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Israel appoints its first Ethiopian-born minister, Pnina Tamano-Shata

Portrait of Pnina Tamano-Shata, used under license under CC BY-SA 3.0

Israel has just appointed its first black minister, Pnina Tamano-Shata, from the Ethiopian Jewish community. Despite this encouraging gesture, the community still faces discrimination and racism in Israel.

It has been a remarkable journey for Tamano-Shata, who was appointed minister of immigration and integration on May 1, 2020. Born in Ethiopia, in what's known as the Falasha or Beta Israel community, she spent her first few years in a refugee camp in Sudan.

At the age of three, she was repatriated to Israel as part of a clandestine transfer operation organized by Tel Aviv with the support of Washington, known as Operation Moses. She was among 7,000 Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel between November 20, 1984, and January 6, 1985.

Once settled in Israel, she integrated well into society, studied law and worked as a journalist and lawyer. She also became involved in civil society groups, becoming vice-president of the National Association of Ethiopian Students in 2004, and a member of the executive committee of Transparency International from 2015 to 2018.

She then started a political career and was elected to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, where she served as a representative of the secular party, Yesh Atid, from 2013 to 2015.

Her social and political commitment earned her recognition in Israel as well as abroad. In 2016 she won the Unsung Award prize, awarded by the Drum Major Institute, an American nongovernmental organization that fights for human rights and racial equality.

The ultimate recognition came in May 2020 after she was reelected to Knesset on March 2, then appointed minister of immigration and integration. When asked about her appointment, she said:

Je suis ravie et fière d’assumer le poste de ministre de l’immigration et de l’intégration. Pour moi, c’est un point de repère et la fermeture d’un cercle pour cette fillette de trois ans qui a immigré en Israël sans mère, lors d’un voyage à pied dans le désert; en grandissant en Israël et dans les luttes que j’ai menées et que je mène toujours pour la communauté, l’intégration, l’acceptation de l’autre et contre la discrimination et le racisme; jusqu’à ma mission publique à l’intérieur et à l’extérieur des murs de la Knesset et aujourd’hui au statut de ministre de l’immigration et de l’intégration.

L’immigration est l’âme et le cœur battant de l’État d’Israël. Je travaillerai avec diligence pour encourager l’immigration de tous les pays du monde et pour diriger la réforme du processus d’absorption des immigrants en Israël.

I am delighted and proud to take on the role of minister of immigration and integration. For me, it is a landmark and the closing of a circle for this 3-year-old girl who immigrated to Israel without a mother, crossing the desert on foot; growing up in Israel, and in the struggles that I have led and that I still lead for the community, integration, acceptance of others and against discrimination and racism; up to my public mission inside and outside the walls of the Knesset and today to the role of minister of immigration and integration.

Immigration is the beating heart and soul of the State of Israel. I will work diligently to encourage immigration from countries all over world and to lead the reform of the immigrant absorption process in Israel.

The other side of the coin: Institutional racism

Even though Tamano-Shata is optimistic, the situation of black people in Israel remains difficult, given that the Ethiopian Jewish community, estimated to have more than 130,000 members or 2 percent of the population, is still subjected to racism. As this article recalls, numerous scandals bear witness to widespread racism against black people, of which Tamano-Shata herself was a victim:

En 1996, lors d’une opération nationale de collecte, le centre israélien de transfusion sanguine fait jeter tous les dons des immigrants d’Éthiopie de crainte qu’ils ne soient porteurs du sida. Humiliée, en colère, la communauté falasha [Juifs éthiopiens] organise un immense rassemblement à Jérusalem, devant les bureaux du Premier ministre, qui dégénère en heurts avec la police.

Ces heurts ne font cependant pas changer les choses puisqu’en 2013, alors qu’elle [Tamano-Shata] est députée et décide de faire un don de sang lors d’une opération de don organisée par le Magen David Adom dans l’enceinte du Parlement à Jérusalem, une responsable de cet organisme, filmée et enregistrée par une caméra vidéo, lui explique que « selon les directives du ministère de la Santé, il n’est pas possible d’accepter le sang spécial d’origine juive éthiopienne ». La députée s’insurge lors d’une interview sur la chaîne de télévision privée « 10 », contre « cet affront fait à toute une communauté en raison de la couleur de sa peau ».

In 1996, during a nationwide collection campaign, the Israeli blood transfusion centre threw away all the donations from Ethiopian immigrants for fear that they may be carriers of AIDS. Humiliated and angry, the Ethiopian Jewish community organised a huge rally in Jerusalem outside the Prime Minister's office, which descended into clashes with the police.

