Book review: The Yemenite tragedy

Review of The “Magic Carpet” Exodus of Yemenite Jewry: An Israeli Formative Myth, by Esther Meir-Glitzenstein Sussex Academic Press, £67.50 / $89.95, published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine January 10

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Yemenite Jews in a camp in Israel

Yemenite Jews in a camp in Israel

In 1949 they came from all over Yemen, from 1,000 villages, often traveling on foot to reach camp. “It was a desert place without any sign of vegetation. Refugees living in matted huts, like sardines, living a base, primitive life. The camp has 4,000 people and babies are born every day,” recalled Ethel Slonim, a nurse who had arrived in Aden, now Yemen, in 1948. Many died en route, and in the camp.

Yet even more than half a century later, the traumatic immigration is thought of as a miracle. Why has the myth of the Yemenite migration not been fully understood for what it was: a massive tragedy in which a community was uprooted, the scars of the operation having never been healed? In The “Magic Carpet” Exodus of Yemenite Jewry, Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, an associate professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, seeks to set the record straight, and give readers some nuance on this formative historical event in the founding of the State of Israel.

Meir-Glitzenstein sets out to ask several important questions about the migration of Yemenite Jews in 1949. Who initiated it, what caused the Jews to suddenly leave en masse, why was there a humanitarian tragedy and was some of the tragedy underpinned by racism or bigotry among the officials charged with running the operation? She notes that the Yemenite immigration was part of the larger immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from both Europe and the Middle East, who poured into Israel after the War of Independence. From December 1948 to March 1949, some 5,000 Yemenites arrived; an additional 45,000 were airlifted by 1950. Israeli representatives and the Joint Distribution Committee played a key role in the operation.

The operation took on a Janus face in Israel’s history. For years after the event, many Yemenite Jews claimed their children had disappeared or been kidnapped. In 1994, Uzi Meshulam and some of his Yemenite followers became so enraged at what they saw as an official state cover-up, they barricaded themselves with weapons in a house in Yehud. In 2001, a commission of inquiry was still investigating what had become of the children.

But for the primarily European-born Israeli establishment, this was anathema to the national narrative of redemption. “This type of exodus story is also found in Golda Meir’s autobiography… she describes how the life of suffering and despair led by the Jews of Yemen motivated them to leave, and she emphasizes that they fled spontaneously, clinging to their Hebrew biblical texts.”

Children in Israel studied from textbooks that claimed that “Yemen is a poor land, dry and barren. When the miracle occurred, and when Israel overcame her enemies and the State of Israel was established in perpetuity, the sound of the shofar announcing the coming of the Messiah was heard even by the Jews in faraway Yemen.” One of the reasons for the lack of an investigation into what happened was that so few books on the subject were published. Yosef Zadok, an emissary of the Jewish Agency who was born in Yemen, wrote a book about the events in 1956. But as the author notes, most research has only been done in the last two decades.

JEWS HAD lived in Yemen since the time of the Second Temple. Even Maimonides had intervened to save them. This was an ancient community, scattered among more than 1,000 villages; mostly in the highlands of the country.

As the author notes, by the first half of the 20th century there were some 50,000 Jews living among 3.5 million Muslims. In some areas they suffered great discrimination, at times being confined to collecting human waste or animal carcasses. By 1914 some 5,000 Yemenites had already made their way to Palestine, playing an integral role in the development of the Zionist economy and founding several communities.

During World War II, due to a famine and other issues, around 10,000 Jews fled from North Yemen to British-administered Aden (South Yemen). The British interdicted these Jewish refugees who wanted to make it to the Holy Land. “The British wanted to expel these refugees to [North] Yemen, as they had done with the Muslim labor migrants, but they feared the Jewish Agency would oppose such an expulsion.” Later, the number of refugees would continue to swell. Then in December 1947, a pogrom broke out in Aden in which Muslims, supposedly protesting the UN partition of Palestine, slaughtered 80 Jews.

Meir-Glitzenstein argues that the Jewish Agency and others did not do enough for these refugees. In one instance in Qa’tabah, the graves of hundreds of Jews were discovered. “Why was insufficient help not sent to save these refugees… first and foremost because the Jewish Agency did not show any interest in their fate,” she argues. Other authors such as Tudor Parfitt have linked this dismissive attitude to a “colonial” mind-set among the European Jews of Palestine. 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 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. The only downside is that it isn’t entirely clear how the operation could have been done perfectly, so as to avoid suffering, or how the Jewish Agency would have protected the Jews had they stayed in Yemen. Even European Jewish immigrants suffered many tragedies on the way to Israel and not all of those are fully commemorated or understood by the public today either.

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 the Yemenite immigration been learned,” writes Meir-Glitzenstein. It is a good question, as is the author’s note that even today – as the tragedy of European migrant ships to Israel that sank, like the Egoz and Struma, 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 of its diverse communities.

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