As Jews prepare to mark the Biblical exodus from Egypt at the festival of Passover which begins tonight, many will recall their modern-day Exodus in the last 50 years. But the suffering experienced by the Jews of Yemen has been eclipsed by accounts of their difficult absorption into Israel. If it were not for Haim Yosef Zadok, the terrible conditions, death and disease experienced by 45,000 Jews of Yemen, as they waited to be airlifted to the Promised Land in 1949, would not have been documented. Fascinating article in Haaretz, Agonies of redemption, by Yaron Tsur.
From three Jewish diasporas in the Muslim world – Libya, Yemen and Iraq – there was a swift and complete, or nearly complete, exodus to Israel during a short period in the early years of the state, between 1949 and 1952. The closest to the “flight from Egypt” model was the immigration from Yemen, which began in July 1949. It involved nearly all the Jews living in that country at the time, some 45,000 out of 50,000 souls. When the signal was given, they left the country hastily, most of them within a period of a few months. First they went on foot overland to the Red Sea port of Aden, and from there they were flown to Israel in an aerial convoy that was given two names: “Magic Carpet” and “On Eagles’ Wings.”
The episode of the agonies in the desert, the diseases and hunger that afflicted the immigrants on their way has been blurred in their collective memory of the airlift, but it was recounted by the Zionist emissary Haim Yosef Zadok. In his memoir, “In the Storms of Yemen” (1957, in Hebrew), Zadok described the arrival in Aden of the chief rabbi of Sanaa, Amram Korah: “We found him sitting on a bed, leaning on a cushion, closing his eyes every minute and saying: ‘A true exodus from Egypt!’ … His sole wish was to ‘spare the members of our people from the terrors of the desert, and in the meantime give them swift help before they die of hunger and are consumed by diseases.'”
The immediate source of the suffering was the Joint Distribution Committee’s deficient agreement with the British authorities in Aden, which was a crown colony at the time, along with its immediate environs. The Joint had operated a large transit camp there in the past, and the British allowed it to send residents to the young state of Israel at the beginning of 1949, on condition the facility then be dismantled. In its place, the organization was given a different camp, with space for no more than 500 people. This insured there would be no further opportunities to provide shelter to large numbers of Yemenite Jews wanting to immigrate to Israel.
Thus, on the eve of the great wave of immigration, there were not even minimal facilities for handling the flow of people. The immigrants were to suffer greatly in Aden, but this was trivial compared to what awaited them at the border of the British colony. The stream of immigrants began in July 1949. By September, nearly 13,000 people had crossed the border. When the British realized the extent of the influx they closed the border, possibly in consultation with people from the Joint. This meant that around 13,000 additional immigrants were stuck in southern Yemen, in desert locales, without food and water, vulnerable to diseases, natural disasters and extortion. Death, too, was rampant.
Yosef Zadok succeeded in getting through and brought some food to the stranded refugees. According to his testimony, even in those conditions it was possible to distinguish between people with means and those who were poor, among whom he found terrible distress. Inter alia, he describes “a family of six, from the town of al-Haima. They were all sick and half-naked and lying on the cold floor. They were so sick they could not utter a syllable or move a limb … they were unconscious. Worms crawled around them and swarmed in their bodies … Later I heard that four of them perished.” (Ibid; p. 65).
Dr. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, who studies the immigration from Yemen, and is also very familiar with the story of the mass exodus from Iraq, confirms that this documentation is unparalleled in the history of the other large immigrations from that period, in terms of the shocking testimonies regarding the suffering during the journey. Zadok’s testimony, however, is reminiscent of first-hand reports of the exodus from Ethiopia prior to Operation Moses (in late 1984). During the course of that operation, the suffering and the death rate were even more appalling.
The role of Moses in the biblical-style exodus from Yemen was played by David Ben-Gurion, the prophet and great leader of the Jewish departure from all Arab lands. Unlike Moses, however, Ben-Gurion played his part from afar – not in the company of the wanderers in the desert. In July 1945, on a boat to Europe, Ben-Gurion wrote “Zionism’s calculation after the war” in his diary. This was a simple demographic equation, in which he calculated how many Jews remained in the world after the slaughter in Europe, and which could be brought to the nascent Jewish state.
Ben-Gurion sorted the Jews of the world into five large blocs: the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish population of Palestine), the Jews of the English-speaking countries, the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Jews of Western Europe except Britain and, as he put it, “Mizrahi Jewry [i.e., from Muslim countries].”
Among these, he assessed it would be possible to bring only the fifth bloc in its entirety – 855,000 Jews from Muslim states. In his diary he did not say how and in what time frame it would be possible to do this – but within one generation most were indeed living in Israel.
Did Ben-Gurion want the exodus from Yemen to happen the way it did? Clearly he was not deterred by such waves of immigration, and in cases when it was a matter of uprooted Jewish refugees, he saw supreme importance in bringing them to Israel swiftly, lest they recover and decide they wanted to immigrate elsewhere. In his view, the strengthening of the Jewish population in Israel demographically was the prime consideration.
