Yediot Achronot, 24 Hours Magazine, May 17th 2023
They are the daughters of Prisoners of Zion who paved the way for the Jews and helped bring them from Ethiopia to Israel. Today they, too, breach barriers and break glass ceilings for young Ethiopian Israelis through their key positions at “Olim Beyahad”. As we mark the Memorial Day for Ethiopian Jews who perished on their way to Israel, we brought three Ethiopian Israeli women together to meet with Prisoner of Zion Herut Takala, whose life story is filled with heroism and courage. [The four women held] a discussion about Israeli society’s road to accepting Ethiopian Israelis and what still requires improvement.
By: Lior Ohana
Photos: Yuval Chen
From a young age, Herut Takala (75), who was born in Ethiopia, heard her parents’ stories about the Jewish country. When she received a proposition from the Jewish Agency of Israel to help Ethiopian Jews reach Israel, she did not think twice. As part of an underground mission, she helped hundreds of Jews reach Israel using fake documents, while risking her own life and the lives of her family members on a daily basis. This continued until the day she was caught and jailed for two years for her actions, during which time she was horribly tortured.
Takala, who was recognized as a Prisoner of Zion, lives in Israel today with her family. Her daughter, Tirsit Legasse Bishaw (43), is the VP of Program Development and Partnerships at Olim Beyahad, a non-profit organization that works to integrate Ethiopian Israelis in society. As we approached the Memorial Day for Ethiopian Jews who perished on the way to Israel, which is commemorated on Jerusalem Day, we sat down with Herut and three other women (including her daughter) whose parents paved the way to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel and now they, too, work to promote these same immigrants.
“In those days, Jews could not reach Israel easily,” she recalls, while her daughter translates from Amharic. “The slogan of those days was ‘Ethiopia for Ethiopians” – no one comes in and no one leaves. I studied nursing and my husband was a doctor. We would travel to different towns and villages and provide medical care, while our children were born on the way between these towns.”
“One day, I met with my oldest brother Melese Takele and he told me that we can help bring Jews to Israel. I agreed right away and we began our underground operations alongside American partners and the Jewish Agency for Israel. We would locate young adults and families in the villages, people lacking education, and then issue them work permits in Europe, forge their passports and scholarships. And then we would send them to Israel via Europe. This is also how we sent our siblings.
“One of our brothers who we sent warned us, ‘Don’t come here, it is a racist country.’ But that did not change a thing. I would host families from various countries until we would finish the preparations for them to travel to Israel. I was able to give vaccinations since I worked at a hospital, I did anything I could to help people reach the Jewish State.”
“You weren’t scared?” her daughter asks.
“Since we had strong faith that all Jews must move to Israel, I wasn’t scared for even a moment to do things that placed me in danger. I believed in my mission. From 1983 to 1986 when I was arrested, I helped thousands of people reach Israel. In 1991, they already received a formal approval to move to Israel and there was Operation Moses.”
How were you caught?
“One of the young men who worked with me and got paid got caught and snitched. He pointed at me and I was put in jail for two years.”
Tirsit Legasse, her daughter: “I was eight. No one prepared me for it. She just disappeared.”
Herut: “That day, they interrogated me, I was in solitary confinement for a month in the dark. Throughout that month, I only received a cup of tea and a piece of bread. They would take me to the interrogation room and beat me. They said, ‘We’ll break your Jewish head.’ But I didn’t tell them anything about anyone or about myself. I denied everything. Following two years in jail, I was supposed to be hung, but my oldest brother helped me get out of jail. He paid a huge sum of money and I was saved.”
In January 1990, Takala immigrated to Israel with her three youngest children. She was recognized as a Prisoner of Zion, moved to Holon, and worked at the Kirya Maternity Hospital in Tel Aviv. Later on she moved to Hadera and worked as a teacher for new immigrants until she retired, mediating and assisting immigrants in integrating into their new lives in Israel. She also served as a coordinator at a home for the elderly.
Senior Positions in the Workforce
For Herut’s daughter, Tirsit Legasse Bishaw (43), immigration to Israel was completely different. Tirsit is the VP of Program Development and Partnerships at Olim Beyahad, which enlists members of the Ethiopian Israeli community to create diversity and equal opportunities for all Ethiopian Israelis. More than anything, the organization proves that the Ethiopian Israeli community has long since progressed from where it was following the waves of immigration at the beginning of the journey. Today members of the Ethiopian Israeli community are integrated into senior positions in Israel’s workforce, in influential and leadership roles.
“My parents were not educated, but pushed us to obtain education; they understood it was the way to integrate,” says Yaffa Workeneh Lakua (33), a career consultant at Olim Beyahad and the coordinator of the organization’s graduates network. “I did my Bachelor’s Degree in business administration and today I’m studying law. When my parents immigrated to Israel, they saw the racism towards the [Ethiopian] community in Israeli society. It was surprising for them because they had already paid a heavy price to get here and at the end this is what they found. They pushed me to excel. If I came home with a 90 [on a test], my mother got angry and said, ‘Why not 100?’ This said, throughout my childhood, they always made sure to tell me about the culture they came from and the customs in Ethiopia so that we are proud of who we are.”
