Jerusalem: Negist Mengesha’s first venture in Israeli politics ended poorly. She ran in the 1994 Knesset elections on the slate of a small women’s party, none of whose candidates were elected.
Next week, Mengesha is a candidate again, No.15 on the slate of the Meretz party. If elected, she will become the first Ethiopian Jewish woman to serve in the Knesset.
"I am not only a symbol" of one immigrant group’s progress in Israeli society, she says. "My intention is to win."
Mengesha, a 49-year-old social worker who lives in Bat Ayin, says "I think I will be a role model" for other Ethiopian immigrants.
Born in a village "a three-hour walk" from Gondar in northern Ethiopia, she worked in the prison system there, came to Israel alone in 1984, earned her bachelor’s degree at Bar-Ilan University and master’s at Hebrew University and became an activist for fellow immigrants.
Six years ago she founded Fidel, the Association for Education and Social Integration of the Ethiopian, which sponsors a variety of cultural and family assistance programs.
As executive director of the association, as the former host of an Israeli television program geared to Ethiopian olim, and as an immigrant who was chosen to light a torch at the opening of Israel’s 50th anniversary celebration, Mengesha is a leader of the country’s 80,000-strong Ethiopian community.
While her candidacy is a symbol of the growing political strength of Israeli women (a coalition of Israeli women recently urged parties to increase women’s representation) and the growing electoral presence of Ethiopians (while they represent only one seat in the 120-member Knesset, more election pamphlets in Amharic are circulating this year), her candidacy in Tuesday’s election is still a longshot.
Meretz, a left-wing party, has 11 seats in the current Knesset, and public opinion polls indicate it will lose a few.
"No way" Meretz will elect 15 candidates, says Joseph Goell, a Jerusalem Post columnist and retired political science lecturer at Hebrew University.
Mengesha’s candidacy "is a first," Goell says. But, he adds, with security issues dominating, an immigrant running on a minor party ticket has attracted little notice.
"The whole Ethiopian issue is much more prominent among liberal, American Jews than in Israel," he says. In Israel, the uniqueness of an Ethiopian woman running for a Knesset seat "speaks to the sensibilities of left-wing, New Age cultural values."
Mengesha joined Meretz, a fiercely secular party with an antireligious reputation that brought the first Arab woman and the first openly homosexual to the Knesset, two years ago. Meretz, she says, "is the only party that gives attention to the Ethiopian issue."
Mengesha says she received several mazel tov letters and faxes from Ethiopian olim when selected to the Meretz list. If elected, she will be the second Ethiopian in the Knesset: an Ethiopian man from Labor served one term a decade ago.
If not, she’s looking ahead to the next Knesset elections.
"If not now," Mengesha says, "next time."