However, these clashes did not lead to any changes. In 2013, whilst Tamano-Shata was a member of parliament, she decided to donate blood as part of a donation campaign organised by the Magen David Adom [Israel's national blood bank service] within the parliament building in Jerusalem. An official from the organisation was filmed on camera explaining to Tamano-Shata that “according to the Ministry of Health's guidelines, it is not possible to accept blood of Ethiopian Jewish origin”. The MP protested during an interview on the private television channel 10 against ‘this affront to an entire community based on the colour of our skin.’

Another far-reaching scandal was that the forced contraception of Ethiopian women that was revealed in 2013, as this article explains:

Pendant 5 ans, le gouvernement a nié qu’il avait mis en place un système de contraception concernant les immigrées éthiopiennes les forçant à accepter une injection de l’agent contraceptif Depo-Provera si elles voulaient entrer sur le territoire israélien.

L'Association pour les droits civiques en Israël (ACRI) a demandé une enquête ainsi que la fin de ces injections. Le directeur général du ministère de la santé a donné l’ordre d’arrêter ces injections contraceptives. Les juifs d’Ethiopie ou falashas sont des citoyens israéliens ont longtemps été mis à l’écart des autres communautés juives.

For five years, the government denied that it had implemented a contraceptive system for Ethiopian immigrant women, forcing them to accept an injection of the contraceptive agent Depo-Provera if they wanted to enter Israeli territory.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) called for an investigation and an end to these injections. The director general of the Ministry of Health ordered for these contraceptive injections to stop. The Ethiopian Jews or Falashas are Israeli citizens and have long been segregated from other Jewish communities.

Another example of the violence and racism suffered by the Ethiopian Jews is the case of Damascus Pakada, an Israeli soldier born in Ethiopia. One day in April 2015, he was returning home in military uniform to celebrate his birthday. He was arrested and beaten by two police officers and, for no reason, thrown into prison.

Thanks to video footage of the incident, he was later released from prison and the police officers were arrested on suspicion of excessive use of force. This incident provoked demonstrations by the Ethiopian Jewish community. Pakada was later honored by the army and received by the prime minister.

At the time, President Reuven Rivlin admitted that Israel had committed serious errors that had traumatized Jews of Ethiopian origin:

Les manifestants de Jérusalem et de Tel-Aviv ont révélé une plaie ouverte et vive au coeur de la société israélienne. Nous devons nous pencher directement sur cette plaie ouverte. Nous avons commis des erreurs, nous n'avons pas assez ouvert les yeux et nous n'avons pas assez tendu l'oreille

The protesters in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have revealed an open, bleeding wound in the heart of Israeli society. We must directly address this open wound. We have made mistakes, we did not open our eyes enough and we did not listen enough.

Despite these scandals and the statements from Rivlin, anti-Falasha and anti-black racism continue, as reported in July 2019 by the French union activist, Pierre Lemaire:

Depuis 1997, onze Noirs israéliens ont trouvé la mort dans une confrontation avec la police. Selon l’Association des Juifs éthiopiens, les mises en examen d’Israéliens-Éthiopiens ont progressé de 90 % depuis 2015 et 90 % des jeunes Noirs passant devant un tribunal sont condamnés, contre un tiers seulement des autres Israéliens.

Since 1997, eleven black Israelis have died during confrontations with the police. According to the Association of Ethiopian Jews, prosecutions of Israeli-Ethiopians have increased by 90% since 2015. What's more, 90% of young black people who appear in court are convicted, compared to only a third of other Israelis.

After the announcement of Tamano-Shata's appointment as the new minister, many Israelis shared their feelings on social media.

For Chely Lobatón,Tamano-Shata's presence is the only good thing about the new government:

Igor Delanoë, from the Franco-Russian Observatory, notes:

#Russia- #Israel / New Israeli cabinet: the Ministry of Aliyah (Immigration) and Integration passes to Pnina Tamano-Shata, of Ethiopian origin. Until now, this portfolio belonged to a Russian-speaking political figure. In addition, a new ambassador should be appointed to Moscow.

Ironically, the former minister of immigration and integration, Sofa Landver, who is of Russian origin and Tamano-Shata replaced, said in 2012, “You should say thank you to us for welcoming you,” in response to a previous wave of demonstrations by young Israeli-Ethiopians.

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