Remembering Zimna Berhani, the Mossad Operative Who Risked His Life for Ethiopian Jewry

Berhani's colleagues in the daring immigration operations called him 'a hero of Israel.' Shortly before he closed his eyes, he received a last hug from former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy. Here is his exciting life story.

Menachem Waldman

Many honorifics were awarded to Mossad operative Zimna Berhani, who was buried on February 22 in Lod.Thousands of people from  Israel’s Ethiopian community came to pay their last respects to the man they called "hero," "saint," and "angel..

Senior citizens, adults and robed kessim (priests) holding colorful umbrellas mingled with young people in jeans and trendy shirts, remembering the man who had embraced and extended a hand to them on their difficult and dangerous journey from Ethiopia and who for decades acted on the community’s behalf.

“Nearly the entire Ethiopian immigration passed through his hands. He was a classic example of the real Zionist,” said Micha Feldman, who was head of the Jewish Agency delegation to Ethiopia and the Israeli consul in Addis Ababa.

Among the mourners at the funeral were also a number of Israelis who did not come from Ethiopia but had been working there. Some were Mossad people who bid farewell to their colleague, who took to his grave many stories about the operations to rescue Ethiopian Jews.

`You are the first bridge’

Zimna was born in Ethiopia in 1940 and grew up in a village in the province of Gondar. His family, including 10 children, was one of the most prominent in the community. His sister married the Grand Kes Hadane (Rafael) Takoya, father of Ethiopian Chief Rabbi Yosef Hadane.

In 1955 Zimna joined the first group of Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel. They were 12 teenagers, boys and girls, who answered the call of Yona Bugala, the legendary community leader, and were sent to Israel to be trained as teachers and return to the community in Ethiopia.

They studied at the educational institution in Kfar Batya, in accordance with the vision of Jacob Feitlowitz, the Polish Jew who at the beginning of the 20th century discovered the Jews of Ethiopia and acted to bring them to Israel.

“You are the first bridge,” Israel’s first president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, told the youngsters. “You are going back to prepare your brothers for immigration. You are setting out on a national mission.”

“We were sort of an attraction,” Zimna related 10 years ago in an interview published in “The First Bridge: Testimonies of Jewish Ethiopian Pupils from Kfar Batya 1955-1995,” edited by Azriel Kamon. “They would always take us out of classes to meet with guests who wanted to ‘see and hear.’ The whole focus was on us.”

Upon completing the course, he went back to Ethiopia and worked as a teacher. The hope of preparing the next generation of immigrants would wait many years.

A circuitous path brought him back to Israel in 1967, many years before Ethiopian Jews were allowed to immigrate. He enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces, fought in wars and was wounded during his military service.

In those years Zimna was one of a few dozen Jews from Ethiopia living in Israel, before the state recognized the community’s Jewishness, allowed its members to immigrate to here and embarked on large operations to bring them here.

“The few who arrived in those years were illegal sojourners and had to evade the Interior Ministry for fear they would be deported,” said Rabbi Menachem Waldman, an activist for the Ethiopian immigrants and a researcher of the community.

Under the aegis of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, Zimna from the beginning led the public struggle to bring Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel.

In 1973 came the first success when Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that Ethiopian Jews were descendants of the Tribes of Israel and were entitled to immigrate to the country.

In 1977, after the country’s leadership changed to Likud from Labor, Prime Minister Menachem Begin exhorted: “Bring me the Jews of Ethiopia.”

“Zimna is the person who persuaded Begin that this was possible,” Feldman, the former Addis Ababa consul, says. “It was thanks to him that Begin gave this order.”

Hope to reach Jerusalem

In the ensuing years several thousand Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel. In daring operations by the Mossad, the navy and the air force, they were taken out of refugee camps in neighboring Sudan, to which they had fled.

“Zimna fought the Israeli government so that they would allow the immigrants to arrive in the country,” Feldman says.

He proved that “despite the difficulties on the way to Sudan and in the refugee camps there, the Ethiopian Jews would not break down and would accomplish the journey because what gave them strength was the hope that in the end they would reach Jerusalem.”

Many experts and military advisers who knew Ethiopia’s topography said “it was impossible for families with children and old people to make that journey,” Feldman said.

“At one of the meetings they said that Golani Brigade soldiers wouldn’t be able to do it. But Zimna understood that it was possible. He realized that talking wouldn’t help and it was necessary to take action. He wasn’t a person for talk and speeches, but rather for doing.”

For about a year Zimna lived in the refugee camps in Sudan, as a refugee, to immerse himself in the community and, on behalf of the Mossad, to ensure that the Jews acted at the appropriate time.

“For long periods we were together in Sudan,” related Dani L., the Mossad operative who commanded the operations to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel via Sudan. “We went through dangers. [Zimna] was in more dangerous situations because he was not just a Jew but rather an Ethiopian Jew.”

The Mossad operations base in Sudan was camouflaged as a vacation village. The Jews were evacuated by Air Force planes that landed in the middle of the desert and by Navy ships that anchored offshore Sudan, to which they were ferried in naval commando boats.

L., who eulogized Zimna at the funeral, said Zimna was “not only a hero of the Ethiopian community but also a hero of Israel, an outstanding figure, a person who inspired and whose heritage must give us strength to continue.”

Avi Mizrachi of the Jewish Agency, who worked with Zimna said that “more than anyone else, this is the man thanks to whom the largest number of immigrants from Ethiopia are in Israel today. ...

“As Jewish Agency people, we would greet the Ethiopian immigrants when they landed in Israel, right when they debarked from the plane. There wasn’t a flight when Zimna didn’t debark with them.”

Operation Moses

In 1985 Zimna participated in Operation Moses, in which about 7,000 immigrants from Ethiopia arrived after a difficult journey on foot from Ethiopia to Sudan, where they were put onto planes.

Subsequently he was appointed deputy director of the Ethiopian immigrants department at the Jewish Agency, and in 1990 he returned to Ethiopia as deputy Israeli consul and later as consul and immigration emissary.

He described the situation of Ethiopian Jews in 1991 in harsh words: “They were in the worst condition. Half-naked, sick, in pouring rain and mud. They suffered from malnutrition and they were dirty.”

Zimna told Uri Lubrani, who conducted the talks with Ethiopia’s rulers to bring the Jews to Israel, “We are on the brink of a catastrophe. The Jewish community is under a huge threat and is liable to become the victim of a pogrom. Remember Germany.”

In May of that year 15,000 members of the community were brought to Israel in Operation Solomon. Zimna continued to work for the community’s benefit in the following years as well. In 1992 he toured the villages of the remnants of Ethiopian Jewry with a delegation from Israel that investigated their Jewishness.

In 1991 Zimna was awarded the Ben-Gurion Prize for his efforts to bring the immigrants from Ethiopia and he lit a torch on Independence Day.

But later he returned to Ethiopia after he was hurt by some of his colleagues. “He noticed that there were a few people who wished him ill and he forgot all his love and his supporters who admired him,” Feldman said.

He recently returned to Israel after he was struck with cancer. A month before he died, he was able to attend an event in his honor, which was organized for him by Yedioth Ahronoth journalist Danny Abebe and Mossad operative Dani L. Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy was the special guest at the event.

And shortly before he closed his eyes, he received a last hug from Halevy.

“In my eyes he is the black Herzl,” said Abebe. “He saw Israeliness as the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. He was very Ethiopian but he also very much wanted to be Israeli.”

Zimna is survived by three children from his first marriage and a daughter from his second marriage.