A delayed exodus

Ethiopian aliya is regarded a recent thing, but Haim Benyasin began working for it 50 years ago.

Haim Benyasin 88 248 (photo credit: Avi Masfin, The Israel Association for Ethiopian J)
Haim Benyasin 88 248
(photo credit: Avi Masfin, The Israel Association for Ethiopian J)
Unlike many of the Ethiopian Jewry ("Beta Israel"), who after 2,000 years in exile dreamed of reaching the land of Israel, Haim Benyasin was already acquainted with it in 1956. At age 13, he was sent to Israel to acquire skills he would then impart to his people upon returning to Ethiopia to prepare them for immigration to the Holy Land. However, at the end of the 1980s, as the Ethiopian exodus was poised to take place, Benyasin became a prisoner of Zion. Benyasin was a student of Yona Bugala, known today as the Herzl of Ethiopian Jewry. In the 1920s, Bugala studied in Europe and Israel to become a community leader in Ethiopia. He became a high-ranking official in Ethiopia's Education Ministry and served as chief translator for Emperor Hailie Selassie. In 1953, Bugala built a school in Asmara. A year and a half later, Benyasin was one of the 10 boys and two girls who were the first of the school's pupils to train as a group at Israel's Kfar Batya agricultural school. For four years the group studied Hebrew, Jewish studies, agriculture and carpentry. Benyasin and his friends were required to prove their Jewish identity to rabbinic authorities, who were skeptical about the existence of black Jews, by confirming that they had been circumcised. Not all returned to Ethiopia. Chaperoned by Bugala, the returning group was welcomed by none other than the emperor. "He received us in a royal ceremony with carpets and dogs," Benyasin reminisces. "Selassie regarded himself as a descendant of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon and told the youth, 'I, too, am Jewish.' "He tried to persuade us to stay in Addis Ababa to work for the government. He promised to provide us with a car and lodging if we stayed, but we refused and explained that the State of Israel had sponsored our education and we needed to return to those close to us in the village to teach them. He was slightly irritated, but in the end he said, 'I give you my blessing, I am like your father.'" The students headed to the nation's Gondar region, where there was a large concentration of Jews, gathering children from the villages into an improvised school. Benyasin and his friends Gabaio Admak and Alelin Abebe were sent to a village named Baharache. Despite their Christian neighbors' opposition and threats, they continued to build round mud-and-straw hut schoolhouses and a synagogue, and while they waited for the Jewish Agency to send supplies of Hebrew books and writing utensils from Israel they taught Amharic. Circumstances were harsh. "There was no water, there was no food. There was nothing there... In the day the sun struck your head and at night you could see nothing. The Jewish Agency paid us only $5 a month. That wasn't enough, so our families gave us ingera [Ethiopian bread] to eat." One night, after Benyasin had been working in Gondar for two years, Christians burned down the school and the synagogue, destroying all the books. Benyasin asked Bugala to let him leave. Benyasin went to Addis Ababa and worked as a carpenter, using the skills he'd mastered in Israel. He studied English in the evenings. He then began to study agricultural engineering at Addis Ababa University. In the evenings he indulged his talent for drawing. "One day I met a Jewish American who worked for the UN. His name was Levy Gershon and when he heard my name, Haim, he understood I was Jewish and helped me secure a job with the agricultural office of the Ethiopian government. I began working as an agricultural engineer in villages and six years later they gave me an office in Addis Ababa," Benyasin recalls. After the emperor was deposed in 1974 and replaced by Marxist-Leninist dictator Col. Mengistu Mariam, conditions in Ethiopia grew increasingly perilous. Mengistu refused to let citizens exit the country, outlawed Jewish practices, and arrested, questioned and often tortured anyone suspected of pro-Zionist activity. Fleeing the political and economic insecurities of a deteriorating Ethiopia, Beta Israel began to leave their villages, trekking hundreds of miles across the desert to transition camps in Sudan. Families were separated and they encountered hunger and drought, as well as rape, robbery and murder at the hands of rebel gangs. An estimated 4,000 Jews died en route or in Sudanese refugee camps. Benyasin saw his chance to help. His work assessing the suitability of agricultural methods to a range of landscape conditions required extensive travel to various parts of Ethiopia and Africa. He drew upon his legitimate mobility to obtain the necessary documents to get people to Israel, forging passports and connecting Ethiopian Jews with those who were willing to help and provide safe passage. But eventually, he triggered the authorities' suspicions. One evening in 1987 Benyasin was drinking coffee in a hotel lobby when he was suddenly approached from behind by an officer and two soldiers from Mengistu's regime. Pointing guns at his head, they yanked him to his feet and bound his hands behind his back. Without trial, he was held in solitary confinement. He was interrogated, tortured and accused of Zionist activities and collaboration with Israel. "For a year I was held in the solitary confinement in an Addis Ababa prison, one meter wide and one meter long... I didn't see my children or my family. They interrogated me day and night; what was I doing here? What information had I given to the State of Israel? They beat my legs with an iron rod. To this day, I need a shot every six months to ease the pain," he recalls. "They poured water on my head… hot water, cold water. I saw nothing but walls all day. No people, nothing. I begged them to kill me…." In 1991, aiming to complete the aliya from Ethiopia that was brought to a premature halt in 1985 during Operation Moses (a covert mission that airlifted 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel), the Israeli government launched Operation Solomon. Under a veil of secrecy, Operation Solomon transported 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours of non-stop flights - the largest emigration of Beta Israel to date. But Benyasin and dozens of other prisoners of Zion weren't among them. After the rule of Mengistu's military junta collapsed in 1987, Benyasin was released. However, the new Ethiopian government (still headed by Mengistu, as president) forced him to work for its agricultural office. Finally, Benyasin asked to visit his wife in Israel. He received a permit to leave and promptly flew to Israel via Italy. A year later, together with Rubal Adisso, Tamani Malako, Meshasha Moshe Mogass, Matiko Mahari, Alamo Gershon, Shabloi Adisso and Bayoch-Mahari Malako, he founded the Organization for Ethiopian Prisoners of Zion, a group comprised of about 140 Ethiopian immigrants. Today, Benyasin, 65 and father of eight, lives modestly in a row-apartment neighborhood in Jerusalem. He helps companies and businessmen conduct business in Ethiopia and continues to draw. On stretches of unprimed raw cotton canvas and parchment, adorned with scripted Amharic, he uses the bold-colored paints he brings with him from his business excursions to Ethiopia to depict childhood memories, village life, religious ceremonies and festivities. Against the backdrop of Ethiopian landscapes, the history of Ethiopian Jewry and King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, his work represents a dispersed generation united by the dream of returning to Jerusalem.