Israel Just Evacuated 19 Jews From Yemen. It’s Not the First Time.
Israel has rescued tens of thousands of Jews from conflicts around the world.
In December 1947, in a spasm of anti-Semitic violence following the U.N. partition of Palestine, a Yemeni mob rampaged through the streets of Aden, smashing dozens of Jewish storefronts and killing 82 Jews. That attack, and worsening relations between Jews and their Muslim neighbors there, prompted the great majority of Yemeni Jews — around 50,000 people — to flee to Israel in a series of secret flights organized in 1949 by the Israeli government, Washington, and a handful of Jewish nonprofits.
This weekend, almost 70 years after those initial airlifts, Israel quietly evacuated a group of Yemeni Jews out of the country, home to one of the most ancient Jewish communities in the world. The move leaves only 50 Jews in Yemen, which has been embroiled in a bloody civil war since last year.
“This chapter in the history of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities is coming to an end, but Yemenite Jewry’s unique, 2,000-year-old contribution to the Jewish people will continue in the state of Israel,” the Jewish Agency, an Israeli nonprofit that helped facilitate the recent evacuation, as well as the exodus in 1949, said in a statement on Monday.
Most of the 50 Jews remaining in Yemen live in a compound in the Houthi-controlled capital city of Sanaa, where they are protected by “authorities,” according to an AFP report.
The group of 17 Yemeni refugees who arrived in Israel early Monday morning, which included a rabbi carrying an 800-year-old Torah, joined a growing list of Jews whom Israel has whisked away from conflict zones around the world. Once in Israel, they enjoy an automatic religious right to citizenship.
“Maybe one day we’ll make a movie out of it,” Yigal Palmor, a spokesperson for the Jewish Agency, told AFP. “We are talking about a secret operation in a hostile environment. It is not easy to transport people who are visibly and recognisably Jews.”
Below, Foreign Policy has compiled a list of some of the most daring missions that have successfully evacuated Jews to Israel:
As famine spread across Sudan in 1984, the United States and Israel negotiated a plan to secretly airlift 250 Ethiopian Jews to Israel after busing them from a refugee camp in Sudan to an airfield in Khartoum.
Over the next seven weeks, the two countries arranged for nearly 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to take similarly dramatic journeys, spiriting them out of food-scarce refugee camps in Sudan and away from the famine, discrimination, and civil war they had fled in Ethiopia.
Surprisingly, the idea came not from Israel but from a U.S. embassy official in Khartoum, who carried it out with logistical help from the CIA and financial support from Israel.
After a press leak caused Sudan to withdraw its permission for the airlifts on Jan. 5, 1984, some 2,000 Ethiopian Jews died of starvation in Sudanese refugee camps before the U.S. and Israel were able to evacuate the remaining 500 refugees that March.
On the cusp of a rebel takeover of Ethiopia in May 1991, Israel evacuated 14,500 Ethiopian Jews from the capital, Addis Ababa, in less than 36 hours. At the height of the operation, 28 planes were flying simultaneously, allowing Israel to transport around 1,000 Jews per hour — nearly double each aircraft’s maximum capacity.
Israel paid Ethiopia $35 million to guarantee safe passage for the refugees, while the United States pressured both rebels and the government to allow for the exodus. But for good measure, Israel still dispatched a security force of about 150 elite commandos to stand guard at the capital.
The Jewish Agency, the same Israeli non-profit that helped evacuate Yemenis this weekend, helped 31 Georgians escape from the town of Gori, just days before it fell to Russian forces on Aug. 13, 2008.
The Jewish Agency is the primary organization facilitating flights for Jewish members of countries that don’t maintain relations with Israel. It has participated in most of Israel’s large-scale evacuation efforts, or “Aliyahs of rescue,” including the operations in Ethiopia.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a U.S.-based Jewish non-profit, has helped evacuate hundreds of Ukrainian Jews from the frontlines of war between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russia separatists.
In its first flight on Dec. 22, 2014, the fellowship provided airfare to Israel and $500 to $1,000 stipends to 226 Ukrainian Jews — more than half of whom were moved from active battle zones. In March 2015, the organization flew another 110 Ukrainian Jews from the war-torn Donbass region, bringing the total number of Ukrainian Jews evacuated by the group to 2,562.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, March 22, 2016: The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has rescued 2,562 Jews from Ukraine since Dec. 2014. A previous version of this article mistakenly said it had rescued 560 Jews.