First Ethiopian Executive Slated for Confirmation

The first Ethiopian member of World Zionist Organization executive is slated to be confirmed tomorrow, the closing day of the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. Shlomo Mola, who now serves as the Jewish Agency’s senior consultant for Ethiopian immigrants, will head the department for Zionist institutions. A representative of Kadima, Mola was number 33 on the party’s list and missed the Knesset cutoff. Now he is being tapped to become the first Ethiopian executive in an Israeli national institution.

The nomination is especially significant, since his confirmation would mark the first time an Ethiopian immigrant has been elected to a key leadership position within the Zionist establishment that does not deal specifically with the Ethiopian sector. “It was Olmert’s idea to have an Ethiopian deal with non-Ethiopian issues,” said one WZO insider. “It was a way of showing that after 20 years in Israel, Ethiopians can be the boss of run-of-the-mill Israeli bureaucrats. The idea is that it shouldn’t be looked at as strange, that Ethiopians have already become mainstream Israelis.”

Mola, who met with Haaretz yesterday, said that nominations like his are critical to the success of the Ethiopian sector in Israel. “If we want to absorb Ethiopians properly, you can’t allow them to work only with Ethiopian issues. You need also to give them responsibility for other issues in the Jewish world so that an Ethiopian ghetto is not created.” His nomination for the WZO executive, Mola added, is Prime Minister Olmert’s way of “sending a message to all of Israel that I am capable and that Ethiopians can handle a leading position.”

Mola, 39, is a self-made man in every respect and is not – in his own words – a member of the privileged classes from Tel Aviv or the upscale Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia. In many ways, Mola is also something of a walking poster boy for the Zionist dream. Born in a small farming village in the Gondar region of Ethiopia, he is the sixth of 11 children. “I was raised loving Zion, Jerusalem and Israel. I knew that there was a Promised Land and that we were only in Ethiopia temporarily – even if temporarily was 2,500 years.”

As a teenager in 1983, Mola left his village with a group of Jewish friends and began walking toward Sudan barefoot, hoping to cross through Egypt and eventually reach Israel. They walked day and night through deserts until they reached the Sudanese border, after which they were arrested and detained for three months. They were released, placed in a refugee camp and later airlifted to Israel via Operation Moses. His parents and siblings were left behind in Ethiopia and at age 17, he was alone in a new country.

“I lived here alone, without parents, without family. I didn’t know where I was and it was hard for me. Very hard. I came with a sense of euphoria and a dream, but all of a sudden, I realized that Jerusalem was not covered with gold and that not everyone here was righteous. I was a Zionist with my feet and I walked through the desert to live and breathe Zionism. But I paid a price for my Zionism.”

As a new immigrant, he enrolled in an ulpan, matriculated, studied social work at Bar- Ilan University and then enrolled in the army. He became the manager of an absorption center for the Jewish Agency, moved up within the organization’s ranks and also earned a law degree in the process. He was the Jewish Agency’s senior consultant for Ethiopian immigrants when former Prime Minster Ariel Sharon asked him to join Kadima. “I told him that when the Prime Minister asks, I can’t refuse,” Mola recalled with a smile.

In his new position, Mola is responsible for the committee to fight anti-Semitism, the Israel Zionist Council and the Zionist archives, among others issues. But he says that the appointment means more than just prestige. “Until 1973, Israel didn’t recognize Ethiopian Jews as Jews. They said that there was no such thing as a black Jew. Now, a black Jew is a member of the WZO executive. It the realization of a dream. It’s taken more than 100 years [since the start of the World Zionist Congress] but I was now given this role and it symbolizes something very special.”

“The path that I have begun will hopefully allow other Ethiopian youth to be motivated, to realize that they are also capable,” he added. “I hope that it is just a start and that it will continue to open more doors.”


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