In this remarkable and historic November 6, 1949, correspondence on his presidential letterhead, Chaim Weizmann writes to the Chief Rabbi of Aden, Rav Yichey Avraham:
. . . I send to the Jewish community in Aden a greeting from the bottom of my heart. Your community has had a great privilege – to be an “emergency exit” to the masses of our brothers, the Yemenite exiles, prisoners of poverty and hope, laden with yearning for complete redemption. May the exile of Yemen and Aden end, and they will return to their land. With the blessing of a redeemed Israel . . .
Weizmann forwarded a copy of this letter to Yosef Sprinzak (1885-1959), chairman of the Knesset. Sprinzak, a Weizmann supporter, was speaker of both Israel’s provisional parliament and the Knesset and became acting and interim president upon Weizmann’s illness and death.
Weizmann is referring to the fantastic story of “Operation Magic Carpet,” sometimes referred to as “the Yemenite Exodus,” which brought virtually all of the Jews of Yemen home to Eretz Yisrael shortly after the birth of Israel in 1948. For centuries, Yemenite Jews, a pious people, recited the biblical verse, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself” (Exodus 19:4), never imaging that their dreams would become a reality when the “eagles’ wings” turned out to be the aircraft that would fly them to freedom in their Promised Land.
By 1949, shortly after this letter was written, Israel had successfully moved nearly the entire Yemenite Jewish community to within its borders, marking the first time in history that a transfer of this scope had ever been attempted, let alone accomplished.
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Yemenite Jews, or “Taimanim,” trace their lineage to the biblical Jacob, but the origins of their settlement in Yemen are lost to antiquity.
Some claim that they are descended from a group of Jews that rebelled against Moses during the Exodus from Egypt, but according to a longstanding Yemenite tradition, 75,000 Jews left Jerusalem after hearing Jeremiah’s prophecy regarding the destruction of the First Temple in 629 B.C.E. (42 years before the actual destruction of Jerusalem). According to another account, Yemeni tribes converted to Judaism after the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon, who sent Jewish merchant ships to Yemen to prospect for gold and silver with which to adorn the Beit HaMikdash.
Today, most historians agree that King Solomon’s trading and naval networks brought Jews to Yemen from Eretz Yisrael circa 900 B.C.E. and that there was a Jewish community in Yemen from at least the time of the Second Temple (destroyed 67 C. E.).
Over the course of 2,000 years, Yemenite Jews came under the control of a succession of rulers, most of them malevolent. Jewish life took a short-lived turn for the better under the rule of the Imams in the 18th century, but the Imamic loss of power in the 19th century marked one of the worst times in the long history of the Taimanim, which included Yemenite Jews being forcibly converted. Notwithstanding strict prohibitions barring their leaving Yemen to go to Eretz Yisrael, they embarked for the Holy Land when they learned about the nascent Zionist resettlement there.
Thus, contrary to the broad perception that the Taimanim commenced aliyah upon the birth of Israel in 1948, that movement actually began in 1881, even earlier than the European “First Aliyah,” when some 2,500 Taimanim arrived in Eretz Yisrael. The new Yemenite immigrants, who settled primarily in agricultural communities in Jerusalem and Jaffa, wrote to their relatives in Yemen urging them to join them in Eretz Yisrael, resulting in a small but steady stream of immigrants from Yemen at the turn of the 20th century. By early 1948, there were 35,000 Yemenite Jews living in the Holy Land.
Moreover, Jews in Eretz Yisrael were marshalling their efforts on behalf of Yemenite Jews well before Operation Magic Carpet. Exhibited here is a 1944 poster in which Ezrat Achim makes a Yom Kippur appeal for “our wretched brethren who are seized with hunger and illnesses in the Yemenite Exile and in the deserts of Yemen and have left many orphans . . . “
The news of the UN resolution partitioning Eretz Yisrael reached Yemenite Jewry at a time when Yemen was chaotic and lawless in the wake of the murder of Imam Yahya Muhammad Hamid el-Din, who had reigned for four decades and had been generally benevolent to the Jews under his rule. Arabs protesting against a Jewish state launched savage pogroms reminiscent of Kristallnacht in which at least 82 Jews were murdered, the Jewish quarter was torched, hundreds of Jewish homes were destroyed, and Jewish businesses were looted.
