Friday, February 25, 2011

Ethiopian MK recounts perilous trek to Promised Land

Source: Jweekly, February 24, 2011
When Ariel Sharon decided to form the Kadima party in 2005, he knew he needed Shlomo Molla.

Molla, who was then head of the Jewish Agency’s Ethiopian Division, had always expected to become a lawyer. But after just 10 minutes on the phone, Sharon convinced him that politics was his calling.

Shlomo Molla

In 2008, Molla became only the second Ethiopian Israeli Knesset member — and the perfect person to headline this year’s S.F.-based Israeli Consulate tribute to Black History Month.

With just three days to spend in the Bay Area, Molla gave lectures, took part in a panel discussion with the Rev. Amos Brown at San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church and attended breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings with Bay Area elected officials and religious leaders, from Feb. 22 to 24.

“I’m very happy to be here,” said Molla, 45, during an interview Feb. 22 at the Fairmont Hotel in between appointments. “Most often, the media concentrates on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and my being here will focus on what Israel has done for immigrants. I am very sorry that this part of Israel’s history is so unknown, and it is my privilege to tell this story.”

At 16, Molla left his home in the Ethiopian village of Macha with 16 other young Jewish men — some of whom were his brothers — and walked 435 miles to Sudan in 10 days. The young men hoped to be part of Operation Moses, the covert evacuation of Ethiopian Jews that took place in 1984.

“We met robbers along the way, and so we walked without shoes and without food. It was difficult. We had no guarantee that we would get there safely or that we could get to Israel,” Molla said.

“We walked because we knew where we wanted go. We were motivated because we had been educated to love Israel, the land of milk and honey, the golden state. We did not hesitate. We walked to get to Jerusalem.”

Molla paused and grinned. “We didn’t know anything abut Tel Aviv.”

Once the young men reached Sudan, they were arrested, and a close friend of Molla’s was shot and killed. After 91 days, they were released and began making their way to a refugee camp.

“We met an Israeli intelligence person — the first white man we had ever seen,” Molla recalled. “We were afraid to say we were Jewish because we might be tortured. But this man told us that he knew who we were, and where we came from.”

The young men were given food and water and taken to a refugee camp. From there, they were driven in trucks through the desert to an airstrip. “Along the way, the white man started speaking Amharic, and we wondered how this could be possible,” Molla said. With some 200 other Ethiopian Jews, Molla and his friends were put on a plane. “Once the door was closed, we were greeted with ‘shalom aleichem.’ ”

Four hours later, the plane landed in Tzfat, Israel, and the immigrants were taken to an absorption center. There, a young woman put Molla and some of the young men in an elevator and pushed the button for the fifth floor.

“Half an hour later she found us, still riding in the elevator,” Molla recalled. “We didn’t know to get off.”

Molla’s parents and his other siblings — he is one of 11 children — arrived in Israel a few years later.

Molla attended high school in Haifa and then served in the Israel Defense Forces. He earned a law degree and in 1991, Molla was named head of a Jewish Agency immigrant absorption center in Tiberias. In 1995 he was appointed supervisor of the absorption centers in northern kibbutzes, and a year later, he became a member of the Ministry of Health’s committee to advise on war conditions. In 1999, he was named head of the Jewish Agency’s Ethiopian Division, and after getting into politics, became a member of the Knesset in 2008.

Asked about the lives of the 130,000 Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, Molla declared that their circumstances are good, pointing first to himself. “I am Knesset,” he said matter-of-factly. “Another 10,000 are educated — engineers, doctors, social workers. Some 75 percent own homes. Still, there are problems. Unemployment is high, and many workers make only minimum wage.”

He added: “Ethiopian immigrants have brought to Israel our wonderful ideology and our culture, and we helped build the wonderful state of Israel. Jewish people in the diaspora can be very proud of black Africans who came to be Israelis.”

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