The newly elected deputy speaker of Israel's parliament, or Knesset, Shlomo Molla has been sharing his dramatic personal story during a U.S. visit. The Israeli politician was born in Ethiopia, and he speaks about his arduous escape and of challenges he faced in his adopted country.
A black Ethiopian Jew, Shlomo Molla is a member of the minority called Beta Israel that has survived for centuries in small communities in northern Ethiopia. He says before his arrival in Israel in 1984, he had seen few white people, but after he arrived was surrounded by them.
He was determined to adapt, learning Hebrew and starting to make a life in his new country.
Molla recalls he had grown up with the idea of one day reaching the historic Jewish homeland. “I came to Israel in 1984, when I was a young teenager. And I left my family behind, and I left my nine brothers and two sisters, and I said, I have to go to Zion, to Jerusalem," he said.
It was a grueling journey for Molla and the other young men with him. “Through the desert, through the jungles, no food, no shoes. And after we walked 780 kilometers, we came inside Sudan, we were arrested by Sudanese," he said.
Sudanese troops shot at the group, killing Molla's friend and jailing the survivors for 91 days. “We were tortured by Sudanese. They said we are the spies of Israel. They said we are the spies of Ethiopia. We said we are not," he said.
At the end of three months, the young men were released to a refugee camp, where they met and were helped by an agent of the Israeli intelligence service. “He was a white person. That was my second time to meet a white person. And he was speaking our language, Amharic. He was an amazing person," he said.
They made their way north to the town of Kassala, Sudan, where they were flown to Israel.
Three larger operations in the 1980s and '90s, called Operation Moses, Operation Joshua and Operation Solomon, rescued thousands more of the Ethiopian Jews. More were given help to relocate in recent years, but thousands of others died making the journey, mostly from hunger.
For centuries, Ethiopia's tiny Jewish community had lived alongside Christians and Muslims, often facing persecution.
Today, most have made the journey to Israel. Molla says 130,000 Ethiopian Jews live there, and 30 percent of them are Israeli-born. Others who remain in Ethiopia are mostly Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, but have since returned to the practice of Judaism. Called Falash Mura, their status is debated in Israel, but the nation has accepted some as immigrants.
Molla says many Ethiopian Jews are doing well in Israel, especially the younger ones, who include lawyers, doctors and diplomats. Molla is the second Israeli Ethiopian to join the Knesset. “But my parents, my father, my mother, my uncles, those people who came at the age of 50 and 45 and up, it is very difficult for them. They do not know the language. They are working, but they always get minimum salary because they are not professionals. And it is difficult," he said.
Trained in Israel as a social worker and lawyer, Shlomo Molla is involved in helping his fellow Israeli Ethiopians. As a leading member of the opposition Kadima party, he is also involved in national issues and promotes renewed negotiations with the Palestinian authority, saying a two-state solution is the only path to Mideast peace. He will take up his duties as deputy speaker of the Knesset in late October.
He believes Israeli Ethiopians can play an important role in their country's future. He says he is heartened by the election of an African-American, Barack Obama, as U.S. president in 2008. He notes that it took two centuries to accomplish that. “But I hope in Israel, it is not going to take 200 years. I hope in a few years, we will have a prime minister in Israel," he said.
Molla spoke in Los Angeles at the Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts, a synagogue housed in an historic theater with many members in the entertainment business. He had other speaking engagements in Chicago, New York and Boston.