Wings of Eagles: Israel’s multiple airlifts and sealifts

Seventy years after their launch, Israel’s multiple airlifts and sealifts of distressed Jews defy modern immigration’s increasingly troubled course.

A family of Jewish immigrants from Yemen arrives at Lod Airport on the Operation Magic Carpet airlift, November 17, 1949 (photo credit: HANS PINN)
A family of Jewish immigrants from Yemen arrives at Lod Airport on the Operation Magic Carpet airlift, November 17, 1949
(photo credit: HANS PINN)
Having crossed a land where the king’s taxmen stripped him of all his belonging but one scarf, a second land that was wrapped in perennial frost, and a third where neither Saturday nor Sunday was a day of rest – a Hasid named Hananiah reached the Ukrainian town of Buczacz where, so he heard, a group of Hasidim were preparing to journey to the Land of Israel.
The rumor proved true, and having welcomed the fellow traveler the group soon embarked on the voyage that took them from Galicia to Moldova across the Dniester until it reached the riverside town of Galati, where they boarded a boat and sailed down the Danube until climbing a larger vessel with which they would proceed to Istanbul, where they would seek an even larger ship with which they would sail to Jaffa, where they would finally set foot on, and thereupon kiss, their forebears’ patch of earth.
However, the boat had hardly entered the sea when the group – having assembled to pray – noticed that the ten men they had originally included became nine. Hananiah was missing.
All assumed he had been stranded ashore and were now regretting their failure to properly look after each other until the moon and the stars vanished and dawn rose beyond the deck, unveiling a man’s image out in the sea.
No fish in the sea threatened to swallow and no wave to drown the broadly bearded man who was holding a book and seated peacefully on a scarf, to the bewilderment of the passengers who hailed from 70 nations and now watched the man on the scarf “until their eyelashes were scorched by the sun.”
Finally, having braved a storm, landed in Jaffa and journeyed to Jerusalem, the Hasidim were in the middle of thanking God for having shepherded them from sea to land when “their eyes peeked and they saw Hananiah, standing in front of them, his face glowing with happiness like the sea waves’ glow under the moon.”
And after he greeted them and rejoiced with them, and after they asked him “who brought you here?” Hanaiah answered, “I spread my scarf on the sea and sat on it until I reached the Land of Israel.”
Penning this tale in 1933, based on a legend told in the Galician town from which he had himself journeyed to Jerusalem, author S.Y. Agnon could not imagine when he wrote “In the Heart of Seas” that 15 years later its spirit of yearning, fantasy, and resolve would animate the Jewish state’s whisking of thousands from Exile’s agonies to motherland’s shores.
Even so, that is what happened in a succession of daring voyages launched 70 years ago this fall, all of which now add up to a singular tale in an increasingly strained history of modern immigration.
IT STARTED in Yemen, whence it later proceeded north, to Iraq, then west, to Morocco, and finally back east, to Ethiopia, opposite the Yemeni shores where it began.
Back in Yemen, having just learned of the United Nations’ Partition Resolution, a mob gathered in Aden and stormed its 5,000 Jews.
The pogrom began December 2, 1947 and lasted three days, after which 78 Jews lay dead, more than 100 stores stood looted, and four synagogues had been burned to dust.
The embryonic Jewish state’s leaders therefore sought ways to salvage Yemen’s 50,000 Jews. The community’s consequent relocation would prove seminal, both logistically and socially.
Though still fighting its War of Independence, Israel decided to airlift Yemen’s Jews.
Deploying Alaska Airlines’ handful of pilots and small fleet of C-46s and DC-4s, Israeli agents organized Yemen’s Jews in a transit camp in Aden, from which they dispatched in less than two years some 80 flights. By 1950 they had carried to Israel 48,875 Yemenite Jews.
“Did you ever fly before this?” then-Labor Minister Golda Meir asked an old man as he emerged from the airplane. He hadn’t, but in reply to Meir’s next question said he was not afraid to fly. “How come?” she asked, and the man replied by reciting, in its entirety, Isaiah 40, including the verse “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings, as eagles.”
THE LOGISTICAL task seemed beyond the abilities of a small and penniless state, yet it was carried out fully, making organized exodus a recurring theme in Israel’s first 43 years.
In Iraq, more than 110,000 Jews were airlifted in some 900 flights between 1951 and 1952, with many of the passengers initially smuggled to Iran.
The following decade the spectacle moved from Asia to Africa, and from air to sea, as 80,000 Jews were shipped from Morocco to Israel in 1961-1964.
Finally, and most dramatically, 14,325 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted within 36 hours in 1991 by 35 Israeli jets.
Seventy years after these operations began, they underscore the titanic effort to reunite the previously disjointed Jewish nation.
The geographic success is self-evident, as Middle Eastern Jewry ended up mostly in Israel. Diplomatically, too, there was some priceless windfall from this effort, as Iraqi Jewry’s airlift led Israeli agents to establish ties with the Iranian government, and at one point fly Iraqi Jews to Israel with Air Iran’s predecessor, Iranian Airways.
