To anyone who asserts that Israel is a racist society, Shlomo Molla has a simple retort: Just take a look at my life. The 46-year-old was born in an Ethiopian village with no electricity and he has risen through the ranks of Israeli society, where he now holds the position of deputy speaker of the Knesset.
“If you have your motivation, Israel is a country where the sky is the limit,” Molla, the Kadima Party member, declared during a Sept. 7 stop in Philadelphia.
“I am not saying that we don’t have problems,” he added, acknowledging that the transition from the pre-industrial society of his native village to Israel’s high-tech one hasn’t been an easy transition for the Israeli Ethiopian community, especially for his parents’ generation.
The soft-spoken social worker is currently one of two Israelis of Ethiopian origin serving in the Knesset. He had been the only one, but just this past week Likud Party member Aleli Admasu took the place of Yossi Peled, who resigned from parliament. Molla’s Kadima Party is not part of the coalition government, but that does not preclude him from serving as deputy speaker.
Molla’s visit to the United States was sponsored by the America-Israel Friendship League, a nonprofit organization dedicated to deepening ties between Israelis and Americans of all religious backgrounds.
The idea is that Molla’s life story might dispel the notions in some American minds that Zionism is tantamount to racism and that Israelis are all Jews of European origin.
Uri Bar-Ner, a retired Israeli diplomat affiliated with the Friendship League who traveled with the lawmaker, said that Molla “is the best speaker for Israel, because once people see him they know what Israel is all about and they stop talking about discrimination.”
While in the city, Molla addressed a group of about 40 African-American political and business leaders at a luncheon organized by State. Sen. Anthony Williams, who represents parts of Philadelphia; City Council President Daryl Clarke; and Israel’s new consul general, Yaron Sideman.
The program was held at the law offices of Kleinbard Bell & Brecker. David Hyman and George Burell, partners at the firm, have each served in leadership roles at Operation Understanding, a group that brings together Jewish and African-American teenagers.
Molla also addressed leaders of Jewish organizations, college students at Villanova University, and attended Shabbat services at Congregation Temple Beth El, an African-American synagogue in northwest Philadelphia. The congregation’s religious leader, Rabbi Debra A. Bowen, was at the luncheon.
Speaking at the lunch gathering, Williams, the Democratic lawmaker, said that his ongoing goal is to revitalize the historic relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities.
Part of the way to do that, he said, is to educate African-American leaders about the complexity and diversity of the Jewish state.
At the urging of his friend Hyman, Williams visited Israel in the 1990s on a trip sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. Williams recalled that he did not know of the existence of Ethiopian Jews before his first visit to Israel.
“That’s impossible. Jews don’t look like that,” Williams recalled saying at the time.
Molla quickly offered an anecodote of his own: Growing up in the Gondar province of Ethiopia, he’d never met a light-skinned Jew until he was 14. That’s when a representative of a Jewish organization visited his village.
“I said there are no white Jews,” he recalled. “How can a white person be Jewish?”
Williams let out a hearty laugh, and said the two must be related.
As part of the program, Molla recounted his story of departing his village on foot in 1984 when he was 16 years old, leaving his family behind, and intending to walk all the way to the promised land.
He and several friends made it as far as the Sudanese border, without papers or passports of any kind, before being accused of being spies for Israel and Ethiopia and being thrown into a prison several hours drive from the border.
Months later, they were released without warning and deposited in a teeming refugee camp, where they struggled to find enough food and water and held out little hope of ever reaching Israel. More months passed until they were approached by a mysterious white man who spoke the Ethiopian language of Amharic.
He turned out to be an Israeli searching Sudan for Jews trying to reach Israel. The man brought Molla and others to the middle of the desert, where they were met by a group of Israeli commandoes and an airplane waiting to take them to the Jewish state. Dubbed “Operation Moses,” his rescue was part of the first of two Israeli efforts to bring Ethiopian Jewry to the Jewish state.
Diagnosed with malaria upon his arrival, he spent three months in the hospital learning Hebrew.
Though he started with nothing, and didn’t see his family for another seven years, Molla finished high school, served in the military and later earned a bachelor’s degree in social work. Before entering politics, he worked for the Jewish Agency for Israel, at one time serving as director of the unit for Ethiopian immigration.
Molla said much has changed in the 20 years since the fall of the regime that was so repressive to the African nation’s Jews: Israel and Ethiopia now enjoy much-improved relations.
“I think the Ethiopian government is expecting the black Israelis to be a bridge between Israel and Ethiopia” and to help bring about private investment in the developing nation, he said.
Among those in attendance at the Philadelphia program for black leaders was Robert Bogel, president and chief executive officer of The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s largest African-American newspaper. He said Molla’s story was “very compelling.”
Still, Bogel pressed Molla on several issues, saying “the treatment of Palestinians, the separation of the Palestinians from Israel, is a challenging question.”
Molla replied that the separation barrier exists to prevent terror attacks and that the Palestinians have rebuffed Israeli peace overtures. Molla said he’s no political ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But he credited Netanyahu with freezing settlement construction two years ago and said it was the fault of Palestinian leadership that no breakthroughs came as a result.
“We don’t want to control the Palestinians,” he said. “The majority of Israelis — but not all of them — want to see a two-state solution.”
After the program Burrell, the attorney, who is African-American, said, “It was a very moving and emotional experience listening to his story.”
He noted that the presence of nearly 30 African-American leaders “made a clear public statement that there still is a foundation of a relationship between the African-American and Jewish community.” u