Many pious Taimanim, whose attachment to Eretz Yisrael never wavered, saw the establishment of a Jewish homeland there as a miracle heralding the fulfillment of their centuries-old messianic dreams and commenced aliyah preparations. However, as a result of pogroms in Yemen and the difficulty of facilitating direct transport to Israel, many Taimanim fled to Aden, a British protectorate that had been captured by the British in 1839, which was then home to a sizable Jewish community.
The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency had established a camp in Aden – which it named “Geula” (redemption) – to welcome the refugees and to serve as an aliyah transit station. However, they came up against the perfidious British who, even after the end of the British Mandate, were doing everything they could to block Jews from immigrating to Israel. The British successfully incited the sultans governing the territories between Aden and the interior of Yemen to block the passage of Jews through their lands, and thousands of the refugees who had left their homes were reduced to wandering aimlessly along the border, making them helpless and an easy prey.
When British Prime Minister Clement Atlee reversed course in September 1948, the JDC and the Jewish Agency ramped up their preparations to send the Jews then under their auspices in the Geula camp to Israel. However, because of Israel’s ongoing war with Egypt, the Taimanim could not be sent to Israel by ship and, as such, chartered aircraft had to be secretly secured for that purpose.
Although Israel was nearly bankrupt after its War of Independence and had already incurred massive expenses to support the refugees arriving from Europe after the Holocaust, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion insisted that the Yemenite Jews had to be saved at all costs and, under a cloud of secrecy and in the face of monumental obstacles, Operation Magic Carpet formally began.
A few months after the February 1949 Israel-Egypt armistice, the Iman of Yemen agreed to permit “his” Jews to leave for Israel – but only if they satisfy three conditions: they must pay the notorious annual poll tax on Jews; they must dispose of all their property before leaving; and, as uniquely skilled artisans, they must teach their trades – including iron and silver smithing, carpentry, masonry, weaving, masonry, and tanning – to local Arabs.
When this news spread through Yemen, most of the remaining Taimanim embarked upon the long walk to Aden, covering hundreds of miles. “They arrived at the Aden camp tattered, exhausted, thirsty, and ill, and Israeli doctors there restored them to health while other Israeli representatives saw to their other needs and prepared them for their transport to Israel.” The flights were carried out by American and British pilots, the unsung heroes of Operation Magic Carpet who ran Alaska Airlines, a “renegade” airline.
Alaska Airline’s chief pilot for Operation Magic Carpet, Robert F. Maguire Jr. – who a grateful Ben-Gurion called “The Irish Moses” – flew 300 hours each month flying Taimanim to Israel, more than three times the maximum limit permitted by American aviation authorities. In one amusing and memorable incident – which was far from funny at the time – Maguire ran out of fuel, was forced to land in Egypt, and had to think quickly when Egyptian airport officials charged the aircraft. He told them that his passengers had to immediately be taken to a hospital because of their smallpox, and the Egyptians could not refuel his plane and send him off fast enough.
Operation Magic Carpet proved to be not only an emotional experience for the rescued Taimanim, many of whom kissed the ground upon their arrival in Eretz Yisrael, but for the Alaska Airlines staff as well. One flight attendant recalled, “One of the things that really got to me was when we were unloading a plane at Tel Aviv, a little old lady came up to me and took the hem of my jacket and kissed it. She was giving me a blessing for getting them home…. We were the wings of eagles.” In Sixty Years After the Magic Carpet Ride, Eric D. Gould and his co-authors cite this hauntingly beautiful description of Operation Magic Carpet by one of the pilots:
It is difficult to put into words, but it gives me a strange feeling to see these Jews…. They wander about on foot for weeks till they reach the camp near Aden. They arrive hungry and sick and naked… but you’ll find every man carrying his Bible, and every other man clinging to a huge holy parchment scroll clasped in front of him. That camp is just a piece of desert with almost nothing on it, just a few tents and straw mats, but they behave as if they had just stepped into Paradise. Then we pile them into those planes and they’re terribly confused, but they keep mum…. They look to me like people going awake through a dream.
