June 28, 2019
Following Israel’s founding in 1948, the roughly one million Jews living in Arab-speaking countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa faced increased violence and persecution. As a result, most of these Arab Jews immigrated to Israel, creating a highly diverse Jewish population in the nascent state. But 70 years ago this month, Israel undertook a historic mission to proactively rescue persecuted Jews in the Arab world.
It was June 1949—just over a year after its Declaration of Independence and barely two months after reaching the final armistice agreement that ended its costly defensive War of Independence—when Israel initiated, with U.S. support, a secret, daring operation to rescue the endangered Jewish community in Yemen, a hostile Arab country that maintained an official state of war with Israel. By September 1950, through Operation Magic Carpet (also known as Operation On Wings of Eagles), 50,000 persecuted Yemeni Jews had been airlifted to Israel despite extreme hurdles, threats and violent efforts to disrupt the operation.
Operation Magic Carpet was only the first of several such Israeli endeavors. Less than a year after its completion, Israel initiated an even larger operation to rescue imperiled Jews from an Arab country, airlifting more than 120,000 Jews out of Iraq. In 1984-1985, Israel airlifted some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews out of refugee camps in Sudan. And in 1991, 35 Israeli aircraft flying nonstop brought nearly 15,000 threatened Ethiopian Jews to Israel in just 36 hours. Over the years, Israel has received and absorbed nearly a million Jewish refugees from Asian and African countries; they and their descendants constitute a majority of Israel’s diverse Jewish population, belying the claim that Israeli Jews are European “implants” in the Middle East.
The United States frequently encouraged and supported Israeli rescue and absorption efforts. In these activities, Israel and America have shared cherished humanitarian values.
The Jews of Yemen on the Eve of Operation Magic Carpet: An Oppressed, Endangered Minority
The Jewish community of Yemen was one of the world’s oldest, dating back more than 2,000 years. Over the millennia, Jews in Yemen—as in other Arab countries—experienced alternate periods of well-being and oppression, including pogroms and expulsions. Under a revived Islamic law, since 1922, Yemeni Jewish orphans have been forcibly converted to Islam.
Following the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, the situation of the Yemeni Jewish community further deteriorated. Even in Yemeni-inhabited Aden, then an adjacent British crown colony and now part of Yemen, Yemeni rioters, assisted by the local Arab police force, murdered at least 82 Jews, torched the Jewish quarter, destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes, and demolished and looted Jewish-owned stores and businesses. In early 1948, accusations of the murder of two Muslim Yemeni girls led to more anti-Jewish rioting and looting of Jewish property. Israel’s establishment in 1948 and its War of Independence increasingly imperiled the Jews in Yemen, as it did in all Arab countries. Most Yemeni Jews desperately wanted to leave Yemen for their ancient homeland, the nascent State of Israel.
Two major developments in early 1949 enabled the fulfillment of their hope. The Imam of Yemen granted permission for Jewish emigration; and although Israel was devastated and almost bankrupt at the end of the War of Independence, its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, ordered the immediate and rapid “Ingathering of the Exiles,” including the Jews of Yemen.
Operation Magic Carpet: Success Against All Odds
Once Operation Magic Carpet received the go-ahead from the Yemeni and Israeli governments, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)—the international Jewish humanitarian aid organization—agreed to fund the Yemeni exodus. In cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel, it organized the operation.
Airlifting Yemen’s Jews to Israel faced nearly impossible obstacles. While wealthier Yemeni Jews resided in Sana and other big cities, poorer Jews lived in small towns and villages scattered throughout the country. Yemen refused permission for the flights to take off from its territory. To reach a transit camp nicknamed Geula (redemption) near the British airbase in Aden where the flights originated, many Jews walked hundreds of miles, carrying Bibles and Torah scrolls, over rough, mountainous terrain with almost no roads, subject to attacks by bandits and hostile local populations. When they reached the border with Aden half-starved and destitute, Israeli aid workers met them and transported them to the camp. There they encountered, for the first time in their lives, electricity, medicine, running water, toilets and personal hygiene. The camp was funded and organized by the JDC and staffed by Israeli doctors and social workers.
Further compounding the difficulties, the logistics made the task extraordinarily daunting. Fuel was hard to come by. Flight and maintenance crews had to be positioned throughout the Middle East. The desert sand wreaked havoc on engines. Pilots were warned that if they were forced to land in enemy territory, the passengers, and perhaps the crew, risked prison or worse. The operation took a lot of resourcefulness and guts. But in the end, despite being routinely shot at by Egyptian forces during the 1,400-mile flights to Israel, the mission was accomplished.
It took a lot of improvisation by JDC-chartered Alaska Airlines’ American pilots, who operated the majority of Magic Carpet’s flights, to transport tens of thousands of refugees in the shortest amount of time possible. As originally configured, the airline’s Douglas DC-4 and Curtiss C-46 aircraft could not carry enough passengers or sufficient fuel. So, the planes were modified by replacing the regular airline seats with rows of benches and fitting extra fuel tanks down the length of the fuselages between the benches. An aircraft intended to carry up to 50 passengers could now carry 120 or more, and despite the extra weight, the fuel would last an extra hour.
