"My brother is the Herzl of all Africa. He gave his life for the sake of Ethiopian Jewry," said Colonel Metuku Bogale, formerly the police commissioner of Ethiopia's Shewa Province, of Yona Bogale, the legendary leader of Ethiopian Jewry.
A week ago, the 20th anniversary of Yona Bogale's death was marked, and at about the same time, the Rehovot City Council decided to name a local school after him.
Bogale was born in 1908 in the village of Wolleka and came to Israel for the first time when he was 13 years old. He studied in Jerusalem and continued his studies in Frankfurt, Lausanne and Paris. In 1931, he returned to Ethiopia and taught at the Jewish School in Addis Ababa until it was shut down by the Italians, who occupied the country in 1936. In the 1950s, together with Diaspora Jewish organizations, he established a network of Jewish educational institutions and later a network of health clinics as well.
"Without Yona Bogale, Ethiopian Jewry would have perished," said Yaakov Elias, an educational social worker in Rehovot. Elias is one of Bogale's many students. He was sent to study at Kfar Batya in Ra'anana in 1956 and returned to Ethiopia in 1964 to serve as a teacher. He and Bogale then began a Zionist campaign to open schools in remote villages in Ethiopia. "We would walk for an entire day to get to Jewish villages. Because the Jews did not own land, Yona negotiated with landowners to establish schools." Elias said.
At one stage, Bogale served as head of the translation department at the Ethiopian Education Ministry. In the course of his work, he saw a document from an Anglican mission that wanted to convert the Jews of Ethiopia. Yona, who foresaw the fate of his Jewish brethren, resigned from his position and began organizing against the mission. The emperor asked him to drop this activity and serve as a cabinet minister, but he refused.
In 1979, Bogale immigrated to Israel together with his wife and daughter, joining seven other children who had immigrated before him. That same year, he was invited to deliver a speech at the General Assembly of what is today known as the United Jewish Communities of North America, which was held that year in Canada. Addressing an audience of 3,000 Jews, Bogale asked Diaspora Jewry to work to promote the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
This was a breakthrough for the immigration of Ethiopian Jewry, which began in the 1980s. Diaspora Jews began to pressure the Israeli government to promote this immigration. Bogale also lobbied rabbis to cancel the requirement that Ethiopian Jews undergo a pro forma conversion as a precaution to ensure their Jewishness.
Bogale passed away in 1987, at the age of 79, and was interred in Jerusalem's Har Hamenuhot Cemetery.
"It disturbs me greatly that the children of Ethiopian Jews are not familiar with the history of their elders and leaders," said his brother. "If they had been, there would not have been such a deterioration, which has them sleeping in the streets. Today, I want the history of Ethiopian Jewry to be added to every textbook. We have a glorious history, and society would do well to learn of it, in order to give it the honor and respect that it merits."