by: Janet Aslin, Assistant Editor
No one knows for certain when the first Jews arrived in Yemen. Some say they were sent by King Solomon to collect gold and silver to be used in constructing the First Temple. Another legend holds that under the prophet Jeremiah some 75,000 Jews, including priests and Levites, traveled to Yemen. Archaeological evidence of the Jewish presence in Yemen began appearing around 110 BC. Today many Yemenite Jews are able to trace their lineage back to specific tribes—Judah, Benjamin, Levi and Reuben. One family is able to trace its ancestry to Bani, son of Peretz, son of Judah.
Regardless of the lack of a concrete arrival date, we know for certain there was a thriving Jewish presence in Yemen until the birth of the State of Israel in 1948 resulted in the forced expulsion of Jews from Arab lands, including Yemen. The story of how the Yemenite Jews arrived in Israel is a fascinating one.
When David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, the surrounding Arab nations were poised to attack and destroy the young nation. Large populations of Jews living in the countries of Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen suddenly found themselves endangered and at the mercy of hostile mobs that descended upon their communities. Of the 820,000 Jews who were expelled from these countries, 63,000 were from Yemen. Although the young nation was virtually bankrupt after its War of Independence, Prime Minister Ben Gurion ordered the “immediate and rapid ingathering of the exiles.” Funding would come from the Jews in the Diaspora.
Egypt had closed the Suez Canal to Israeli ships and the hostile territory through which they would have to travel made a land route impossible, so the Yemenite Jews were brought to Israel by air. Officially named, “On Wings of Eagles,” the massive airlift was also known by its nickname, “Operation Magic Carpet.” Since Yemen would not permit Jewish refugees to be flown out of their country, Britain agreed to the establishment of a transit camp in neighboring Aden. Many of the Jews walked from their homes, some hundreds of miles, traveling through the desert to reach Aden. Along the way they were easy prey for robbers and local tribes which demanded a “head tax” before allowing the refugees to pass through their territory.
Alaska Airlines agreed to take on the task of flying the Yemenite Jews to Israel. The 20-hour trip began with a hop from their ground base in Asmara, Eritrea to Aden where they picked up their passengers. Most were nomads who had never seen a plane before and at first refused to enter the strange machine. When they were reminded of the prophecy in Isaiah 40:31, “…they shall mount up with wings like eagles…” they agreed to climb aboard the unusual “eagle.”
The pilots then took off, flying over the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba, landing in Tel Aviv. During this leg of the journey, it was not uncommon for the planes to be shot at. After unloading their now-joyful passengers in Eretz Israel, the crew continued to Cyprus where they would rest a few hours before returning to Eritrea to begin the arduous journey once again. By the end of the airlift, which lasted from June 1949 through September 1950, Alaska Airlines pilots and planes had made 380 flights carrying 48,818 refugees. More details of this fascinating operation can be found here.
After the completion of “On Wings of Eagles,” a tiny population of Jews remained in Yemen. In the early 1990s, a small operation rescued 1,200 and brought them to Israel. Several hundred were smuggled out during the early years of the 21st century. The remaining Yemenite Jews were very much at risk. The current civil war which began in 2015 has brought “catastrophic” humanitarian conditions to the nation of Yemen and left the small Jewish population even more vulnerable.
In March, 2016, an ultra-secretive operation undertaken by the Jewish Agency completed the circle of aliyah from Yemen. Details of just exactly how the nineteen Jews made the trip have been withheld for security reasons. Suffice it to say there was much rejoicing when they finally landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. One member of the group was the community’s rabbi who brought with him a Torah scroll believed to be between 500–600 years old.
In remarks made welcoming the new olim, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, said, “From Operation Magic Carpet in 1948 until the present day, the Jewish Agency has helped bring Yemeni Jewry home to Israel. Today we bring that historic mission to a close.”
In Israel today there are roughly 350,000 Israelis of Yemenite heritage. They are living proof of the fulfillment of God’s promise that the Jews would return to the Land. Few have come in such a dramatic way as the Jews from Yemen. “…I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself” (Exod. 19:4).
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