When he was 10 years old, Shimon Solomon and his family walked for weeks from Shire Indaselassie, a small town in northern Ethiopia, to the Sudanese border — the start of a journey they believed would end with the life they were meant to live in Israel.
“We walked every day, and sometimes during the night because we had to hide from the regime,” he recalled. “If they caught you, you’d be in big trouble, it was terrible. Sometimes we hid in the bushes during the day, and walked at night.” At one point, after days of trekking through the desert and with no water left in the jerrycan, his father thought the boy would not make it.
“I still remember until today, how my father, as he saw me about to die, spat inside my throat, trying to do something to keep me alive.”
Eventually, fellow voyagers managed to procure some water and today, 23 years after that life-threatening walk to freedom, Solomon is a member of Knesset for Yesh Atid, one of two lawmakers from the new centrist party who were born in Ethiopia. (Penina Tamanu-Shata, the first Ethiopian-born woman to be elected to Israel’s parliament, immigrated to Israel in 1984, at age 4.)
On the occasion of Israel’s 65th Independence Day, The Times of Israel spoke to Solomon, 44, about his remarkable journey from a village in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, via Khartoum and Athens, to the halls of power in Jerusalem. Even after he survived the arduous pilgrimage and arrived in the Holy Land, life here was at times very difficult, Solomon recalled. Yet his conviction that it is the duty of every Jew to immigrate to Israel, live here and stay here no matter what, remained unshakable.
Solomon was born in August 1968 and grew up in a small village called Bet Marya. All local Jews adhered to some sort of Jewish practice and dreamed of coming to Israel. “We came to the Diaspora after the First Temple was destroyed, before the Mishna was written. So we lived according to the written Torah,” he said. They lit no fire on Shabbat and kept ritual purity laws, and his family slaughtered a lamb every year as a Passover sacrifice.
Coming to the Promised Land was the overarching yearning of his youth, he emphasized.
“We always knew that we were Jewish and that we would want to leave,” reminisced Solomon. “That was the most important thing — we are Jewish. Our entire education, by our parents and the rabbis, was based on this one message: we are here temporarily. In our minds, nothing was important, not our houses, not anything else. At the first opportunity to go to Israel, we will have to leave without looking back.”
One day in 1980, Solomon — who at the time was still known by his Ethiopian name, Teshome — his parents and five siblings made the decision that the time had come to fulfill their Zionist yearning. They didn’t want to raise the suspicions of the Ethiopian authorities, so all family members left the house separately and at different times. Once reunited outside the city, they just started walking toward the Sudanese border, where they hoped the Mossad would help them get to Israel.
‘The first Shabbat in Israel was the shock of our lives: we saw people driving. We were asking ourselves, are we in the right place?’
Although he was unable to bid his friends farewell, unable to even hint to them that he would never see them again, Solomon says he was always determined to leave.
“When we talked about this [making aliya], we were smiling,” he said. “When you want to be happy, you think of good things that make you smile. When we talked about Jerusalem, it was pure happiness.”
Even today, sitting in a Jerusalem café all these years later, wearing a light-gray suit and a blue shirt and tie and sporting smart rimless glasses, Solomon radiates enthusiasm when he recalls the moment he realized that this might be last time he was seeing those childhood friends. “There was no ambivalence. Of course you feel something inside when you leave your friends, but really — [the journey to Israel] is the ultimate thing you can do.”
As the eight Solomons embarked on the trip, other Ethiopian Jews from small villages along the way joined the trek, he recalled. In the end, a group of 90 Jews walked together, for about 700 kilometers.
“They had no map, they just knew each other, just met somehow, and walked together, for one month, until we reached the border,” Solomon said.
The Solomons participated in Operation Brothers (1979-83) — before the better-known Operation Moses (1984-85) and Operation Solomon (1991) — which brought more than 20,000 Ethiopian Jews, Beta Israel, to Israel. About 24,000 attempted the journey via Sudan — some on donkeys and horses, some by foot — but 4,500 died on the way, according to Solomon. He himself remembers fearing for his life more than once during the trip.
“This is my power, this is my motivation now,” the legislator, a polite and soft-spoken yet ambitious man, said, abruptly bringing the conversation back to politics. “I always remember this journey: what did I do this for? To be here. But now that I’m here, it’s not enough just to be here,” he said, adding that in achieving his initial goals — integrating into Israeli society, obtaining a good job and raising a family — he always drew strength from that trip through the desert.
Once the Solomons and their fellow travelers crossed the border into Sudan, the family stayed in a small village and tried to contact the Mossad for further instructions. Solomon’s father finally met a Mossad agent, who initiated the immigration process by asking for passport photos of all family members. Their next stop was the city of Al Qadarif, where the young Solomon met Ibrahim, an Eritrean shopkeeper who grew fond of the boy because he reminded him of his own son.
“I started to work for him every day. After two weeks, I started to wear a jalabiya [a traditional Arab garment] and started speaking in Arabic,” Solomon recalled. He sold matches, oil, bread, spices and other such items, and Ibrahim helped the family find a place to stay until the Mossad was ready to take them out of the country. “It was great. I started making some money for the family. We had nothing.”
After four months in Al Qadarif, the Israeli agents drove the Solomons to Khartoum, where amid much secrecy they boarded a plane to Athens. At the time, the Mossad flew out families individually, unlike the subsequent mass airlifts.
