From Ethiopia to the Knesset: Shlomo Molla Lives the Israeli Dream
NEW YORK—In July 2012, the Israeli government announced its decision to allow the aliyah of the last remnants of the Ethiopian Jewish community.
Each month, 250 Falash Mura (Ethiopian Christians of Jewish ancestry) will complete legal immigration until the entire community has been relocated to Israel. A new immigrant absorption center will be developed to accommodate their special needs. Following their arrival in Israel, they are expected to complete a conversion process to traditional Judaism.
Few can understand the power of immigrants’ transition from life in Ethiopia to the promise and opportunity of Israel as well as Member of Knesset Shlomo Neguese Molla (Kadima). Growing up in a Jewish village in Ethiopia, where Molla studied at a school sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), “next year in Jerusalem” was merely a lifelong dream. Now it is a reality, and then some. Many would call his story extraordinary, but Molla says it is simply a story of Israel—typifying what determination, reason and tolerance can accomplish.
At age 16, Molla said goodbye to all he knew, leaving home and family to begin the saga of his future in Israel. A 740-kilometer journey through unknown deserts to reach the first stopover on a trip to a destination he had only imagined, he faced the real possibilities of death (his best friend was killed) and imprisonment (he was jailed for 91 days). These experiences were not imaginationary, no tale of adventure. Rather, they were a prelude to his aliyah to the Jewish state. He completed high school in Haifa, served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, earned a law degree and became director of the Ethiopian Immigration and Absorption section of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).
Fast-forward several decades to 2012: The shoeless 16-year-old immigrant, now 46, has been the deputy speaker of the Knesset since August 2011. When elected to the Knesset in 2008, he became the second member of Ethiopian ancestry in the legislative body’s history. If President Shimon Peres and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin were both out of Israel at the same time, Molla would act as interim president of Israel.
This month, Molla toured New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago under the sponsorship of the America Israel Friendship League (AIFL), in a trip aimed at strengthening U.S.-Israel ties. The deputy speaker delivered the message of his transformative Israeli experience at meetings with African-American leaders, Christian and Jewish clergy, jurists, students, and a wide spectrum of Americans.
Molla’s Kadima party currently classifies itself as “the opposition.” Although it recently joined the Likud government, it almost as quickly withdrew from the coalition.
“When we are talking about Israel, ‘opposition’ is only when you are speaking about how to govern,” Molla said in an interview in New York with JNS.org. “As deputy speaker, at the end of the day, I am presenting the majority viewpoint. Our democracy is based on our differences.”
Molla said his dream is for Israel “to be at peace with our neighbors.”
“I think that it is possible,” he said. “We need brave leaders on both sides. With peace, we can solve the problems of Yehuda and Shomrom. As a democracy, our responsibility as [Members of Knesset] is to keep the dignity of our citizens, to treat them well… Our prime minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) is doing a wonderful job. I believe there is a solution in the future.”
AIFL Chairman Kenneth Bialkin told JNS.org during Molla’s New York visit, “We believe in the message of Deputy Speaker Molla and take strength in the fact that we can meet as lovers of freedom.”
The deputy speaker noted that Israel is “distressed by the actions of Iran.” He hopes the international community will act to stop its development of nuclear weapons. “If they do not, we [in Israel] have to take actions ourselves,” Molla said. “At the end of the day, the Nazis did what they said they would do. History is not coming back, not while we have our independent state. We must stop the fanatic Iranian leadership from building a nuclear bomb. Time is not working for us.”
Asked to comment about Israel’s position regarding the upcoming American elections, Molla stressed that as an Israeli—and specifically an Israeli politician—he takes no position regarding either candidate.
“We don’t get involved in any election—the American people must make the choice,” he said. Molla said the U.S. has been and continues to be supportive of Israel.
“As Israelis, we do not care whether it’s the Republican or Democratic candidate who is elected,” he said. “Israel must work with any president. Our relationship must be on a people-to-people basis… We appreciate any president that is the American people’s choice.”
Molla added that American Jews, as voters, “have to choose what they believe is good for America, not what is good for Israel.”
Questioned about the sometimes-sharp controversy surrounding the thousands of illegal African migrants who have entered or are attempting to enter Israel, Molla said there is “no reason to give them the right of citizenship.”
“It is a major challenge to the immigration process,” he said. “Israel is the Jewish homeland. Color is not a reason for people to be allowed to come. We have to ask if they are Jews. We need to know their roots, to assure that would-be immigrants are in fact Jews. If the people are, in fact, Jews, there is no question about bringing them home. Others must follow an ordinary legal process.”
Israel, Molla said, “is a privilege.”
“Jewish people came [to Israel] from 120 countries,” he said. “The idea of Israel as the Jewish homeland, Jews living together is creating a nefesh hadasha—a new soul. Israel is a country of colors—a mosaic society. What connects us is that we are all Jewish.”
Following his New York visit, Molla met with officials in Philadelphia on the second stop of his tour, then traveled to Atlanta and Chicago.
At his initial meeting with Molla, Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony H. Williams related a bit of humor.
“While waiting to clear security at the [Ben Gurion] airport, I noticed a group of black men waltzing through,” the senator said, according to the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia. Told they were Israelis, the senator responded, “That’s impossible. Jews don’t look like that.“
Molla told virtually the same story to JNS.org—in reverse. As a 16-year-old immigrant to Israel, his first encounter with Ashkenazy Jews evoked a similar reaction.
“I had never seen a white Jew!” he said.