The Magic Carpet
By C. L. Howard
We are familiar with stories of the holocaust and of illegal immigration of European Jews to Israel. What is less known is the astonishing story of the secret immigration of the Jews of Yemen to Israel.
Israel fought a war in 1948 for their independence but the Arab states never accepted Israel's right to exist; instead they maintained a constant state of belligerency towards the new, yet mighty state of Israel., Israel had to defeat armies that were trained and supervised by the British during the war of independence to win their right to an independent country. In spite of the fact that the mighty British Empire had given their support to the Arabs, they had been defeated. This played an important role in the ability to gain release of the Jews of Yemen.
In the year 1950 in a forlorn corner of Arabia, in the southern peninsula below Saudi Arabia, lived many Jews who traced their ancestry back to Jews who settled in Yemen during the times of King Solomon and the first Temple, some 3500 years ago. They had come during a time of prosperity before the creation of the religion of Islam. They were at that time well received and treated well.
The Yemen of 1950 was divided into two areas, Yemen and the Aden Protectorate, both under British administration. Yemen itself was an extremely backward area. It was ruled by a sultan yet each area had its sheik who ruled his particular locale as he saw fit. There was no electricity for the vast majority of people, no water pipes, no automobiles and no newspapers. The ruling elite, however, did manage to include these amenities in their life. The modern world of 1950 had not pierced the secluded desert kingdom of Yemen for the indigent inhabitants of the desolate kingdom. Life was based on agriculture, plowing was done with animals; tractors and automobiles were a rarity and reserved only for the Iman. Non-Muslims were rarely allowed to enter Yemen even as a tourist, not that there was there anything to see, but it was felt that the non-Moslem would contaminate the purity of Islam.
Islamic law prevailed. The Jews were forbidden any possibility of equality to their Moslem neighbors who considered them as "dogs and apes". They were prohibited from building a house higher than their Moslem neighbors, they could not wear clothing which was nicer, and they had to be careful to walk on the left side of a Moslem.
Since the average Yemenite Moslem lived a life of total and abject poverty, the Jews of Yemen were forced to live a lower life style in order that they should not embarrass them. Most inhabitants of Yemen knew nothing of modern furniture as the western world knows: chairs, tables, ovens, stoves, refrigerators, and of course, toilets. The inhabitants of Yemen slept on mats on the dirt floor of the mud hut that he called a house. Water was brought by hand from a well or a river. Shoes and sandals were rare, walking in public with bare feet was common. Doctors were charmers who used various forms of folk-medicine to cure and ward away the evil spirits.
Yet the Yemenite Jews lived a life based on Biblical prophecy and tradition which always emphasized redemption. Several Yemenite Jews had snuck out of Yemen and found their way into Palestine, now Israel. They had to walk eluding the robber bands and the various sheiks who charged a head tax for safe passage through their territory. But after reaching the "promised land" they wrote back that the kingdom of Israel is being rebuilt and David (ben Gurion) now rules in Israel.
Even without newspapers and radios, the news of the new state of Israel was spread by word of mouth. The longing of the Yemenite Jews to return to Zion burnt strongly and almost insanely in their hearts. But how could they leave? The Arab league continued a state of belligerency against the Jewish state, and in policy all Arab countries were united against the Jews, the enemy of the Arabs. They were impoverish and under the rule of the Iman, a fundamentalist Muslim. In addition, the British who administered Yemen and Aden were considered unfavorable to helping the Jewish state.
Let us understand the reason that the ruler of Yemen, the Iman Yahya, an Arab Muslim permitted the Jews to leave. Also why did the British allow the Jewish agency and Israeli government to utilize the Aden protectorate to allow Jews to come to Israel?