“This is the first time we’re flying,” Solomon recalled. “We don’t know what we’re doing, we don’t know anything. We just trusted people. They always told us: ‘Go to this place, somebody will wait for you there. And then someone will come and tell you X, and you respond Y, and follow instructions.’ And that’s we did.”
At the airport in Greece, the Solomons saw an El Al plane for the first time. “After we saw the Star of David — I can’t describe this feeling,” Solomon said, his eyes still shining with patriotism. At that point, even before they reached and kissed the ground of the Holy Land, they knew that their exodus had succeeded.
In Israel, the Solomons’ initial stop was an absorption center in Beersheba. “The first Shabbat was the shock of our lives: we saw people driving on Shabbat,” Solomon said. “We were asking ourselves, are we in the right place? Are we in Israel? It was a real shock. How can it be that people are driving on Shabbat?” Today Solomon has no problem driving his Ford Mondeo on Shabbat, but in Ethiopia this was unheard of, he added.
Israeli secularism wasn’t the only thing that caught Solomon off guard. At the time, officials routinely gave Ethiopian immigrants new Hebrew names, ignoring the newcomers’ traditional Ethiopian monikers. However, the Amharic names Ethiopian parents give their children are full of meaning, often describing a crucial part of family history.
To the Israeli clerk who worked with the Solomons, his birth name, Teshome, apparently sounded like Shimon, and so he received that arbitrary name, and still uses it. But Teshome, Amharic for “he got promoted,” has a very deep, almost prophetic significance, Solomon said. “It means exactly what happened to me: Teshome, appointed to a senior position, in government or whatever. That’s apparently what my parents dreamed of.”
After he was sworn in a lawmaker in the 19th Knesset in February, his mother cried, with elation, “We gave you a name and it became true,” he recalled. “You’re in the Knesset, what else can you wish for?”
Solomon’s path from absorption center to parliament was full of challenges. First of all, he had to learn Hebrew. He became conversational within a few months, and after two years in Beersheba, moved to a youth aliya village in a different city, where there were only two other Ethiopians. He struggled initially in school, mostly because of language problems, but soon became a good student with excellent grades.
In the army, Solomon served in a paratroop unit. After a few years, he left a promising career as an officer (he is a major in the reserves) to study social work and later education. While at university, he supported himself by working part time, and after completing his master’s degree took on a position as an adviser to several education ministers. In 2001, after working with Likud minister Limor Livnat, Solomon left to work for an organization that helped Ethiopian-Israeli academics without jobs.
‘Right now, we’re still in the middle of the work, so it is difficult. But I believe it will be better in the future’
From 2005 until 2007, he served as a consul in the Israeli missions in Addis Ababa and Gondar, before going back to the absorption center in Beersheba — this time as director. In 2008, Solomon again returned to Africa, to direct the Education and Training Youth Village “Aghuzo – Peace” for orphans and young genocide survivors in Rwanda. Coming back to Israel in 2012, Solomon, who is divorced and has three children, contacted Yair Lapid and became a co-founder of Yesh Atid. The party leader plainly recognized Solomon’s quietly charismatic leadership skills, his love of Israel, his resilience, and his determination: He was placed at No. 12 on the party’s Knesset slate, and easily made it into parliament in January’s elections.
In the Knesset, Solomon wants to focus on the fight against racism directed both against black Israelis and non-Jewish African asylum seekers. Besides being an alternate member of the important Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he sits on committees dealing with foreign workers and on the Labor, Welfare and Health Committee. He chairs four Knesset lobbies, including one for Ethiopian immigrant soldiers and another advocating for higher education among Ethiopian immigrants.
For now, he’s a Knesset backbencher. But even politicos from rival parties say that the 44-year-old has a promising future, with one official from a far-right party calling Solomon “special, not like other MKs.”
‘It doesn’t make sense to have racism in Israel’
Solomon, who lives in Ashdod, said he has never faced violent racism in Israel, or even suffered verbal abuse. “Generally, Israelis are good people,” he asserted. “This country was built on the ashes of the Holocaust; it doesn’t make sense to have racism here.”
But everyday bigotry against dark-skinned people exists, he noted. “Racism that’s physical and visible to the eye is easier to combat,” he opined. “Hidden racism is much worse, like people who wouldn’t give you a job because of your origins.”
He himself was once told by a potential employer that though he was overqualified for the job, he would not be hired because “people wouldn’t take it well,” Solomon said.
“Racist people are the minority but they make a lot of noise. It’s a big problem and we have to fight it,” he added. How so? In the short term, by better enforcing existing laws, and in the long haul, by improving education. “We also have to take steps within Ethiopian society, to become a part of [Israeli] society,” he said. “We cannot continue living as if we’re still in Ethiopia — we’re in Israel.” While it is important to keep one’s traditions, it is also crucial for immigrants to change in order to better fit in, he said.
Despite all hardships immigrants face here — be they from Ethiopia, the US or anywhere else — every Jew in the world has a holy duty to make Israel his or her home, Solomon still insists. “Generally, I think that all Jews’ place is in Israel. Still, when I see Diaspora communities and how they help protect Israel, in universities and parliaments — they are our best ambassadors.”
He has little sympathy for Jews leaving Israel to seek greener pastures abroad. “They should stay,” he said resolutely. “This is your country. Imagine what would happen if everybody who had difficulties left. I don’t judge, but I don’t accept it.”
After all, Israel is only 65 years old, and all beginnings are difficult, he added. “We’re still in the middle of the work, so it is difficult,” he said. “It will be better and better in the future.”