Pnina Tamano-Shata, first Ethiopian-born woman to join the Israeli parliament, was only 3 years old when her family made its way to Israel, via Sudan.

By Ruth Eglash (The Washington Post) |

Addis Ababa—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic trip to East Africa last week was aimed at boosting relations. But his last stop, in Ethiopia, held special meaning for many of the 135,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin who live in Israel today.

Netanyahu is the first Israeli leader to visit the East African country. Formal ties were established between the two states in 1992.

Most Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel in secret immigration operations that took place in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. In Operation Moses, during the ’80s, roughly 8,000 people were smuggled out of Ethiopia via Sudan and taken to Israel on secret flights organized by the Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service. In Operation Solomon, in 1991, about 14,500 people were airlifted to Israel in less than 36 hours.

More recently, the immigrants have arrived via regular flights almost every month, yet an estimated 9,000 to 20,000 Ethiopian Jews remain in Ethiopia.

Today, about 85,900 Israelis of Ethiopian origin were born in Ethiopia, and 49,600 were born in Israel.

Here are a few of their stories:

Pnina Tamano-Shata, 34

In 2013, Pnina Tamano-Shata made history when she became the first Ethiopian-born woman to join the Israeli parliament.

Her family made its way to Israel, via Sudan, when she was only 3. After nearly a year in a refugee camp, Israeli agents flew them to Israel in Hercules cargo planes. Tamano-Shata’s mother, however, was mistakenly left behind.

She spent her first year in her new country without her mother.

“I remember how hard it was,” the former parliamentarian said. “For the first time in my life, I really understood what it meant to be different. I did not have any friends, and the children used to throw stones at me.”

But Tamano-Shata said the barriers she faced pushed her to seek a career in politics. In college, she became the voice of the student protests, standing in the midst of large crowds with a microphone, to decry discrimination against her community.

After gaining a seat in the parliament in 2013, she made headlines when she offered to donate blood but was told that Israelis of Ethiopian origin were not allowed to donate for fear of spreading HIV. She has been pushing for change even since.

“I believe in integration,” she said. “There are so many programs for Ethiopian immigrants, but it’s all about keeping them separate from Israelis.”

“There is so much I want to do,” she said. “I can’t wait to get back into politics.”

Daniel Sahalo, 36

Daniel Sahalo remembers walking through the night from his village in northern Ethiopia to reach the Sudanese boarder.

Continue reading this story on The Washington Post
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