Two Ethiopians enter Knesset, Israel’s parliament

Elias Kifle | May 20th, 2008

Ruth Eglash, THE JERUSALEM POST

It’s been nearly 10 years since the country had an Ethiopian MK (Member of Knesset) — Labor’s Adisu Messele, who held a seat from 1996 to 1999 — but within the last three months two Ethiopian MKs have taken up the challenge. In February, longtime Ethiopian community leader and former Jewish Agency aliya professional Shlomo Mula joined the Kadima list. Less than two weeks ago, Rabbi Mazor Bayana, head of a 10,000-strong Beersheba congregation, took up a Shas seat.

Shlomo Mula
MK Shlomo Mula
Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski

And while their personal aims and agendas might conflict in the political sphere, one thing the Knesset’s two newest members agree upon is that it’s about time the 110,000-strong Ethiopian community here was represented in the hallways of parliament.

“I’m very happy there is another [Ethiopian] MK and I hope that in the future there will many more,” says Mula, sitting proudly behind a wooden desk in his new Knesset office. “It’s very important for us to show the younger generation in our community that it can be done, that we can be successful in Israeli society.”

While Bayana agrees with Mula’s assessment of leading by example and while the two MKs point out that their community, among the country’s weakest socially and economically, needs immediate attention, that is pretty much where their similarities end.

“I don’t really agree with Shas’s policies. I think they actually cause more social problems with all their hand-outs than solve them,” says Mula. “I plan to focus on the social issues facing my community and Israel in general. I want to be the voice of the people, all people.”

For Bayana, who replaced Shlomo Benizri, his first task is to challenge the government’s intention to wind down the aliya operation in Ethiopia.

“I am already planning a trip to take [Industry, Trade and Labor Minister and Shas leader] Eli Yishai to assess the situation in Gondar,” says the softly-spoken Bayana. “I also plan to invite [Sephardi Chief Rabbi] Shlomo Amar and Ethiopian Rabbi Yosef Adaneh.

“We have no intention of bringing those who are not eligible under the government’s criteria,” points out Bayana. “However, we still need to figure out how to help those who feel they are eligible but have not yet been assessed.”

The issue of Ethiopian aliya, or the immigration of the remaining Falash Mura – Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity under duress more than a century ago – has been a contentious one in recent months. Government and Jewish Agency representatives claim that the process of determining who is eligible to immigrate according to the Law of Entry and convert here will be over by the end of this year. However, many community members already living here claim there are at least another 9,000 people who should be considered.

“At the moment the entire process is not good,” states Bayana, who has not returned to his homeland since leaving as a child in 1984′s Operation Moses. “The people waiting in Gondar have already left their homes and are just waiting there to see if they can make aliya. Israel is talking about closing the gates but it’s not as simple as that; this problem really needs to be dealt with properly.”

SHLOMO MULA

For Mula, the main problems facing his community and the wider population in general are social ones.

“I don’t really want to deal with the issue of the Falash Mura,” he says. “Instead, I want to focus on the people from my community who are already living here. I want to push for full integration.”

Mula, who made aliya at 17, also as part of Operation Moses, decries the dismal conditions of many members of his community.

According to the most recent data from the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services, two-thirds of all Ethiopian immigrants are in need of assistance and in some towns, close to 90 percent require such care. Research has also shown that close to 75 percent of Ethiopian families live below the poverty line.

“I want to help people who are earning minimum wage and address the fact that there are simply not enough social workers to help the community,” says Mula, who previously worked for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and was elected to an executive position in the World Zionist Organization. “We also need to address the looming food shortages. I have already led a discussion on this issue in the Knesset. We cannot let the price of basic food staples such as bread, rice and milk rise so high.

“There is also the issue of mortgages for young Ethiopian couples and how to break up the low-income neighborhoods where Ethiopian families have congregated, such as Kiryat Moshe [near Rehovot] and make sure the community is spread out more evenly.”

While Ethiopian issues are never far from his mind, Mula also likes cast his net even wider, saying that he is heavily involved in Kadima’s efforts to make peace with the Palestinians and to help build diplomatic relations with the African continent.

But Mula is emphatic of his main goals.

“I want to create a museum to showcase Ethiopian Jewry’s rich history and culture,” he states. “We need to have such a center to instill pride in our people and teach Israelis about our past.”

At the same time, Mula believes that more needs to be done to incorporate Ethiopians into the country’s power base.

In recent months, The Jerusalem Post has reported on the unfair testing system used by the Civil Service, with culturally biased tests automatically disqualifying Ethiopian-born candidates from qualifying for certain government positions.

“I plan to push for a drastic change to the way civil servants are tested,” says Mula, who claims to have already called for a meeting with the heads of the Civil Service. “It is absurd that a man who is brought up in another culture must endure a test designed for someone else. The questions on these tests in no way reflect a person’s capability to do the job.”

He acknowledges similar cultural barriers in other employment sectors and says he’s intent on finding ways to lead “17,000 [Ethiopian] academics who are currently not working in their professions but who must find work as security guards and other low-level positions.”

“I want to see young Ethiopians everywhere,” he finishes. “I want them involved in business and politics at all levels from city council up to other key positions.”

RABBI MAZOR BAYANA

While the Falash Mura issue weighs heavily on his mind, Bayana, who studied at Porat Yosef, one of the most prestigious Sephardi yeshivot, is also focused on helping the community already here.

“My community makes up some of the country’s weakest segments and I hope to raise the subject of aliya and immigration in public consciousness,” he says. “I want to go out into the field and meet with leaders of the community to see what are the real issues and learn from the people themselves about how we can make improvements.”

If the problems facing his community are so acute, how can Bayana justify his primary focus on bringing in more new immigrants from Ethiopia?

“The absorption process is not straightforward but Israel has had enough experience in dealing with immigration and if we all work hard we should be able to improve the situation.

“I think we are too impatient. Success will not be achieved in a year. [The new immigrants] can’t do everything – learn Hebrew and Judaism, and make the necessary cultural adjustments – in just one year. It will take time.”

However, there are certain problems in the long-term process that Bayana recognizes need to be tackled immediately, such as the Chief Rabbinate’s stipulation that the children of Falash Mura immigrants must attend schools in the National Religious education system while their parents are converting to Judaism, thus creating problems for successful integration.

“That is one of the goals of our [forthcoming] trip to Gondar, to see if there is a possibility to start the conversion process over there,” he explains. “We know about the distribution problem of Ethiopian pupils in the education system and realize that in certain locations there are simply not enough places in religious schools. We are aware of the problem but the solution really needs to come from the rabbinate.”

He says that his first week in the Knesset has been “very moving. I have been in the political system for many years. And it feels like the right time for me to be in this position. A lot of important decisions are made here and this is a big chance for me to help the people of Israel.”