They look like prophets stepping out of the Bible…. their average weight was seventy or eighty pounds, and up to a hundred and forty of them could be put on a plane normally carrying less than half that number. It was a strange experience for them to travel by air – not only were they unfamiliar with airplanes, but the steep metal ladders used for climbing aboard planes had to be replaced with wooden ramps with shallow steps to enable them to go aboard. However, they behaved admirably and gave little trouble.
With waves of Yemenite Jews arriving in Aden, Israeli support organizations at the camp, who anticipated having to accommodate 1,000 Jews, suddenly found themselves having to care for the 13,000 Jews who were arriving every month. To handle this great and unanticipated demand, Israel chartered six additional large Skymasters planes able to fly 120 passengers at a time.
By a few months after Weizmann’s letter, Operation Magic Carpet had brought 48,818 Taimanim to Israel on 430 flights. In October 1950, 2,072 Yemenite delegates from 82 settlements across Israel met at a joyous conference in Rechovot to celebrate the end of Galut Yemen (the Yemenite exile) – although, as we will see, there were still some Taimanim remaining in Yemen whom Israel later rescued in 2016.
The new immigrants, who have been aptly characterized as “the most Jewish of all Jews,” suddenly found themselves uprooted from their ancient, traditional way of life. With no knowledge or understanding of Western culture or the operation of modern society, they put their trust in the Israeli authorities to make decisions for them and to determine where they would go.
Israel placed them in crude and bleak absorptions camps, where they often slept in tents with no running water, sanitation facilities, or electricity. Most the new immigrants were randomly relocated after a few months to either small agricultural moshavim or to maabarot, where they were mixed together with new Jewish immigrants from all around the world. While, in general, the Taimanim passively followed instructions issued by Israeli authorities, many of these pious Jews, who had remained true to their faith through thousands of years, protested being forced into a secular environment.
It is incontrovertible that, as the Taimanim claim, many of the original Yemenite Jews arriving in Eretz Yisrael and their descendants were discriminated against by Israelis of European origin. However, the highly provocative and controversial allegations that Israel was “kidnapping” healthy Taimani children, advising their families that they had died, and giving them to Ashkenazi couples unable to conceive, are well beyond the scope of this article.
Although, through the “great equalizer” – Israel’s schools and mandatory military service – Taimanim have largely become fully integrated into Israeli society, many, whether by choice or circumstance, have maintained their ancient traditions as a somewhat insular group living in Yemenite communities.
By 2009, there were only about 400 Jews left in Yemen, most of whom had remained because family members did not want to leave their elderly and ill behind. In October 2015, the Yemeni government announced that, because of its continuing war with Houthi rebel tribes, it could no longer protect the few remaining Jews, who would be forced to convert. In a secret Israeli operation coordinated with the U.S., Yemen’s final Jews were airlifted to Israel on March 21, 2016, leaving only about 50 Taimani Jews who still refused to leave. Among the new arrivals was the rabbi of the town of Raydah, who arrived clutching a 500-year-old Torah scroll.
More than 3,000 years of the glorious history of the ever-faithful Taimanim in Yemen thereby came to an end, and there are now some 750,000 Jews of Yemenite descent living in Israel. Kanfei Nesharim (“on the wings of eagles”) Street in Jerusalem was named in honor of Operation Magic Carpet.
The lasting legacy of Operation Magic Carpet is far more than just the rescue of 50,000 Yemenite Jews. It was also a stark demonstration to the world of the importance of every Jew and that the new State of Israel would go to extreme lengths to rescue Jews from wherever they may be found and to bring them home to Eretz Yisrael.