Middle East Studies

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The "Magic Carpet" Exodus of Yemenite Jewry

An Israeli Formative Myth

Esther Meir-Glitzenstein is Associate Professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. She is the author of: Zionism in an Arab Country: Iraqi Jews in the 1940s (Routledge 2004) and From Baghdad to Ramat-Gan: Iraqi Jews in Israel (Yad Ben Zvi Publishers 2009, Hebrew).

In 1949–50 "Operation Magic Carpet" brought the majority of the Jews of Yemen to Israel through secret cooperation between the Imam of Yemen, the British colonial rulers of Aden, the Israeli Government, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). In order to immigrate to Israel, Yemenite Jews sold or abandoned their property, took their sacred books with them, and set out on foot, trekking many difficult and treacherous kilometres to reach the southern border of Yemen and cross into Aden. When they arrived in Aden they were located in a transit camp, from which they were later flown to Israel.

"Operation Magic Carpet" strengthened the Zionist claim of a historic Jewish right to the Land of Israel. As a result a heroic myth developed, presenting the bravery and ingenuity of Israelis who set out to rescue their "distant brethren" from lives of distress, degradation, and persecution in the context of the return of "ancient Hebrews" to Zion and its concomitant realization of the eschatological visions of the prophets of Israel. Based on archival documents, the author reveals the enormous personal cost of the operation. The abandonment of immigrants to death in the desert during their trek to Aden, and the substantive loss of personal property in leaving their homes at short notice calls into question the personal benefit of such a brutal upheaval and demands a re-assessment of the aims of the immigration operation and its prime movers. Pertinent is discussion of the interests of the various states and organizations that were involved in this exodus, which can be seen in retrospect as the first stage in the evacuation of ancient Jewish communities throughout the Middle East and their transfer to Israel. On the wider political level, the question to be posed is: Did the Jews in the Muslim countries pay the price for the establishment of the State of Israel and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem?

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-616-55
Hardback Price: £67.50 / $89.95
Release Date: June 2014
Page Extent / Format: 256 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes


Foreword by Anita Shapira

Introduction: History and Myth in the Narrative on the Immigration from Yemen

Chapter I – The Immigration Tragedy and its Place in Memoirs and Research Literature

Chapter II – A Community during an Extended Immigration Process: The Migrations from Yemen until 1948

Chapter III – The First Hashed Camp: American Philanthropy in the Shadow of British Colonialism

Chapter IV – Operation "Exodus from Yemen"

Chapter V – "We Failed and Disappointed": The Dysfunctional Airlift

Chapter VI – "The Last Drop of Blood was Drained in Hashed": The Failure at the Transit Camp

Chapter VII – Left to Their Fate at the Yemenite Border

Chapter VIII – Investigations and Cover-up

Chapter IX – The Formation of the "Magic Carpet" Myth

Conclusions: Tragedy, Myth, and Commemoration


The work of Esther Meir breaks new ground in the research of immigration. This book presents an unknown story of the immigration of Yemenite Jews to Israel. While the accepted myth about the organized flights from Yemen to the new state of Israel in 1949 presented the immigration in terms of a fairy tale, Meir uncovered a grim story of suffering, neglect, inhuman conditions, that led to a substantial loss of life and to a prolonged process of immigration.
... Meir presents the process as a transnational endeavor, in which there were many players: The Imam of Yemen, whose strict enforcement of the Sharia laws caused the Jewish community in his country to live in poverty and degradation. During the process of immigration the Jews had to take a long trek through the mountainous areas of Yemen, on their way to Aden, the port city under British rule, from which they were supposed to immigrate to Israel. On their way they were stripped of their belongings, given to humiliation and violence, and they arrived at the camp in Aden enfeebled, totally disoriented. Here the other players at this transnational story came into play: the British, who could not care less about the poor immigrants, the JDC workers, who were supposed to take care of them, but did not expect the influx of people that came and had difficulty to cope with it. They showed little regard to their misery, making them stay in the camp under inhuman conditions. And last but not least, the representatives of the new state of Israel, which raised the slogan of "Ingathering of Exiles" as its paramount mission. In the case of the Yemenite Jews, they did not show greater competence or care than the representatives of the JDC.
... This transnational story, in which the participants were Yemenite rulers, British administrators, American Jewish philanthropic association, and Israeli government, is also the story of the clash of cultures between East and West: did the British disregard to the suffering of the Yemenite Jews stem from the imperialist tradition of disregard of the natives, who seemed foreign and incomprehensible? Did the disdain for human suffering shown by the JDC employees result from the strange appearance and habits of the local Jews, whose language they did not understand, and who seemed inferior to them? and the Israeli emissaries, whose attitude was paternalistic, well-intentioned, but showed little understanding or compassion to these people who trusted them.
... In the end, most of the immigrants arrived in Israel. They went through the difficulties of absorption in a poor country, which doubled its population within three years. Eventually they became part of Israeli society, and the tribulations and suffering on the way to Israel were forgotten, shrouded in nostalgia, as their special myth of joining the Zionist enterprise. Meir uncovered this unknown encounter between East and West, humanitarian concerns and ideology, goodwill and incompetence, misunderstanding and neglect. It was a story in which the main players, the Jews of Yemen, remained silent, and Meir gave them back their voice.
... This is an important study, by an excellent scholar, which presents immigration not at its final destination, but in the transitory stage, which was not described so far. I highly recommend it.
Anita Shapira, author of Israel: A history (Brandeis University Press, 2012)

The text takes the reader through the tragic story of the deterioration of the situation in Yemen; the Muslim hostility, British indifference and the lack of organization by some Israeli officials. The author concludes that the inability of the state authorities and others to admit that something had gone wrong led to years of denial and lack of compassion or compensation for the hardships. Later in 1984, a repeat of the disaster took place when more than 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died on the way to Israel. "One is compelled to ask whether this tragedy might have been averted had the lessons of Yemenite immigration been learned, while the tragedy of European migrant ships to Israel, like the Egoz and Sturma that sank, are commemorated, the suffering of the Yemenites is not part of the Israeli consciousness. It is an important lesson raised by this book: the need for an Israeli society that can be both introspective and acknowledge all its diverse communities. Reviewed by, Seth J. Frantzman, PhD, Al-Quds University, Israel, in Middle East Media and Book Reviews Online

The "Magic Carpet" Exodus of Yemenite Jewry is an extremely valuable addition to
the literature on Yemeni Jewish migration. My minor criticism notwithstanding, the
book does the important work of challenging long-held assumptions and forces us to
reevaluate one of the most important migrations in Israeli and Yemeni history.
Reviewed by Ari Ariel, University of Iowa, in the Journal of Israeli History

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