In his recent movie Heroes, the Israeli filmmaker Avishai Mekonen tells the story of the Ethiopian Jewish activists who campaigned for permission to leave for Israel, often risking the ire of their country’s brutal socialist regime, and worked to convince the Israeli government and American Jewry to help them emigrate. He discusses the film here. (Interview by Be’chol Lashon.)
[T]here is a whole part of the story [of Ethiopian Jewry] that is not well known, the story of the Ethiopian activists who held onto the dream of going to Jerusalem and made everything happen. . . . I want people to know the names of Yona Bogale, Gedalia Uria, Ester Hollander, and others. Some 440 Ethiopian activists and kessim [the local term for rabbis] were jailed in Ethiopia. So many risked their lives. For example, Ferede Aklum, . . . who endangered himself to find escape routes for the community from Ethiopia [to Israel] through Sudan, and worked with the Mossad.
These activists had no money, no guides, no equipment. They had a dream and they made it happen. Many of these people were put in jail for days or months because leaving Ethiopia was illegal. They were beaten and tortured. Some died in jail. Those who were released did not give up. These people were true heroes.
Yona Bogale was the first Ethiopian to reach out to the west and explain the danger the Beta Israel experienced. In the 1950s, he sent young Ethiopians to Israel to learn Hebrew, English, math, and science. Those students became leaders [of Ethiopian] Jewry who could communicate [with people in Israel, the U.S., and elsewhere].