Another language

Twenty percent of the Israeli population have physical or psychological disabilities, so it was a very welcome step, when 32-year old Shirley Pinto, took up her position in June 2021 as the first ever deaf member of the Knesset. 

Raised in one of Israel’s poorest neighbourhoods, Pinto’s story is remarkable. Her father is deaf, and her mother who is both deaf and blind, is a leading actress in Nalaga’at, a non-profit which runs the first deaf and blind theatre company in the world. 

Despite her disability, Pinto is one of the most articulate and tenacious people around. Growing up in a country that was not “disabled-aware” she fought for the rights of the deaf through her own hard-earned experience. As a witness to her parents illiteracy and their subsequent difficulties, Pinto made it her task to learn both Hebrew and also sign language. Nothing could hold her back. Despite her disability, she served in the Israeli Airforce and was so successful that she was asked to sign on for another few years after her compulsory service – a gesture not that offered to every able-bodied soldier. On completing her term, she deservedly won the President’s Outstanding Medal. After finishing a law degree she was invited to lecture at the prestigious University of Bar Ilan, but nothing was to capture her heart like the plight of the disabled. 

Through sheer grit, Pinto went on to establish the Israel Center for the Deaf. Astute to the core, she understood that despite her remarkable achievements in the Airforce and in the field of law, when it comes to the world of the disabled, there were things she needed to do, and it was best not to do it alone. For sign language to be treated as an equal language, she needed to enlist the “big boys,” or in Pinto’s case, the “big girls.” Thus she approached Marlee Beth Matlin, the Oscar-winning American deaf film actress, and asked her to hop on board for the advancement of the Israeli deaf community. Together they organised an event, named “A Sign of Success.” The venue was the reputable Cinematheque in Tel Aviv. More than 300 Israeli deaf people turned up for the occasion, which took the women’s rights iconic metaphor of “breaking the glass ceiling.” Through the event Pinto and her American counterpart, creatively worked together to help the general public understand the barriers and obstacles their community faces.

This was followed by steps and legislations that improved the lives of the deaf community. It is thanks to Pinto that Israeli TV has someone signing for the deaf on programs. It is thanks to Pinto that every deaf citizen can benefit from, and understand what TV has to offer.  Keen to see other sign languages also recognised as equal languages, she has traveled the world bringing awareness to the legitimacy of sign language for people everywhere. 

When Pinto swept Israel by storm a few years ago, her activities birthed a friendship between herself and Naftali Bennet. Impressed with her determination and the plight of the deaf, he got on board with her activism. 

And as life very often is in Israel, there is a sense that a circle is completed. In June 2021, it was the same Naftali Bennet, the then Prime Minister of Israel, who swore his “old” friend into his new government. From Death to Life