“That’s how we paved the way for Iran’s de facto recognition of Israel in March 1950, and that’s how we created the beginning of Israel’s diplomatic mission in Iran,” recalled in his book, “Operation Babylon” (1985) Shlomo Hillel, the Baghdadi-born Jew who oversaw this operation at age 25 and later served as Israel’s ambassador to Nigeria, minister of police, and speaker of the Knesset.
Socially, however, the exodus operations’ aftermath was daunting, as many Middle Eastern Jews – unlike Hillel, who was born to a family of Westernized tea importers – were challenged by Israel’s Western culture, much the way current-day Europe challenges its Muslim immigrants.
Having usually arrived with meager resources, thousands of the new immigrants were at an economic disadvantage. Moreover, veteran Israelis had mostly European roots, and as such were products of the enlightenment movement and industrial revolution. The airlift’s arrivals, by contrast, were mostly traditional and poor, and often less formally educated.
Some therefore doubted the young state’s ability to glue together its new and veteran populations. They were proven wrong.
FOR DECADES, social gaps between Israel’s European and Middle Eastern Jews were a major national challenge, which in one memorable case – in 1959 – also resulted in several days of statewide riots. More recently, Ethiopian Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv in protest of what they feel is their discrimination by police.
Even so, Israeli Jews’ shared religious background provided sufficient national glue to build a new society that is coalescing faster than Israel’s founders predicted.
The Yemenite man whom Golda Meir met on the tarmac was accepted by everyone as a Jew. His biblical knowledge and Judaic observance made it obvious. The same went for other Middle Eastern communities.
Iraqi Jews were descended from the scholars who wrote the Babylonian Talmud. Syrian Jews preserved for centuries the world’s most ancient Torah scroll. Egyptian Jewry yielded Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher. Tunisian Jewry prided on its antiquity, reflected by the community of Djerba, a Mediterranean island whose Jews were all Kohanim, meaning offspring of biblical Jerusalem’s priests.
Like Yemen’s Jews, who believed their forebears arrived in Arabia following Babylonia’s conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and like Ethiopia’s Jews, who believe they arrived in Africa in the wake of King Solomon’s alliance with the Queen of Sheba, Djerba’s Jews believed their ancestors arrived in Africa centuries before Jewish communities emerged in Europe.
Still, Mideastern Jewry shrank from 50% of world Jewry in the 17th century to 10% by the 19th century, due to the growing gap in development during those years between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. That is how European Jews came to see their Middle Eastern brethren as exotic Jews.
Today, with more than one in three Israelis at least partly Mideastern, that sense of exoticism is itself an anachronism. The air- and sealifted Jews’ social climb has been altogether dramatic.
As noted here recently in a different context (“Unsung heroism,” May 14, 2018), since 1982 5 of 10 IDF chiefs of staff hailed from the Middle Eastern immigrations, as did 4 of 9 ministers of defense, 3 of 10 foreign ministers, 5 of 15 finance ministers, and 2 of the Israel Police’s last 3 chiefs, including the incumbent, Roni Alsheikh, whose father, Avraham, was among the droves flown from Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet. Among mayors and lawmakers the share of Mideastern Israelis is even higher.
In the private sector, Israel’s list of self-made billionaires is studded with names like Yitzhak Teshuva, who arrived from Libya as a baby with his family of ten, started off as a construction worker and became a developer worth some $3 billion; or Tzadik Bino, who arrived from Iraq in 1950 at age six, started off as a bank teller, and became CEO of the First International Bank, which he now owns; or Shlomo Eliyahu, who also arrived in 1950 as a child from Iraq and started off as a messenger boy in Migdal Insurance before becoming an independent insurer and eventually buying Migdal for more than 4.2 billion shekels.
While these are extreme cases, they reflect intense social mobility in a society that admires achievement more than lineage. That may explain why the number of Israelis of joint European-Mideastern ancestry is rising steadily and, among the generation of thirty-somethings, already stands at 25 percent.
That trend also goes for Israel’s most recent non-European immigration, and the last to board its multiple airlifts.
More than a tenth of Ethiopian Israelis are already married to white Israelis. That is not even half the “intermarriage” rate between the rest of Israel’s non-European and European Jews. It is, however, more than twice the rate of black-white marriages in the US.
AS THEY turn 70, yesteryears’ Israeli airlifts and sealifts eerily contrast with what is happening today beyond Israel, where throngs of African and Arab immigrants brave Mediterranean waves and eye European shores before splitting into three groups: those who reach an unwelcoming Europe, those who remain stranded in camps between land and sea, and those who drown in the sea.
Seen against this backdrop, Israel’s airlifts and sealifts now loom as a singular effort on the part of a developed country to actively lead immigrants from the Third World to its shores.
Fortunately, a 70-year-retrospective of airlifts and sealifts indicates that while Israel lacked even a fraction of current-day Europe’s resources, it had all the absorption motivation that today’s Europe lacks.
Watching on TV the current European-Mideastern tragedy’s gruesome scenes, Israelis feel they know this drama from all its sides: the immigrant’s quest to reach, the veteran’s reluctance to embrace, and the sea’s readiness to swallow.
“All celestial heavens darken and the moon and the stars hide,” wrote Agnon of the immigrant’s view from the boat, “the world’s air is damp and its taste is like the taste of salt; the whole world stands still, nothing can be heard but the sound of the sea waves kissing one another.”