused.
“I am the first Ethiopian minister in Israel, and that, too, is a message for Israeli society – that we can bring down all the walls and barriers that divide different parts of society, and that all children can do anything they want, despite the difficulties and stigmas; that it is possible and that there is no door that can’t be opened and no ceiling that can’t be broken.”
Yet the minister is acutely aware of the struggles in Israel, and beyond, that still remain, having been intimately bound up in them, both as a citizen activist and as a politician.
“We are the Jewish people. My identity is firstly with the Jewish nation. But I cannot ignore that I, too, have fought discrimination and racism my whole life,” she said, noting the rejection of blood donations from Ethiopian-Israelis, which she fought as an activist, and the ongoing struggle against police violence within the community, which she has fought as a politician.
Tamano-Shata noted that while the Ethiopian Jewish community faced discrimination in Ethiopia for being Jewish, they also had to face discrimination in Israel because of their appearance and heritage.
“The story of our skin color hurt us greatly, that we faced discrimination and racism because of it,” she said.
“My consciousness about the struggle against racism against black people is therefore very sharp, and I understand the difficulties of dark-skinned people,” she continued, whether in the US and the racial justice protests witnessed there recently or in Israel.
“Yes, there is still racism in Israel, like everywhere else in the world,” but the country is not doing enough to combat it, she said.
The minister pointed specifically to the problem of police violence and excessive use of force which has been witnessed in recent months and years against both the Ethiopian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli communities.
“For a police commissioner to try to promote the police officer who shot Solomon Teka, of blessed memory, to be a detective when that officer is under indictment and standing criminal trial does injury to our societal values and interests,” said Tamano-Shata fiercely.
She said that the police “do not want to take responsibility,” and are “protecting their own,” but insisted that Ethiopian-Israeli citizens “are their own,” and that getting rid of bad police officers can only be to the benefit of the police force in general.
TURNING TO her work as the aliyah and integration minister, Tamano-Shata was eager to extol the work she has done since obtaining her ministerial portfolio, despite the severe difficulties inherent in advancing immigration during a global pandemic.
She noted that although aliyah decreased significantly in 2020 due to COVID-19, from 34,000 in 2019 to 21,000 in 2020, she said that achieving such figures during the coronavirus crisis was a significant achievement and demonstrated that a great wave of aliyah could happen after the pandemic abates.
According to the Jewish Agency, some 160,000 inquiries about aliyah were made from around the world during 2020, to Israel, with 41,000 new aliyah application files opened, including 28,000 files from Western countries.
One of the biggest difficulties for bringing in new immigrants has been the dramatic decrease in commercial flights by which most immigrants reach Israel.
Tamano-Shata said she is currently arranging for four possible organized flights chartered by Israel to bring immigrants waiting to make aliyah to the Jewish state, and in a demonstrative and rather theatrical display of ministerial determination called up her chief of staff on the spot to find out when new flights are scheduled.
The ministry is working on arranging group aliyah flights from Ukraine, France and possibly the US, along with one other country she declined to name.
She also pointed out that she strongly opposed the current near-closure of Ben-Gurion Airport and voted against the decision in the cabinet.
“From the time of the establishment of the country, we have never stopped aliyah. ‘We cannot do this,’ I said, and I was the only one to vote against it, and I’m proud of it,” she said.
The minister said that despite the cessation of commercial flights, she managed to gain the concession of permitting group flights.
Looking at immigration and absorption more broadly, Tamano-Shata said that she has scored several achievements, including obtaining NIS 80 million from state coronavirus funds to provide professional training, employment incentives and welfare grants for new immigrants.
She also mentioned the new mental health hotline for new immigrants which the ministry has initiated, which provides professional counseling and advice five days a week, in five languages, for five hours, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The center has received 100 calls over the last month, the majority of which have been from English-speaking or Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Strong criticism has been leveled at the government for failure to deal adequately with the mental health concerns of new immigrants, and Tamano-Shata said she understood that frustration, noting that such services until now have been woefully inadequate.
“From the moment I started the job, I put this issue at the top of my priorities, I didn’t wait for the Health Ministry or anyone else.”
Tamano-Shata has also worked to bring the remainder of the Falash Mura community still in Ethiopia to Israel, and made doing so one of her party’s campaign promises during the elections.
She noted that despite the last government promising in 2015 to bring 9,000 remaining members of the community to Israel by 2020, just 2,000 came in that time.
“I have brought 1,600 of the community in seven flights over the three or four months since Operation Rock of Israel was approved,” she said of the new government effort to bring the rest of the Falash Mura to the Jewish state.
Tamano-Shata initially planned to bring 4,500 of the community by the end of 2020, but she said the failure to pass a state budget, for which she blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ruined her initial plans.
The minister revised her figures to 2,000 by the end of January 2021 and obtained a budget of NIS 370m. to carry it out.
She said the remainder of the 2,000-person goal should arrive on organized flights in the coming weeks.
Asked about ongoing problems with the operation, including the separation of some family members, the minister criticized such incidents but said the blame lay with the Interior Ministry, which decides which applicants can immigrate, and not with her.
“It is a disgrace, and the State of Israel has an ethical responsibility to resolve this problem,” said the minister.
WITH THE fourth general election in two years looming on the horizon, the interview turned to politics.
Asked if her former political boss, leader of the opposition and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, had been right not to join a government led by Netanyahu, she said no.
Tamano-Shata insisted that the country needed a government last May due to the coronavirus crisis, and that the Blue and White Party had fought for the needs of the country within the government.
She said that the party had been serious about fighting the disease despite not demanding the health portfolio in coalition negotiations, and said that it had been Blue and White that had fought for a coronavirus commissioner and cabinet.
“Yes, Bibi played his tricks and machinations and broke the agreements, but we didn’t make a mistake in joining a government. The finger of accusation needs to be pointed at Bibi, not us,” she insisted.
“It’s the easiest thing to give advice from the outside. Lapid has given advice from the outside, for years, but we took action from the inside for the citizens, we protected democracy, we led the struggle against COVID, and we fought for new immigrants.”