Yemeni Jew’s story coloured by nostalgia

Sarah Eden

It is sixty years since Israel organised the first great operation, Operation Magic Carpet, to airlift 49,000 Jews from Yemen. Sarah Eden is nostalgic for the land of her birth, in spite of the poverty and sickness, and has fond memories of her Arab neighbours. Benjamin Joffe-Walt describes the ups and downs of her life in the Jerusalem Post:

Contrary to the dominant narrative of Yemeni-Israeli Jews, Eden says the family’s relations with their Arab neighbors were warm.

“We had good relations with the Arabs,” she says. “No problems at all. They never did anything wrong to us. On the contrary, they always battled to protect and defend the Jews.

“For example, when my grandmother was widowed with four young kids, she worried that they would ‘Islamize’* her kids,” Eden remembers. “But everywhere she went she asked her neighbors to protect her kids and they did.”

Eden says that for most of her childhood, going to the Land of Israel was a distant dream.

“My mom had family in Palestine and they would send letters,” she says, showing a few of the letters she still has saved in an extensive album of memorabilia. “A letter would come and 15 people would crowd around.

“We were not fleeing Yemen and it was not about potential wealth,” Eden continues.

“The pull to Palestine was about religious ideology. We heard about Israel only through prayers. We had no idea what was there.

“People wanted to go to Palestine but they had no money, so it was really mostly rich people,” she says. “My mother used to travel to Sana’a and ask the rabbi, ‘When can we go to Israel?’ He would tell her ‘This is the door, and your day will come.’ “In 1942, my mom’s cousin arrived and told us all our relatives were at the airport, and that my grandmother was taking all her kids to Palestine,” Eden tells. “We had to pay to get to Aden and my rich uncle who was going was supposed to pay. But he said he would only give over the money if my father agreed to marry me off to his 25-year-old cousin.

There was a fight and in the end we didn’t go to Palestine.

“We never forgot what they did to us then,” she says. “My grandmother and entire family left us alone in Yemen.

There is tension that continues between us to this day.”

Five years later, after the United Nations proposed a partition of Palestine, a number of attacks against Jews took place in Yemen. Days after the UN plan was announced, Jews in Aden were accused of murdering two girls and Yemen’s principal port city erupted in anti- Jewish violence. An estimated 82 Jews were killed, 106 of the 170 Jewish shops in the city were robbed, four synagogues were burnt to the ground and more than 200 Jewish homes were burned or looted.

“There was no radio or newspaper telling you about any problems or pogroms,” Eden says. “We didn’t even know about it, so for us everything seemed quiet. But people who came to Sana’a would bring news, so a year later we heard that there was a State of Israel.”

Following the Aden riots and the formation of the state, Israel quickly mobilized to facilitate the immediate emigration of Yemen’s entire Jewish community.

“One day we heard that some Jews had gotten into Israel and everyone is leaving,” Eden remembers. “We went back to the village to sell our house, pack food for the journey and had to wait for my sister-in-law to give birth.

Then we walked five hours to Sana’a, and waited there three months for a ride on a cargo truck to Aden.

“On the way to Aden we would be stopped and they would check how much money everyone had,” she continues. “My sister had an eye patch and they even checked inside the eye patch for money! Each checkpoint would take 10 percent of whatever you had, and there were a few checkpoints along the way.

“When we got to Aden we were registered,” she says, referring to those on the ground running the emigration operation. “They took a picture of each of us. It’s the first photo I have of myself.”

The international operation, officially dubbed Operation On Wings of Eagles, but more commonly known by the nickname Operation Magic Carpet, became the first mass aliya after the foundation of the State of Israel.

In a period of 15 months about 49,000 Yemenite Jews were airlifted over in 380 flights in American and British planes from Aden to Israel.

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*Jewish orphans would often be abducted and converted to Islam.

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