Pnina Tamano-Shata is one of the brightest stars to emerge from the last elections in Israel on March 2. She is the aliyah and integration minister, and is the first person (man or woman) from the community of Jews of Ethiopian origin to be a cabinet minister.
Tamano-Shata had a rough start in life. She is from Wuzaba, a village in the Gondar region of Ethiopia, where most of the community lived. She was born in 1981, yet doesn’t know her exact birth date as it wasn’t recorded. However, Tamano-Shata laughed when asked about this discrepancy in articles about her. In Hebrew, the horoscope is called “mazal,” which means luck. Tamano-Shata said that if she read Leo one day and didn’t like the forecast, she could choose to be a Cancer. She can choose her luck.
Tamano-Shata has very few memories of being lifted into a truck which drove across the desert to a refugee camp in Sudan. She remembers the crowding, the heat, and receiving a bowl of porridge in the camp.
Tamano-Shata came to Israel as part of Operation Moses, the first wave of mass immigration from Ethiopia. Tamano-Shata served in the army and then studied law at Ono Academic College. When asked why she chose this college over university, she said that initially she turned to a university and was told all the places for Ethiopians in the law faculty were filled, and that she should study logistics. Yet, she believed that she needed to study law in order to effect change in Israeli society, and she refused to have a university administrator dictate her future path. With tenacity, she turned to Ono where she received the support she needed. After university, Tamano-Shata worked with displaced youth at risk, and then as a journalist.
Tamano-Shata discussed several issues which are hot button topics throughout the world. I asked if she saw herself as Black, and she said no. She sees herself as an Israeli woman, and stated that although unfortunately there is racism in Israeli society and many sectors of the population are disadvantaged, she believes that there are tools in society which enable people to break through the barriers, Tamano-Shata chose to serve with Blue and White as she thought this party would be the one to help the wide range of immigrants who move to Israel to contribute to the country, such as a lone soldier who leaves a life of relative comfort in the US or an elderly woman who moves from France.
My first impression of Tamano-Shata was of a fashionable, hip mom who enjoys outings with her children. So, it was a surprise that when I asked her to which place she feels connected with her soul, she answered, “The Kotel.” In fact, she broke out in a clear alto voice, singing a few verses from a popular song about the Kotel and its connection to the Jewish people.
Tamano-Shata is a proud member of Beta Israel, the formal name for the community of Jews from Ethiopia. She states that she was raised with Jewish values entwined with Beta Israel traditions and that her mom and sisters radiated spiritual strength and pride. The minister feels that women in the Beta Israel community have broken through barriers that were present in the more patriarchal structure of the society in Gondar. Strengthening the role of women in all spheres of Israeli society is important to her, and she’s inspired by strong women. Pnina sees a lot of positive growth in the Beta Israel community, as they integrate and take advantage of numerous educational opportunities which leads to socio-economic growth.
As a Knesset member, Tamano-Shata wants to carry out reforms, redirect resources to the proper places and illuminate the path to a just, moral society. She sees her ministerial status as the key to being in a position to influence changes which will equalize all citizens. She also feels that she’s personally responsible for the prosperity and well-being of all olim, as immigrants are referred to in Israel, and that their success is crucial.
Tamano-Shata believes that being a minister is a responsibility and an honor. One key success she fought for and is very proud of is the presentation of a report to eradicate racism in Israeli society. She initiated the “New Way”- a government program to accelerate the integration of the Beta Israel into Israeli society. She sought funding to remove barriers to citizens who are primarily Amharic-speaking, and provide appropriate employment and integration into the civil service. She sees this legislation as another key step to benefit and equalize all populations which face barriers including women from disadvantaged backgrounds and Arab-Israelis with disabilities.
She acknowledges that not praying together in synagogues is difficult but it’s crucial to keep in mind the words of “venishmartem nafshotechem,” guard your souls. The Beta Israel community gathers together annually on the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem on the 29th of Heshvan for Sigd, a holiday where the kessim, spiritual leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community, face the Temple Mount and sing songs of praise and longing for Zion. Pnina realizes that this might be another ceremony relegated to Zoom.
Tamano-Shata lives in Petah Tikva where she was raised and is devoted to her father, age 90 and her mother, who is 80. Her husband Zion is also from Beta Israel, and they have a daughter, Tahel, age 10, and a son, Ori, 8.
Tamano-Shata acknowledges that she’s only starting her political career, yet hopes to be the president of Israel. Her journey to success started when she trekked through the desert as a little girl; now she has a car and driver. During Sukkot, barring coronavirus, the president holds an open house at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. As gracious as the minister and her staff were, I hope to return their kindness and one day greet Tamano-Shata as president. The writer runs Turn Write This Way, a boutique content agency. She creates memoirs and produces marketing materials, and her pieces are published on various international sites