Kiryat Malachi man hopes to become nation’s first Ethiopian-born mayor

Awake Mengistu says racism must first be fought locally, vows to move city past history of discrimination against Ethiopians.

Candidate in Kiryat Malachi elections Awake Mengistu 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Candidate in Kiryat Malachi elections Awake Mengistu 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Awake Mengistu will make history next Tuesday if he is voted mayor of Kiryat Malachi.
But Mengistu, the first Ethiopian- Israeli candidate for mayor of a city, isn’t just interested in being “a first.” He intends to confront racism in Israel by improving things in the city of some 23,500 people.
Mengistu founded his campaign on the belief that leading a local government enables one to effect change. With this authority, he said on Tuesday, he plans to move Kiryat Malachi past its history of discrimination against Ethiopians and government corruption, which includes mayor Moti Malcha (2003- 2012) being convicted of sexual harassment of two subordinates and violating planning regulations and former president Moshe Katsav, who was mayor of the city in 1969 and from 1974 to 1981, being convicted of rape.
Mengistu, 27, made aliya from Ethiopia when he was five. He explained that his belief in the power of local politics and grassroots movements began in January 2012, when he and thousands of other demonstrators protested racism in Kiryat Malachi. After a Channel 2 segment showed a Kiryat Malachi neighborhood council agreeing not to sell or rent to Ethiopians, thousands of protesters including Mengistu gathered in Kiryat Malachi. They later marched the 50 km. or so northeast to Jerusalem and demanded the Knesset enact more forceful measures to prevent racism against Ethiopian-Israelis.
Mengistu said his involvement in the demonstrations taught him that political activism was a way to reform society. But to combat racism nationally, he insists that change must start locally.
Educating the younger generation in school and through community participation will begin to confront discrimination in Kiryat Malachi, he said. Education will shape “good students” who will be “good influences on their environment.”
It’s not “only education in a classroom,” Mengistu said. “We’re talking about non-formal education like through youth movements, or even taking an empty bottle and putting it in the garbage.”
Mengistu and his campaign, Eden Hadash (“New Era”), which is part of Yesh Atid’s candidates list, say that improving education in Kiryat Malachi will not only benefit the city; it will put Israel on course to eventually overcome racism against Ethiopians.
Nurit Tizazu, part of Eden Hadash, admitted their campaign is “only the beginning of this process.”
But “this is the goal of our generation,” that Ethiopians will be considered equal in Israel in two or three decades at most, Tizazu said.
Deputy Knesset Speaker Pnina Tamnu-Shata (Yesh Atid), the first Ethiopian woman in the legislature, said Mengistu or another Ethiopian becoming mayor is a necessary step to defeating racism in Israel.
“If we want to win [against] all this discrimination, we need to put people in front like Awake,” Tamnu- Shata said. It is essential that racism be confronted in the Knesset in addition to locally, she said.
Mengistu plans to create employment opportunities and affordable housing in Kiryat Malachi, raise the school system’s grade-point-average and improve the city’s social welfare programs.
But one of the main criticisms of Mengistu is his youth and inexperience.
He has never held political office and just graduated from Bar- Ilan University after serving as a staff-sergeant in the Givati infantry brigade’s reconnaissance company.
Mengistu, who is competing against five other candidates, is behind in recent polls. He said that in the most current survey, 11 percent of the respondents supported him. This was an improvement over the two previous polls that predicted him wining just 4% and 5%, respectively.
Mengistu said that none of these polls included Ethiopians, who make up approximately 30% of Kiryat Malachi’s voters.
Two of the front-runners are Lalo Zohar, a well-liked city councilman, and Yossi Hadad, the incumbent mayor who replaced Malcha after he resigned.
Even if he doesn’t win the mayoral race, Mengistu, along with Tizazu and Shei Sium, who is third on Eden Hadash’s ticket, will be elected to the city council if the list receives approximately 2,000 votes. Sium said it would be just as great a win if three of Kiryat Malachi’s 13 city council members were Ethiopian.
But Sium and Mengistu wonder if gaining support for city council will be hard because they are Ethiopian.
Sium said that one of the obstacles to their campaign is that four of Eden Hadash’s five candidates are Ethiopian. Someone, according to Shei, first notices four black candidates on their campaign banner.
Mengistu said another criticism against him is simply that “I’m black.”
“Why is it an issue he is the first Ethiopian running [for mayor]?” Tizazu asked. “It’s a strong question for our society.”