TAU Alumna Brings Authentic Voice to Politics and Beyond

Pnina Tameno Shete, Israel’s first Ethiopian minister, wields global influence in key government position
28 February 2022
Pnina Tameno Shete (center) with Kesim, spiritual leaders of Israel’s Ethiopian community

As a TAU student, Pnina Tameno Shete knew she had made it when a senior government official gave a guest lecture about a campaign she led on behalf of Israel’s Ethiopian community. He cited it as an example of how to effectively realize social change.


Tameno Shete, who earned a master’s degree in public policy from TAU in 2018, is Israel’s first Ethiopian-born minister, heading the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration since 2020.

Her appointment as minister and second-in-command to Blue and White Party Chairman and Defense Minister Benny Gantz (another TAU alumnus) is the most recent in a long line of breakthrough achievements for Tameno Shete, who arrived in Israel at the age of 3.

Like thousands of her Jewish compatriots, Tameno Shete trekked through the desert with her family from her native Ethiopia to Sudan, and from there was airlifted to Israel in 1984. Her pregnant mother and sister were left behind, and the family was reunited only a year later.


During the journey, people “fell like flies,” she says. “There was no burial there. It took decades for us to start talking about it.” In total, nearly 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died on their way to Israel.             Tameno Shete as a child


“People spoke about the Hercules airplanes that landed and rescued us. There was a heroic secret mission, but … the real heroes are the Ethiopian Jews who completed that harrowing journey.”

Despite the difficulties her family encountered, Tameno Shete fell in love with Israel and the Hebrew language immediately. “I was more Israeli than the Israelis,” she says.

At the same time, she felt different, whether it was when a neighborhood boy threw a rock at her and used a racist slur, or when the school counselor didn’t believe that she and her sisters could have such good grades as new immigrants.


As a teenager, she led a protest against Israel’s rejection of blood donations from citizens of Ethiopian descent. She felt an instinctive urge to fight for her place—and that of her community—in Israeli society. “I come from a very strong family in terms of values, but my parents didn’t know anything about the law or rights.” She pursued a bachelor’s degree in law because she saw the courts as a hub of power through which she could effect change. During her undergraduate studies, she was active in the Ethiopian student union and became its deputy leader.


No one wanted to hear about their plight, she says. “We felt like orphans; no opinion leaders lent their voice to help us."


“People said we had integration difficulties. And I said, ‘These are not integration difficulties. I made aliyah at age 3. This is about the color of our skin, about stereotypes and prejudices, about racism.’ I wanted to live at peace in the society which I loved, as an equal.”


Tameno Shete at the Knesset

She went on to become a reporter for Israel’s public TV channel. “I understood that if we didn’t appear on TV screens, if Israelis didn’t hear us and see us, nothing would change,” she says. Yet, she soon realized that the best way to influence society was through politics and, in 2013, she was elected to the Knesset.

Tameno Shete believes in higher education as a tool to empower Israel’s Ethiopian community and other marginalized groups. As such, she enthusiastically endorses a new campaign by TAU and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in collaboration with the Canadian Goodman Foundation to provide scholarships and support services to hundreds of Israeli students of Ethiopian descent.


Moreover, Tameno Shete insists that integration toward equality must continue in the workforce and society at large. She says that Israelis of Ethiopian descent earn 40% less than the average Israeli—an unacceptable situation—and that they are still disproportionately represented among Jewish Israelis with criminal records. 


In light of this situation, Tameno Shete uses her influence to “bring our criticism to center stage, to the top of the public agenda, to speak about these things relentlessly.”


She did this notably as a leader of a protest movement in 2015 which saw thousands of community youth take to the streets to demonstrate against police brutality and discrimination. Since then, the number of Israelis of Ethiopian descent in juvenile correction facilities has dropped drastically. Tameno Shete attributes the swift change to higher public awareness due to the success of the campaign.


Subsequently, Tameno Shete enrolled in TAU’s School of Public Policy, Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences, while on break from the Knesset.  She describes her time at TAU as “amazing” because of the exceptional professors and the comprehensive understanding it gave her of public policy.


​​​When she was appointed to head the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, TAU Prof. Itai Sened, now Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, called to congratulate her and offer support and guidance. “That made me so happy and proud,” she says. Similarly, she occasionally calls her TAU professors for consultation on various issues.


Tameno Shete at her graduation ceremony from TAU in 2018, with her children and current Dean of Social Sciences Prof. Itai Sened. Photo: Yael Tzur


As a high-ranking civil servant, she works to promote equal representation of her community in the public sector and beyond. Among recent senior appointments she cites Aleligne Admasu, Israel’s Ambassador to Ethiopia and another TAU alumnus.


Among her priorities as Minister is the completion of a large-scale operation to bring thousands of first-degree relatives of Israelis on aliyah from Ethiopia, most of whom have been separated from their families for decades. Two thousand children of Israeli citizens have already arrived, and Tameno Shete is working intensively through the Knesset and the courts to ensure those remaining in Ethiopia soon follow.


Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, she ensured that the gates of aliyah remained open and launched a hotline in several languages for immigrants experiencing mental distress. She notes that the Ministry is in constant contact with Jewish communities abroad to facilitate aliyah and pays special attention to danger areas such as Ukraine. In fact, the Ministry is currently leading national efforts to absorb Ukrainian immigrants fleeing the war in their country.


Tameno Shete is one of 90,000 members of the TAU Alumni Organization, headed by Sigalit Ben Hayoun, which leverages the influence of TAU alumni for good and serves its members through shared knowledge, networking and opportunities.


Having broken several “glass ceilings,” Tameno Shete sees herself not only as a representative of the Ethiopian community but of other groups as well. “One of the most important milestones in my life was when I swore allegiance to Israel as a Member of Knesset and Deputy Knesset Speaker at age 31. I remember thinking how important that moment was…not just for Israelis of Ethiopian descent, but for many children who started out from a very low point.” 


- By Melanie Takefman

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