In Israel's collective memory, the aliyah from Yemen is remembered as a rescue: Jews were whisked from oppression and replanted safely in the Land of Israel.
Operation Magic Carpet, as it became known, heralded the first wave of Jewish immigration from the Muslim world. The conventional view holds that from June 1949 to September 1950, nearly 50,000 Yemenite Jews traveled through space and time from the backward nation of Yemen to the modern and advanced State of Israel. In legend and lore, Operation Magic Carpet was a miraculous journey toward redemption, but according to a new book, this symbol is as hollow and glamorized as a fairy tale.
In "The Exodus of the Yemenite Jews A Failed Operation and a Formative Myth," published by Resling, Dr. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein reveals the how this mythic larger-than-life rescue operation was actually organized and describes the heavy toll it exacted upon the people it intended to save.
The story of the Yemenite aliyah was intentionally spun as an enchanting fairy tale in order to mask that it actually didn't go well at all, explains Meir-Glitzenstein, a senior lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
No fewer than 700,000 Jews reached Israel during the state's first years. What made the aliyah from Yemen unique among the early waves of immigration was the heavy death toll, she says.
"The Yemenite immigrants arrived hungry and sick at the transit camp set up for them in the Yemenite port city of Aden, after having walked hundreds of kilometers," she says. But the camp didn't have the facilities to care for them.
About 700 of the Jewish migrants died at the camp were buried in an adjacent cemetery. An additional 150 travelers, suffering from a lack of basic necessities on the journey, died between the border of the British-controlled Protectorate of Aden and North Yemen.
Then when the immigrants reached Israel, the fatalities continued. Post-immigration infant mortality rates ran high. While the myth-spinners of Operation Magic Carpet chalked up these tragedies to the difficult situation in Yemen, the book reveals that the deaths were actually a result of disastrous management. Refugees died, Meir-Glitzenstein says, because of incompetent planning, apathy and abandonment.
Who was responsible for this tragedy?
"The exodus of Jews from Yemen was planned with the cooperation of imam of Yemen who ruled North Yemen, the British authorities in Aden, the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Every party played a role in the tragedy," Meir-Glitzenstein says. "The imam, who profited hugely from property and confiscatory taxes levied on the Jewish community, didn't lift a finger to help his subjects, who were desperate for aid. The British didn't help either."
But the lion's share of the blame lies with the Joint Distribution Committee, Meir-Glitzenstein says.
From the moment the rescue effort began, she contends, the JDC took control - and subsequently failed at every single point.
A scheduled airlift did not arrive on time. There wasn't enough shelter, food or medicine for the displaced Jews. Perhaps most egregiously, Meir-Glitzenstein says, the JDC abandoned thousands of Jews in the barren desert that straddles the North Yemen-Aden border.
As for assistance that did arrive, it was too little, too late.
But the JDC is not the only culpable party. "The Israeli government agreed to let the JDC handle the operation," Meir-Glitzenstein says. "That means that they, too, shared some of the blame for this tragedy."
How did this fiasco became a basic myth, one tied to the religious notions of salvation and national redemption?
That would be because of classic propaganda, says Meir-Glitzenstein.
"At the height of the aliyah from Yemen, the leadership of the JDC sent a press release to the media, describing Operation Magic Carpet as a successful rescue operation that brought the Jews of Yemen back to their ancestral homeland," she says. And the heavy price paid by the immigrants? Conveniently left out. Also not mentioned were mistakes in implementation and unfulfilled promises.
"The organizers of the mission were depicted as saviors," Meir-Glitzenstein says. "The mass exodus of Yemenite Jews was explained in terms of a messianic awakening among a religious community that spent 2,000 years longing for redemption. The religio-messianic myth was later ascribed to subsequent waves of immigration from Muslim countries."
Is there a conspiracy of silence surrounding this issue?
Of sorts, yes, Meir-Glitzenstein says. According to her research, three separate Knesset committees reviewed the operation. They discovered that some of the Israelis stationed in Aden, including senior JDC staffers, engaged in black-market smuggling. They knew the immigrants suffering but didn't care. Some staffers went so far as to beat the pilgrims with clubs and steal what little property they had managed to take with them.
In response to the Knesset inquiries, the JDC replaced their representatives in Aden. "But not a single JDC staffer was ever indicted," Meir-Glitzenstein says.
And it's not as if the abuses were a secret. "Many people outside the JDC were aware of what was going on, among them Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and other senior government ministers," she says. "Everyone kept silent. Maybe they wanted to protect the State of Israel, since it was so new, and maybe they were concerned about the reputation of the JDC, which played a big part in bringing Jews to Israel and helping them settle."
How did the aliyah narrative of Yemenite Jewry affect their absorption into Israeli society?
Approximately 30,000 sick and battered immigrants arrived from Yemen, but Israelis, Meir-Glitzenstein says, was under the impression that conditions in Yemen were to blame.
Among the sick were 3,000 infants in grave condition. Israel was not equipped to provide treatment.
And after all that, since Israeli society was under the impression that it had saved these immigrants and brought them to a better place, Israelis expected gratitude.
"Even today in Israel, no one understands the price these immigrants paid," Meir-Glitzenstein says. "There is not a single monument in Israel dedicated to those who died on the journey from Yemen. They have been erased both from historical memory and public consciousness."