Stu Bykofsky: Ethiopian Jew who became an Israeli politician meets with black leaders in Philly

Shlomo Molla (left), Israeli Knesset deputy speaker, meets with reporters before a cultural-exchange luncheon at the law offices of Kleinbard Bell & Brecker at 1 Liberty Place. With him are Yaron Sideman (center), Israel's counsel general in Philly, and state Sen. Anthony H. Williams. (Stu Bykofsky / Staff)
Shlomo Molla (left), Israeli Knesset deputy speaker, meets with reporters before a cultural-exchange luncheon at the law offices of Kleinbard Bell & Brecker at 1 Liberty Place. With him are Yaron Sideman (center), Israel's counsel general in Philly, and state Sen. Anthony H. Williams. (Stu Bykofsky / Staff)
Posted: September 11, 2012

STATE SEN. Anthony H. Williams was telling a story about his first visit to Israel, about 15 years ago.

While waiting to clear security at the airport, he noticed a group of black men waltzing through.

Taking them to be African tourists, he asked why they didn't have to wait in line.

"They're Israelis," he was told.

"That's impossible," he responded. "Jews don't look like that."

He prefaced the story with an admission that his information about Israel at that time was "limited" and "ignorant."

A nearly identical story was told by Shlomo Molla, the deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament (called the Knesset), who was born and reared in an isolated Jewish village in the mountains of Ethiopia.

A white tourist arrived one day who identified himself as Jewish.

Molla's reaction: "There are no white Jews."

Each was living in a silo of his own experience, which did not reflect the true picture, and each spoke Friday at a cultural-exchange luncheon at a Center City law firm hosted by Williams and City Council President Darrell Clarke, both African-American.

A number of African-American leaders attended and the purpose, Williams told me, was to "truth-tell" and help rekindle the historically close relationship between American Jews and blacks.

I interviewed Molla right before that lunch. It was two days after a fight over language in the Democratic national platform that eliminated - and then restored, with a less-than-convincing voice vote - language accepting Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.

Also deleted was language in previous platforms calling for the Palestinian terror group Hamas to be isolated by the U.S. and the West until it renounced violence. That remained deleted, taking pressure off the terrorists sworn to eradicating Israel. "To say Hamas can be a partner for peace is naive," Molla said.

From 1948, when Jordan occupied half of Jerusalem during Israel's War of Independence, to 1967, when Israel liberated the city, Jewish holy places were desecrated or destroyed and Jews were barred. Since 1967, under Israeli control, the city has been opened to all faiths, including Islam.

In 1983, at age 16, Molla left his village in Ethiopia and joined the black Jews airlifted by Israel to Israel, where he received citizenship, housing and education. Within 10 years almost everyone from his village, and 250 other Jewish Ethiopian villages, were whisked to new lives in Israel, free from religious persecution. It has been called the first time in history that blacks were removed from Africa to be free citizens instead of slaves.

As to Jerusalem, Molla said it would be a "big mistake" for Israel to involve itself in American politics, and he declined to do so.

Given his personal history, he says that claims - such as by retired South African Bishop Desmond Tutu - that Israel is "apartheid" are both "unfair" and "very bad."

Israel and America share the same political and cultural values, he told me, and both are "immigrant nations," with 120 nationalities represented in Israel.

Almost one-quarter of Israel's citizens are Arab, with the same rights as Jewish (and Christian) citizens. They have the right to vote and elect Arabs to the Knesset, which they do, and those members have the right to stand in Knesset and condemn Israeli policy, which they do.

Enshrined in Israeli policy is freedom of religion. The government protects - it does not desecrate - churches and mosques. How many Muslim-majority countries welcome, or even tolerate, outside faiths?

Merchants of "apartheid" attach that libel to Israel alone, while ignoring states that actually practice it.

Tutu is viewing the world from his silo.


Contact Stu Bykofsky at stubyko@phillynews.com or 215-854-5977. Join Stu on Facebook. For recent columns, go to philly.com/Byko.

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