Skip navigation

Thursday January 20, 2011

He dedicated his life to helping Ethiopian Jews make it to Israel

The story of Israel's dramatic rescue of Ethiopian Jewry - Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991 - is reasonably well known, chronicled over the past two decades in half a dozen books. Together, the covert, Mossad-directed airlifts brought a total of 25,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel; there, a generation later, the full community now numbers more than 100,000.

Baruch Tegegne played only a minor direct role in those remarkable airlifts, but it's safe to say that no effort to save the long-lost remnant of Judaism would have been made were it not for him and his work.

Tegegne died on Dec. 27 in Israel of complications of hepatitis C.

It was largely his impassioned backstage lobbying efforts - a relentless, decade-long campaign mounted in Israel, the United States and Canada - that first put the question of Ethiopia's so-called Beta Israel community (sometimes known as Falashas, meaning "strangers" in Amheric) on the humanitarian agenda.

"Baruch's advocacy created a sense of urgency to take all necessary steps to help the Ethiopian Jews," says Toronto physician Mark Doidge. A single 1979 meeting with Tegegne in Washington, D.C., inspired Doidge to set up the Canadian Association of Ethiopian Jewry. With Tegegne as the centrepiece for advocacy, it and a larger American counterpart, the AAEJ, subsequently spearheaded an international campaign to dismantle the barriers to the mass emigration of Ethiopian Jews - including reflexive racism and the deeply held conviction that black Africans could not really be Jews.

Although there is no clear consensus on the origins of Ethiopian Jews, it is known that the Beta Israel were cut off from mainstream Judaism - and from all other Jews - for more than a millennium. They knew and studied only Mosaic scripture, not any of the Talmud's rabbinic commentaries and other changes that followed the Babylonian exile in 597 BC. Despite constant persecution and their complete isolation, they maintained their heritage, believing they would one day re-establish their connection to Israel.

Born in the small Jewish village of Wozaba, Ethiopia, on Jan. 23, 1944, Tegegne was largely raised by his grandfather, Tamno Tegegne, who taught him the Torah. At 12, in 1956, Tegegne was among a handful of young Jewish students selected with the blessing of Emperor Haile Selassie I to be educated at Kfar Batya in Israel, a settlement that absorbed orphaned children of Holocaust survivors and immigrants from other countries. Tegegne completed high school there, earned a diploma in agriculture, served a stint in the Israeli army and returned to Ethiopia to sell agricultural equipment for Koor Industries.

With the profits earned, he bought land and established a communal farm near the Ethiopian border with Sudan - a virtually unprecedented act for an otherwise marginalized Ethiopian Jew - hiring more than 50 community members to work there. Anti-Semitic neighbours subsequently burned it down.

Tegegne planned to start over but, by the early 1970s, the country was caught in the vortex of a civil war that would topple Haile Selassie and bring Russian-backed communist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam to power. All religions were targeted for suppression, none more so than the weakest group, the Jews. Suddenly, Jewish education and religious practices were forbidden.

Tegegne was arrested by the militia as a suspected Mossad agent, escaped and fled for his life, setting out on an epic journey, a three-year quest to return to Israel.

Without a passport, he spent two years moving west across the continent, eventually reaching Lagos, Nigeria, a trip of more 3,300 kilometres, mostly on foot. There, according to Yvonne Margo, Tegegne's companion for many years, he found a job on a Greek freighter bound for Singapore. He intended to a jump ship in the port of Suez and make his way to Israel. But he fell ill at sea and never had the opportunity. Instead, he returned to Lagos and eventually saved enough money to buy an airline ticket to Rome.

There, he presented himself to a group of astonished diplomats at the Israeli embassy - a black man speaking fluent Hebrew - demanding to be sent to Tel Aviv. They were ready to evict him, when someone Tegegne had known as a youth in Israel suddenly walked through the door. He was soon on a plane for Ben Gurion airport. By then, Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, had ruled that the Beta Israel were authentic Jews and should be brought to Israel under the Law of Return. But religious sanction met with bureaucratic and political resistance and nothing happened. It then became Tegegne's mission to translate the rabbi's ruling into reality. And he dedicated much of the rest of his life to it, at serious cost to his health.

In the mid-1970s, his guerrilla street protests in Jerusalem finally caught the attention of prime minister Menachem Begin, who invited him to address the cabinet. He toured Canada and the United States, urging Jewish groups to lobby their politicians for action. He stayed in close contact with supporters and collaborators in Ethiopia, including Abebe Yigzaw, a Christian Ethiopian now living in Toronto, who personally led many Ethiopian Jews into Sudan in the late 1970s, from there to Rome and subsequently to Israel.

Later, Tegegne worked with Israel's Mossad spy agency to lay the groundwork for what became the historic 1984 airlift - moving the Beta Israel from Ethiopia into an isolated desert region in eastern Sudan and from there to Israel. The rescue attempt became all the more urgent because of the terrible famine that gripped Ethiopia that year. Most were airlifted out, though some were brought by boat, the Mossad operating under cover of a diving resort near Port Sudan.

In 1980, during one of his Canadian visits, Tegegne met and married a Montrealer, Susan Migicovsky, and became a landed immigrant. Their daughter, Yaffa, is now a lawyer in Israel. In Canada, Tegegne tried his hand at various businesses - he ran a diner and was superintendent in an apartment complex. But he constantly felt the pull of his larger mission of salvation and travelled widely, a preoccupation that eventually ended the marriage and damaged his health.

A decade ago, he developed advanced kidney disease and needed dialysis four times a week. Although a candidate for a kidney transplant, officials at Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital claimed an inability to find a suitable match. In 2005, Tegegne's friends mounted a campaign to find a kidney for him and did - that of a 30-year-old Indian cotton exporter. But the hospital refused to conduct the procedure, believing that the donated kidney had been paid for, a violation of Canadian law. Tegegne's lawyers denied the charge and threatened to launch a court challenge. At that point, the hospital managed to find a suitable Canadian donor and the operation was carried out.

Tegegne spent his last few years in Israel. With Phyllis Schwartzman Pinchuk, he wrote an autobiography, Baruch's Odyssey: An Ethiopian Jew's Struggle to Save His People (Gefen) and worked to establish a Beta Israel community centre in Rehovot, Israel, to teach the history of his people. Although some funds were raised, and designs drawn, that dream remains unrealized.

"It would be fitting tribute to this work," says Mark Doidge. "He had such charisma, and a lot of soul. The world may not have known what he did, but anyone connected to the movement knew."

Says filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici: "Baruch lobbied, he smuggled people, he put his life on the line to make sure this most ancient of Jewish communities would be rescued from violence and starvation.

"It's no exaggeration to state that he was the one individual most responsible for the fact that there are more than 100,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel today. He involved me in the Ethiopian Jewry movement and encouraged me to make my first film, Falasha: Exile of the Black Jews. Like so many people that he touched, he literally changed my life."

Tegegne leaves his daughter, Yaffa, his companion Yvonne Margo, his ex-wife Susan Migicovsky and his siblings, nieces and nephews. A memorial in his honour will be held in Montreal on Feb. 13.

Back to top