Yaffa Workeneh Lakua is the daughter of Prisoner of Zion Belay Workeneh, who immigrated to Israel in 1984 as part of Operation Moses. “My father was born in a village in Ethiopia,” she said. “When he grew up, he moved to his father’s village in the Gondar region, settled, and married. His village was in a very strategic location; people traveled through to continue to the neighboring Sudan.
“In the 1970’s, they began forming the path to Sudan. Ferede Aklum, a pioneer who paved the way for the Jews to reach Israel, came to my father’s village to look for confidants to help him construct the difficult path. He met my father and shared that he was forming a route and my father decided to help him. It meant endangering his life but he felt it was his mission. At that point, he was already a father of eight.
“They left in the middle of the night. A journey of hundreds of kilometers on difficult trails. There was a war in Ethiopia so the danger increased and they had to hide from armed forces in the area. My father was familiar with the area surrounding the village so he led. They tried not to draw attention and went through non-central routes so the path was harder and mountainous. The entire journey involved risking their lives with complete secrecy. And they did the whole thing on foot.
“Despite the difficult route, they were able to reach a certain point that was close to Sudan. That was the point at which they parted ways. Ferede of blessed memory began walking to Sudan and my father returned to the village. The authorities understood what happened, discovered what he did, and a group of police officers came to our house at 3am and began to beat him. He was tortured and jailed for two years. His first wife passed away and he had eight children waiting for him at home.
“During his imprisonment, he experienced physical and emotional abuse that remained with him for the rest of his life. After he was released from jail, he met my mother and began his rehabilitation. They had two children in Ethiopia. He then traveled along the same path that he had paved and they immigrated to Israel through Sudan during Operation Moses, following which they settled in Karmiel and my sister and I were born.”
“Then my father went to jail”
Yobsefer Melaku (57), the daughter of Prisoner of Zion Alaka (“leader” in Amharic) Metiku Sahalu, immigrated to Israel in 1983 and is fulfilling her father’s big dream, as he himself did not make it to Israel.
“I immigrated to Israel by myself,” she recounts. “They didn’t understand where I had come from; they said, ‘Who is that strange black girl?’. I answered, ‘I’m Jewish, this is my land,’ just like my father had explained to me.
“I was in an ulpan [an intensive Hebrew school] for one year and then I worked at various odd jobs. I did my Bachelor’s Degree and Master’s Degree in Education. Despite all of the difficulties, I had acquired motivation from my father, who had told me throughout my childhood how important it is to be here. My father was an activist and a Prisoner of Zion. When I was young, they would bring groups of people to our home who were preparing to immigrate to Israel. And he was the liaison. When the immigrations began through Sudan, he was one of the major activists there. They would come to our home with groups of people who would stay the night and then he would accompany them early the following morning. He did this for three years until he was caught. I remember that when we were children, we were forbidden to cry because if the neighbors would hear us, we would all go to jail. As a young girl, I didn’t understand why people came and went.
“And then my father went to jail. In Ethiopia, this isn’t an easy thing whatsoever. We didn’t see him for three months and then they only let us see him for two minutes. A year later, he was released. He was physically and mentally ill and malnourished. Despite everything, he still wanted to immigrate to Jerusalem, but he was in a bad state and he passed away several years later. I immigrated to Israel while he was still alive and I fulfilled his dream. I was 17. What excitement, Jerusalem, they told me it was paradise. We didn’t hear about all of the challenges and difficult things. I wasn’t scared at all.
“But from that point, it took time until the experience was complete. I didn’t have anyone to great me here, but I knew I was fulfilling my father’s dream. I remember asking him why he didn’t immigrate to Israel with everyone and he responded that he has a responsibility to help everyone get through [to Israel] and, at the end, when he reaches the point that he feels that he has done everything he could, he would join, too. I inherited my values of the importance of giving to others from my father. In Israel I knew that I would dedicate my life to helping Ethiopian Jews just like my father did.”
And that is exactly what she is doing as the coordinator of “Ariela” Youth Excellence Program at Olim Beyahad. “The organization was founded 16 years ago in light of the concerning data regarding Ethiopian Israeli university graduates,” explains Tirsit Legasse Bishaw. At the time, there were 4,500 Ethiopian Israelis who had graduated universities, but the majority were not employed in their professional fields. A decision was made to establish an organization that aims to transform the state of the Ethiopian Israeli community. Today, the vision is to change perspectives about the Ethiopian Israeli community. The more young adults there are who are employed in high-quality positions in various sectors in the workforce, the stronger the change that will be created in negative perceptions towards the [Ethiopian Israeli] community, while the community’s social mobility will increase.”
The organization works with young Ethiopian Israelis - from 7th-12th grade, throughout participants’ IDF service, during their university studies, and following their university graduation.” We work with “both sides of the coin”. On the one hand – Israeli society. We are obviously part of Israeli society, but we are still absent in the workforce. On the other hand – young Ethiopian Israelis. To explain to them that they really can do anything.”
Yafa Workeneh Lakua adds, “Our activities do not operate with the notion that the graduates don’t believe in themselves, rather from their experiences and the rejections they received. On the other hand, many times we encounter employers who want to employ [Ethiopian Israelis], but no Ethiopian Israelis applied because no one thought they could do it. And we want to say to both sides of the coin that we have a lot to offer. At a certain point, we would like to cease our operations and stop mediating, as there will be no need for it anymore.”
Yobsefer Melaku, Yaffa Workeneh Lakua and Tirsit Legasse Bishaw