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Aliyah magic


JERUSALEM — To immigrate to Israel from Ethiopia, Pnina Tamano-Shata’s family had to trek on foot through the desert to Sudan in the middle of a famine.

Israeli absoprtion minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. (Natan Weil/GPO)

Later, the truck bringing her mother and two of her sisters to the airfield broke down. It wasn’t until the plane doors closed that Tamano-Shata realized that they would not be traveling with her, her father and the rest of her family. She was three years old. It would be a year before she saw her mother again.

But Tamano-Shata still describes the experience in magical terms. So when, 36 years later, as Israel’s immigration and absorption minister, she was tasked with deciding whether to allow immigration to Israel during the pandemic last year, it was a no-brainer. She kept the gates open.

“Even in wars, we didn’t stop aliyah,” Tamano-Shata, 40, said recently, using the Hebrew term for Jewish immigration. “We came here from the Iron Curtain, from Arab countries, from Ethiopia. The corona [virus] is going to stop us?”

When Tamano-Shata tells her story, and connects it to Israel’s present challenges, it doesn’t come across as overwrought.

The first Ethiopian Jew to serve in an Israeli Cabinet, she came to Israel on Operation Moses, the secret 1984 mission to bring Jews who had crossed the border into Sudan to Israel. The harrowing experience, and her joy upon reaching Israel, irrevocably shaped her.

“Our dream came true,” she said in a 2018 video, recorded before she was a minister. “It was a dream with challenges, that separated families, but I was so lucky, and my family was reunited. Anyone who has made aliyah, even at a very young age, [it] shapes your character for life.”

She added, “I felt Israeli the moment my foot touched this country.”

Now, as the official in charge of Israel’s immigration system, she wants to make sure that those arriving during the pandemic would feel the same magic. According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental organization that assists with immigration, aliyah dropped 40% through the pandemic, but did not grind to a halt.

“I know what difficulties there are in coming to Israel, to a new country and a new language,” she said.

Tamano-Shata made sure immigrants could make it to Israel despite global travel restrictions.

With commercial flights shut down, she worked with immigration-promoting groups like Nefesh b’Nefesh to allow immigrants to nonetheless enter the country. And she exempted immigrants from a ban on people older than 70 flying into the country.

She said the exemption allowed some Holocaust survivors to immigrate to Israel.

She also tried to ease the acclimation of immigrants after they landed. She got the government to fund half the salaries of new immigrants as a hiring incentive for employers who were already squeezed by pandemic shutdowns.

She expanded free Hebrew classes for immigrants from two-and-a-half years to 10 years.

She made sure that the new immigrants were eligible for pandemic-related grants and loans.

When the Health Ministry said it offered counseling in French, English, Amharic and Russian, she made sure services in those languages were actually available.

She ensured that immigrant children were among those eligible to attend in-person classes during the pandemic. Otherwise, she said, their socialization during remote school would be daunting.

“How could they study with Zoom if they don’t have the language, if they don’t have friends?” she said. Meeting Israelis was critical to acclimation, she said.

Tamano-Shata is a throwback to a period of Israeli history when celebrations of the very act of aliyah were commonplace, when the immigrant was a star.

After her family immigrated, she emerged as a youth activist in the central Israeli city of Petah Tikva, where her family had settled and where she still lives with her husband and two kids.

She advocated on behalf of the Ethiopian-Israeli community at university, where she studied law, then worked as a TV reporter before being elected to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in 2013 with the Yesh Atid party.

“I have so many identities, Jewish, woman, black, but my first identity is Jewish — you can’t not say that being a black woman influenced me, but my home is the Jewish heart.”

Tamano-Shata’s political future is uncertain, since her political party, Blue and White, did poorly in this week’s election in Israel.

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