Yemenite Jews en route to Israel.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On November 8, 1949, it was finally revealed that the Israeli government was airlifting to the Holy Land more than 40,000 Yemenite Jews in a clandestine operation.
Operation Wings of Eagles, also known as Operation Magic Carpet, began in December 1948 and lasted until December 1949, with minor waves of aliya taking place in the 1950s as well.
Beginning with the passing of the UN Partition Plan on November 29, 1947, to establish a Jewish state in British Mandatory Palestine, Arab countries turned hostile on their Jewish citizens, and Yemen’s Jews were no exception. Riots in Aden broke out a month following the declaration, and more than 70 Yemenite Jews were killed and the Jewish Quarter was looted and burned.
Yemenite Jews wanting to move Israel were hopeless, as the Egyptian government had blocked the main southern access points to the Holy Land – the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Their only hope was the wings of an eagle.
Faced with a war and harsh economic conditions, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion pleaded with his colleagues to do whatever they could to move all the Yemenite Jews into the safety of the State of Israel.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee funded the airlift, and out of all the airlines to play a role in the operation, it was Alaska Airlines.
In a reenactment of Exodus 19:4 and Isaiah 40:31, the charter airline modified its planes so it could carry more passengers, replacing armchair seats with benches lining up extra fuel tanks down the rows. For almost a year and a half, the pilots worked 16-20 hour days, flying over hostile territory with aircraft that went way over their service requirements.
Journalist Ruth Gruber, who was invited to join one of the flights, published her experiences in the “New York Herald Tribune” on November 8, 1949, which led the Israeli censor to permit the publication of the operation.
According to Beverly G. Merrick of New Mexico State University Gruber described it as “an all-American airlift comprised of C-54 Skymasters, ‘some wearing boots from Texas,’ and transporting biblical figures with lovelocks wearing long robes, fringed hoods, and carrying holy books – ‘parting’ the corridor of the Red Sea in an eight-and-a-half-hour flight.”
One of the Alaska Airlines’ flight attendants recalled how one of the passengers believed that she was truly on the wings of an eagle.
“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,” Marian Metzger said.
In Tudor V. Parfitt’s “The Road to Redemption: The Jews of the Yemen 1900-1950,” however, he writes that most knew what a plane was, but it didn’t take away from the redemption that this unbelievable operation brought.
“In Israel it soon became axiomatic that the Yemenites literally believed the great iron birds to be the eagles of the prophecy,” he wrote. “Whereas this was not the case and most of them had seen planes flying over Yemen and knew more or less what was happening in Palestine, nonetheless, they could be excused for thinking, as they no doubt did, that this airlift was indeed the most remarkable fulfillment of prophecy and the safety of the camp compared with the dangers of the road and the institutionalized subjugation of their life in Yemen represented a very tangible form of redemption.”
In another sign of the operation’s Divine intervention, on the week that the operation was revealed, Jews across the world read the chapters of Isaiah 40-41 as the Haftara portion on that Sabbath.
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