Home sweet home

With her father, five brothers and thousands of other Ethiopian Jews, three-year-old Pnina Tamano-Shata trekked on foot under the blazing sun across an African desert from Ethiopia all the way to Sudan.

Operation Moses, a clandestine and daring escapade that took two months, was done in coordination with the IDF, Mossad, Sudan and the CIA. The November 1984 journey was perilous. Starvation, dehydration and brutal attacks by militia groups saw to it that 4,000 died in the desert and also in the intermittent Sudanese refugee camps, where due to civil war, conditions were wretched and quickly deteriorating. On reaching the Sudanese refugee camps, planes were waiting to fly Pnina, her family and other Falasha Jews to Israel. Tragically, her mother was left behind. 

In Hebrew, Jewish immigration to Israel is known as “Aliya.” It literally means “to go up,” and thus denotes not just a physical journey but a spiritual one, and one of improvement. As with all Jews who make Aliya, it is the children who adjust easiest. 

By necessity, it was at a tender age that Pnina found herself as the adult of the family because of the difficulties of her parent’s adjustment. Like most immigrant kids, she picked up Hebrew with ease. Soon she was in a position to translate for her family, help with the ins-and-outs of an unfamiliar daily-life and deal with what is an often abrasive culture. From the age of eleven, Pnina was working to support her family.

Making Aliya for many of the Ethiopian Jews has not been easy. Several immigrants, bashfully tell stories of being scared as children by things that we in the first-world take for granted, things such as the “magic” of flipping a switch and a light coming on! 

But the light did come on. And it banished the darkness when Pnina’s mother was found alive and flown to Israel. Joyously reunited, the family settled in an immigrant absorption centre where they were all given Israel ID’s. Pnina’s records November 1, 1981 as her date of birth. But in actuality, she has no idea when her birthday is. There were no Ethiopian documents indicating her date of birth. This is the date she picked for herself.

In high-school, Pnina was drafted into a program for gifted students. After finishing her compulsory army service she went on to study law. Justice, she says, is always what drove her. She became the president of the Ethiopian Student Union because she wanted to helped them utilize their rights.

Her first job as an adult was as a correspondent for the national television station. This opened up a door to politics, and it was with politics that she felt most at home. Politics provided her with the framework to fight for justice. 

Dear to her heart, is seeking the return of Avera Mengistu, an Ethiopian Israeli and mentally-ill young man who in September 2014, after having stopped taking his medication, wandered across the Gaza border and has not been seen since. One of ten children, Avera’s family are disadvantaged due to their difficulties with Hebrew, the Israeli culture and wading through the terrifying mire of political bureaucracy. Pnina has made it her mission to help.

It could be that she is nearer to her goal because after  months of not having a government, Israel finally did the right thing. In May 2020 politicians were finally appointed to ministries. Serving under Benny Ganzt, the leader of the Blue and White Party, Pnina Tamano-Shata is the first Ethiopian-born cabinet minister in Israel’s history. Fittingly, she has been assigned the portfolio of the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration.

And in one of those “only in Israel” stories, where loose ends are tied up with an element of beauty and surprise, it was her boss Benny Gantz, who 36-years ago one of the commanders of Operation Moses that brought her home.