However, when it came to communities that had not been uprooted, other considerations were involved in planning of the rate of immigration. Thus, for example, on the eve of the dismantling of the large camp in Aden, late in the spring of 1949, a year had passed since the creation of the state and the beginning of mass immigration. Absorption facilities in Israel were already completely full. Ben-Gurion’s colleagues in the government warned of an impending collapse of the economy, the health system and welfare services if the inundation continued.
Among the veteran elite there was also a new ethnically based fear of change in the demographic balance between Ashkenazi (European) and Mizrahi Jews. The first Mizrahi immigrants to suffer from the new Ashkenazi anxiety were the Jews of Morocco – at more than a quarter of a million, the largest Jewish community among the Muslim countries. The Yemenites were less “threatening’: They were known as a small, submissive, industrious community that contributed ancient traditions to the developing Israeli culture.
Nevertheless, the new Israeli leadership did not develop a plan for the immediate immigration of all of Yemenite Jewry, but rather only a gradual, multi-year plan. In May 1949 there was talk of about 10,000 a year – thus an exodus from Yemen that would spread over four or five years. At that stage an agreement had already been reached with the ruler of Yemen, Imam Ahmad, whereby all the Jews would be permitted to leave. The Yemenite “Pharaoh” was much easier to deal with than the Egyptian one in the Bible, but hardly anyone budged: The community was waiting for a signal, as the messages transmitted to them from the Israeli establishment in Aden were discouraging and called upon them not to be hasty.
There is where Zadok swung into action. Born in Sanaa, he came to Palestine in 1929 and later returned to Yemen as a Jewish Agency emissary. Upon arriving in Yemen, or perhaps even earlier, he was shocked and angry that the Jews were not leaving en masse. This did not accord with his fervent Zionist beliefs and with the image of his community as the religious complement to secular Zionism – a community whose traditional character was unblemished, which had messianic tendencies and a special sensitivity to the signs of redemption.
In the Jewish Agency files in Aden, Zadok found the explanation for the delay: the discouraging letters from the head of the office. He decided to defy them and sent the leaders of various Yemenite Jewish communities a missive with the opposite message: “Brothers, awaken and rouse the others, the propitious time has come! … Overcome the sufferings and the agonies of the way, for without you Israel will not be redeemed. And lest the moment be missed and you are too late, arise and come at once!”
The replies Zadok cites in his memoir show that in many places, everything was ready for the great departure and the communal leaders were only waiting for the signal. It was Tzadok who gave it, thereby spurring the great and hasty Yemenite exodus.
In this case, then, the role of the biblical Moses was divided between Ben-Gurion and his young Yemenite follower. Incidentally, the documentation shows that the active role Zadok assumed in leading the Jews out of Yemen did not accelerate their immigration. He decided to embark on a mission to help the victims of the hasty departure, and during the time he spent at the border he was perceived as the head of the Jewish refugees: He assembled their leaders for consultation, took it upon himself to adjudicate disputes among them, and so on.
These were the days of the collapse of the old leadership of the communities, which appeared powerless at the start of the immigration crisis. A new, supreme leadership, totally Ashkenazi, was destined to wait for the immigrants in the promised land. In the meantime, for the Yemenites a handful of young men from their own country who had grown up in Israel and became devoted Zionists, played a fateful role – but one that was taken away from them at the end of the exodus.
Zadok was the most prominent of them, with respect to the weight of his historic role, but there were others, among them Ovadiah Tuvia and Shimon Avizemer.
The very same phenomenon seen with the Yemenite immigrants emerged in the exodus from Iraq. The role played by Zadok was undertaken in Iraq by Shlomo Hillel and Mordechai Ben-Porat. There, too, a handful of Zionist emissaries – this time, of Iraqi origin – played a crucial role in shaping the fate of their countrymen. There too the veteran leadership collapsed at the time of crisis, and the ones who ultimately determined the scope and pace of the immigration were emissaries of Iraqi origin. And they performed their roles in turning the immigration into a hasty exodus, as in the case of Yemen, despite the gritted teeth of most Israeli leaders with the exception of Ben-Gurion.
The difference is that their role was more open and publicized, and the exodus of Jews from Iraq did not include an agonizing episode in the desert. The greatest suffering occured in the promised land itself, in the transit camps; that’s where the traumatic experience of uprooting was endured by Babylonian Jewry.
Interestingly, for Yemenite Jewry as well, the collective memory of trauma has been focused on what happened to them after arriving in Israel, rather than during the journey in Yemen: The terrible hunger and thirst, sickness and death en route, and in the camp in Aden, do not occupy a prominent place. Nor do the memories of the extortion by authorities or even of robberies at the hands of other inhabitants.
The saga of Yemenite suffering focuses instead on the encounter with the young state and its leaders, members of their own religion and people. It begins with memories of theft of gold and silver jewelry, manuscripts and other treasures just before the flight from Aden to Israel. It continues with recollections of cultural suppression in the immigrant camps and the cutting off of men’s earlocks, and it climaxes in the claims about the kidnapping of babies from their mothers.
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