Avraham Kahati: A clandestine rescuer of Ethiopian Jews

The average person would recognize the two most famous airlifts from Ethiopia to Israel: Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. Yet virtually nobody knows about the efforts of Kahati.

Avraham and Ghent Kahati (photo credit: Courtesy)
Avraham and Ghent Kahati
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Anyone who observes Avraham Kahati living a relatively ordinary life in Jerusalem likely cannot imagine that behind the façade of normalcy lies a true hero — a little-known protagonist in the dramatic story of aliyah from Ethiopia.
The average person who is knowledgeable about recent Jewish history would recognize the two most famous airlifts from Ethiopia to Israel: Operation Moses in 1984-1985, aiding the arrival of 6,364 immigrants, and Operation Solomon in 1991, bringing 14,000 immigrants. Yet virtually nobody knows about the efforts of Kahati.
Born in 1938 in the Ethiopian village of Ambo, Kahati initially worked as a teacher in a school founded by his father. In 1955, together with fellow young adults who longed for Zion, he initiated a boarding school in which Ethiopian Jews received an education from The Jewish Agency for Israel and strengthened their connection with the State of Israel.
It was just the tip of the iceberg. During the next 15 years, Kahati and his colleagues opened 37 Jewish schools throughout Ethiopia’s Gondar district. Collectively, the academies cultivated a sense of Zionism – and a strong desire to immigrate to the Holy Land – among their students.
The unfolding story of Pantenesh is part of the illustrious history of Ethiopian Aliyah. Since the early 1950s, The Jewish Agency has assisted more than 90,000 Ethiopians with their immigration to Israel.
Immigration goes underground
In 1977, everything changed. When Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam rose to power, Ethiopian aliyah needed to become a clandestine effort – managed by the Israeli government along with The Jewish Agency. The Israel Defense Forces and the Mossad began bringing Ethiopian Jews to safety in Israel, and The Jewish Agency welcomed and absorbed the refugees, housing them in youth villages and special sites established for this purpose.
During this sensitive period, groups of tourists from America and Israel would visit Ethiopia to meet with local Jews. These visits created growing suspicion by the Ethiopian government, which believed that the Jewish community was conspiring against the regime along with the Americans. The government proceeded to impose restrictions on Jews such as banning the study of the Hebrew language.
In response, Ethiopian Jewish activists and the Israeli government both understood the urgent need to ramp up their clandestine efforts. One attempted secret immigration mission, led by Mossad agent Zimna Berhani, failed when the group of 15 was caught on the way to Kenya.
Later, Kahati met with Dr. Gabriel Barkai to discuss the details of a rescue mission that would instead go through Sudan. Kahati found guides who knew the roads well and would lead the journey. One family traveled first to ensure that the itinerary was feasible – and they were successful. But it turned out to be too soon to declare victory.
“Dr. Barkai decided to spread the word among the community: we can reach Israel via Sudan,” recalls Kahati. “At that point we formed a group of 50 youths who would escape Ethiopia through Sudan. They were caught on the way and were taken into custody, and authorities issued a deportation order. They were forced to return.”
A fateful conversation — with a dog
Yet Dr. Barkai asked Kahati to persist. Kahati continued to try to help Ethiopian Jews reach Sudan as independent groups, and then bring them to The Jewish Agency upon their arrival. The secret missions began to take shape and to succeed. Sudan captured some refugees, but most managed to reach Sudan and, ultimately, Israel.
Most of the refugees who got caught were tortured in prison. Fearing the Ethiopian government’s rising awareness of the activities, Kahati was forced to flee his home.
“Ironically, the reason they did not catch Avraham was because he worked for The Jewish Agency and its 37 schools in Gondar,” explains his wife, Ghent Kahati. “The Jewish Agency routinely provided him with the knowledge to escape the government agents before they would arrive.”
One time, when the authorities were searching for Kahati under a bed in his home, he was able to escape the house and run into the forest. The family’s dog, ever loyal, followed him into the woods.
“I said to the dog, ‘I cannot return, but please tell my family I’m fine,’” Kahati says. “The dog understood what I said and returned to our home. When he barked, I knew that my family was aware that I was OK, even though they feared I was in danger and missed me very much.”
Walking, and working, in Sudan
And so Kahati, now separated from his wife and eight children, was tasked with making the same journey to Israel – by foot – that he had organized for many others. But he needed to pay his own way there.
“Walking through Sudan was extremely difficult,” Kahati says. “The poisonous snakes were rising before my eyes. And I had no water. But I was extremely lucky, as one of the Ethiopians gave me a donkey and told me, ‘When you get to the Sudan send me salt,’ which was scarce in Ethiopia. After days of walking, another fellow traveler took pity on me and changed the bandages on my legs.”
Subsequently, the refugee camp in El-Gadarif, Sudan, was a “slow, hard, and nerve-racking experience,” he says. “The place was full of criminals. I was just looking for a place to lay my head.”
In the meantime, he learned that four of his children were on their way to Israel through another rescue mission. Yet Kahati stayed in Sudan. Berhani, the Mossad agent, assigned him tasks such as recording the names of Ethiopian Jews who remained in the villages back home, and to transfer the Jews from the Sudanese refugee camp to a secret collection point in Athens, from where they would eventually be sent to Israel.
After a year of working at the camp, Kahati moved to Sudan’s capital of Khartoum, where one of his tasks was arranging food for the refugees who were waiting for their clandestine flights to Athens. He hid the food in various containers to avoid suspicion by the local authorities.
“The work of rescuing Jews was a very dangerous job, very difficult,” Kahati says. “Sudan was and remains a hostile country. The route through Sudan was treacherous; it passed over a narrow bridge and the refugee groups had to travel quickly to avoid being caught by Sudanese soldiers.”
Kahati recounts one story in which he was able to secure milk formula for a baby whose mother had died on the way to Israel, and another time when a boy needed urgent tongue surgery.
“Years later, the boy met me in Israel and thanked me for saving his life,” says Kahati. “In those moments, there’s some satisfaction that covers up the suffering I endured.”
‘We were determined to survive’
Back home in Ethiopia, Ghent says she and her four children who remained there “knew that Avraham had very difficult work in Sudan. I worked to support our family and the children prayed for their father, both at synagogue and at home. We were determined to survive.”
“The authorities came every Friday and Saturday to our home and turned the house upside down, threatening to turn us in,” she says.
Ghent eventually sent the four children to Sudan for their treks to Israel.
“I was very worried about their fate,” she says. “It was a difficult experience for them. One of the older men in the group took my children under his wing and helped them reach Israel, miraculously.”
Coming full circle
Today, the story of Avraham Kahati makes up an unknown chapter in the broader tale of the over 90,000 Ethiopians who have immigrated to Israel with the assistance of The Jewish Agency.
Last October, 63 Jews from Ethiopia arrived in Israel as part of The Jewish Agency’s current effort to reunite the families of Ethiopian immigrants in the Jewish state – both facilitating their transportation to the country and helping them transition to life in their new home. Another 83 of some 1,000 approved by the government arrived in January 2019. This effort is expected to bring some 9,000 family members of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel by 2020.
Looking back, Kahati acknowledges that if he had not coordinated his rescue efforts with an organization like The Jewish Agency, “there would have been many more people who died on their way to Israel, whether it be from thirst, disease, or hostile Sudanese soldiers.”
Kahati, who was reunited with his entire family in Israel, continued working for The Jewish Agency until his retirement. He has never received a formal prize for his work. In that way, Kahati’s story has come full circle: a clandestine rescuer remains an unsung hero.