Alaska Airlines’ Robert F. Maguire Jr., the chief pilot of Operation Magic Carpet, flew between 270 and 300 hours each month; in the United States, the limit under its aviation rules was 90 hours. Maguire relied as much on his wits as on his aviation skills. He once ran out of fuel and was forced to land in Egypt. When airport officials rushed to the plane, Maguire asked them to send ambulances immediately to take passengers to the nearest hospital. "Why?" they asked. "Smallpox," he replied. He got his fuel without further ado and flew on to Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion called Maguire “The Irish Moses.” In 2004, Maguire was awarded a medal of valor by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for his role in rescuing the Jews of Yemen.
Never having seen an airplane before, many of the immigrants were frightened and refused to board. Once reminded that their deliverance to Israel by air was prophesized in the Book of Isaiah (40:31)—“They shall mount up with wings like eagles”—reinforced by the painting of an eagle with outstretched wings over the door of each aircraft, they boarded the planes. Once inside, many preferred to sit on the floor rather than on unaccustomed seats or benches. During the flight, about half would get sick from the fumes leaking out of the extra fuel tanks inside. Nonetheless, upon landing in Israel they chanted blessings and burst into song.
An Alaska Airlines flight attendant who participated in a number of Magic Carpet flights 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,’ she said.”
By the time Operation Magic Carpet ended in September 1950, 28 Alaska Airlines pilots had made some 380 flights and airlifted nearly 50,000 refugees to Israel- almost the entire Yemeni Jewish population. Miraculously, not one death or injury occurred. For security reasons and to prevent sabotage, the operation was kept secret. It would be many months before the public or the press would become aware of this remarkable operation.
Postscript: Yemeni Jews in Israel
Upon arrival, the Magic Carpet refugees encountered an impoverished Israel with few resources to accommodate them. At first, they were placed—like all other destitute immigrants at the time—in bleak transit camps (Ma’abarot) in the outskirts of the big cities. When conditions improved, they were sent to agricultural settlements (moshavim). Gradually, Israel’s growing prosperity enabled them to live wherever they wanted and partake in the country’s rising standard of living.
Going through the Israeli school system and the mandatory military service—a great equalizer—has allowed Yemeni Jews, especially those who arrived in Israel at a young age, to integrate into Israeli society and be represented in all walks of life. Many are teachers, government officials, skilled industry workers, engineers and technicians, artists and musicians, as well as IDF officers. Yemeni Jews are gaining political office, especially at the municipal and regional level. Their votes are split among various parties.
Like members of other ethnic groups in Israel, an increasing number of Yemeni Jews—by now more than 400,000-strong—have intermarried with members of other ethnic Jewish groups. Israel is gradually becoming an ethnic melting pot, but it also remains a “gorgeous mosaic,” to borrow New York Mayor David Dinkins’ memorable phrase.
Yet, Yemeni Jews have neither forgotten nor given up their cultural heritage. Quite the contrary, Yemeni Jewish culture—particularly dance and music, as well as arts and crafts—has had a major impact on Israeli culture. The acclaimed dance company Inbal has integrated traditional Yemeni motifs with Western themes. Some of Israel’s top singers—including Ofra Haza, Eyal Golan, Dana International and Achinoam Nini, all of Yemeni origin—have helped make Middle Eastern music, once looked down upon by European Jews, a leading style in Israel’s pop music scene. Yemeni cuisine—especially Jachnun and Malawach—has long become mainstream in Israel.
Yemeni arts and crafts too are now fashionable in Israel. Yemeni Jews, especially silversmiths and goldsmiths, have successfully introduced their styles into modern Israeli culture, contributing to its development.
Since 1950, Israel has mounted several secret, smaller-scale rescue operations to bring in the remaining Yemeni Jews. By now, only a handful remain in Yemen.
Conclusion: Operation Magic Carpet—a Resounding Success
Initiated and overseen by Israelis, funded and organized by American Jews, and run by intrepid American pilots, Operation Magic Carpet succeeded not only in rescuing 50,000 endangered Yemeni Jews, but also in demonstrating that even in its infancy, Israel was willing to open its arms to destitute, pre-modern Jews in distress, take them in, and provide them with the conditions that eventually enabled them to become productive citizens. This may have been the first case in history that a Western nation had organized mass immigration of third-world residents not as slaves, but as free people. As mentioned, soon afterward, Israel did the same for Iraqi Jews and, several decades later, for Ethiopian Jews. Israel has also willingly admitted Jewish refugees from various other Arab countries. Consequently, Israel has become an incredibly diverse nation, where at least half its Jewish population originate from Asia and Africa.
Israel’s incredible success in absorbing so many refugees, mostly impoverished and steeped in pre-modern cultural values, while still maintaining a vibrant democracy and a rapidly advancing, first-class economy, is truly a light unto the nations.
Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report NERSummer2019