At a crowded Starbucks in the center of Houston, an Israeli two years ago described her life as a pioneer.
Belaynesh Zevadia, native of Ethiopia, had served as Israel’s first Ethiopian-born diplomat.
Zevadia, who had come to Israel as a teenager and worked with new immigrants for the Jewish Agency during Israel’s 1984 Operation Moses airlift from her homeland and graduated from Hebrew University with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a M.A. in anthropology and African studies, was the first Ethiopian Jews accepted into the training program for Israeli diplomatic representatives under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry. She served in Chicago, then in Houston, as deputy consul – in both cases, the first Ethiopian at the cities’ respective consulates.
In 2010, after five years in Houston, she was returning to Israel, and she was talking about her experiences in the Southwest.
Her job, she said, was to put forward the best face of Israel – and her face helped, “I’m black, I’m Jewish, I’m a woman,” she said. “That’s my message.”
Most people she met on the job hadn’t met a black Jew, let alone a female one. “You could see faces changing” as soon as she walked in. “They could see Israel isn’t a racist country.”
Israel is still struggling with the absorption of its more than 120,000 members of Ethiopian families; the Ethiopian community suffers from problems like high rates of drug use and high school dropouts; claims of discrimination at the hands of the majority white establishment are common. Zevadia’s life, she would say, is proof of what is possible. “My success is the success of the Ethiopians.”
Lee Wunsch, executive director of Houston’s Jewish federation, said Zevadia helped break down stereotypes about Israel and the Jewish people.
Now 44, she is in the news again. Appointed Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia earlier this year, she took her post in Addis Ababa last month.
Zevadia is the first Ethiopian Jew to serve as an Israeli ambassador anywhere; and, of course, the first to become ambassador to Ethiopia.
“The appointment is a message to the Israeli, public – In Israel, people are chosen based in their ability to serve the public, rather than their skin color or sex,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said.
“I made aliyah as a youth and am returning to Ethiopian as an ambassador,” Zevadia said.
Nearly three decades after she became an Israeli, two years after she left Houston, she is still making firsts.