Intra Arab Fears
The Arabs in Yemen had suffered under the long rule of the corrupt Muslim Turks (Arabs) before the British defeated the Turks and became the major power in this part of the world. In addition, the Arab Yemenite leaders did not trust their Saudi Arabia neighbors and feared that it might try to annex Yemen to Saudi Arabia. The tremendous victory of the tiny Jewish state against the large and belligerent Arab states was not lost to the Yemeni ruler. He reasoned that some day he might need them as an ally against a belligerent Arab League member, and as the Arab proverb states: "The enemy of your enemy is your friend."
The British proved to be very humanitarian. Defeat of their Arab trained armies did not influence the local administration adversely. They accepted the reality of the state of Israel and allowed the use of the Aden protectorate for setting up a camp to receive the inflow of Yemenites and the use of a British airbase to take the Jews to Israel. They required only that the movement of Yemenites be kept secret so as not to prejudice their relations with the Arab states.
A camp was set up in Hashed, a desolate desert area remote from local villages and word spread throughout the Jewish Yemenite world that transportation awaited them in Aden. Tents were set up to accommodate the immigrants who came on their own volition. There was no prior announcement; they spontaneously showed up at the camp gate. There was no transportation services to take them from their villages to Aden.
Yemenite Jews from the many dispersed locations in Yemen sold their possessions and began a long walk, hundreds of miles through parched desert and mountainous terrain. They began to arrive of their own accord at the gate of the camp. They had no vehicles, no guns, only their bare feet. They had paid head taxes as demanded by the local sultans using up the little money they made selling their possessions to pass through various areas. They buried their dead along the long road; they came barefooted with just the rags on their backs.
Into the 20th Century
In the camps they met the furnishings of the twentieth century: doctors and nurses with real medicine, running water at the turn of a tap and sanitary facilities. They needed to be taught to shower under running water and to be treated by medical doctors using modern medicine. They could not understand how medicine worked; in their world a variation of the witch doctor would be called in to treat the ill. Yet they maintained their decorum through their inner belief that this was the redemption that they had been waiting for. With pure faith that this was the end to their travails in Yemen and the beginning of the messianic era in Israel, they kept coming unannounced in droves to the Hashed compound.
They came in family groups. In Yemen it was not unusual for a girl of nine to be wed to a young boy of fourteen or an older man of sixty. This was due partly to a rule in Yemen that orphans were taken to an orphanage to be raised as Muslims. Only if they were married were they allowed to continue to live without forced conversion, hence, the many child marriages. In addition early marriage provided protection for a girl against being taken forcibly as a wife by a Muslim who viewed the forced conversion of a Jewess to Islam as a positive act which both served to eradicate infidels and populate Islam.
On the Magic Carpet
Slowly they boarded into the magic of airplanes to be taken to Israel. Scarcely believing their eyes, they gave thanks to their Creator for the good fortune of meriting the redemption to the Land of Israel, they sat silently on benches in the belly of the aircraft. Like children experiencing a strange fantasy, the Jews of Yemen were lifted from the backward life to flying in the air, from an existence in abject poverty to a new, free and vibrate life in a Jewish state in which they would be treated as equals with the opportunity to learn and become prosperous.
Although there was never any census taken in Yemen, nearly 40,000 Jews left Yemen. Very few remained behind, and eventually even they left.
Reality in Israel
In Israel, the government struggling with a new state with immigrants from Europe, settled these Yemenites in ma'aborot, tent cities. Here the Yemites slowly began the task of assimilating into the mainstream of Israeli society. The need to make a living was pressing. Some remained pious and others left the confines of religion to be accepted in the Israeli society. The young men and women entered the Israeli armed forces.
The Yemenites have always been know as the quiet peaceful immigrants, perhaps all the years of living under the rule of Arabs made them less boisterous than their European Jewish brothers. Skillful and honest they soon became craftsmen in many trades and set up businesses. Today, the Yemenite community is beginning to experience a resurgence of the almost lost Yemenite tradition. The new younger generation is beginning to ask itself what were the traditions of their grandfathers.
from the September 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine