Once home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, some 50,000 Yemeni Jews, or Teimanim, left their homes between 1949-50 as part of Operation Magic Carpet. They walked for months to reach Alaskan Airlines planes “filled like sardines” that chartered them to safety in the then-young Jewish nation. How did this incredible story unfold and what were the political, social, and economic forces that drove them to leave?

In the #1 Jewish podcast in the U.S, the history and personal stories of Yemenite Jews are uncovered and told. Hear from windsurfer Shahar Tzubari, who won a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, about how his grandparents left behind their life as dairy farmers in Ta’iz, Yemen, to come to Israel, and Ari Ariel, a Middle East historian at the University of Iowa, who delves into what the 2,600-year-old community was like and the dramatic transitions that led to the mass exodus.

Show notes:

Sign up to receive podcast updates.

Learn more about the series.

Video credits:

Photo credit: GPO/Zoltan Kluger

Song credits: 

  • "Emet El Shmeha", by Shoshana Damari
  • "Hatikvah" 
  • “Muhabet” by Turku, Nomads of the Silk Road
  • Pond5
    • “Desert Caravans”: Publisher: Pond5 Publishing Beta (BMI), Composer: Tiemur Zarobov (BMI), IPI#1098108837
    • “Sentimental Oud Middle Eastern”: Publisher: Pond5 Publishing Beta (BMI), Composer: Sotirios Bakas (BMI), IPI#797324989.
    • “Adventures in the East”: Publisher: Pond5 Publishing Beta (BMI) Composer: Petar Milinkovic (BMI), IPI#00738313833.
    • “Modern Middle Eastern Underscore”: Publisher: All Pro Audio LLC (611803484); Composer: Alan T Fagan (347654928)
    • “Middle Eastern Arabic Oud”: Publisher: Pond5 Publishing Beta (BMI); Composer: Sotirios Bakas (BMI), IPI#797324989


Episode Transcript

BENNY GAMLIELI/ZE’EV TZUBARI: During thousands of years, the Jewish people used to dream, that the Messiah would come, to go to Israel, to go to the Holy Land, to see the city of Jerusalem. It was a dream during thousands of years. 

MANYA BRACHEAR PASHMAN: The world has overlooked an important episode in modern history: the 800,000 Jews who left, or were driven from their homes in Arab nations and Iran in the mid-20th century. This series, brought to you by American Jewish Committee, explores that pivotal moment in Jewish history and the rich Jewish heritage of Iran and Arab nations, as some begin to build relations with Israel. 

I’m your host, Manya Brachear Pashman. 

Join us as we explore family histories and personal stories of courage, perseverance, and resilience. This is The Forgotten Exodus

Today’s episode: Leaving Yemen.

[Video clip of Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics Windsurfing RS:X event]

MANYA: That is the sound of Israeli Windsurfer Shahar Tzubari in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, coming up from behind to earn the bronze medal. At the same time, he was electrifying his country by winning Israel’s only medal in those Olympic Games, he was also fulfilling his mandatory military service to help defend the Jewish state. Two generations before him also served in the Israeli military, including his grandfather who fought to defend Israel against attacks from its Arab neighbors just days after shepherding his family on foot across Yemen to board a plane and make the new Jewish state their new home.  

SHAHAR TZUBARI: I just know about the past, of my parents and my grandparents. And I know, they fought for this country. And they fought for independence. And for me, I’m here, and I represent basically what they fought for. 

MANYA: Shahar, who now coaches Israel’s women’s windsurfing team, is a second-generation Israeli whose grandparents and generations before them lived in Yemen. Their journey to the Jewish state resembles that of tens of thousands of Yemeni Jews, who came to Israel from Yemen between 1948 and 1949 as part of a mass exodus commonly called Operation Magic Carpet. 

In fact, Yemeni Jews, or Teimanim, are believed to be one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world outside of Israel, existing there even before the destruction of the First Temple. Yemeni Jews spoke a particular dialect of Hebrew and maintained many original religious traditions and others shaped over the centuries by the influence of Maimonides and Kabbalah. Hundreds of Jewish settlements were scattered across Yemen, where Jews primarily served as silversmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters, masons, shoemakers, and tailors. 

But that population started to shift in the 19th Century, what historians call the “age of migration,” driven largely by economic shifts. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, movement between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean suddenly became much easier. That was true not only for imported and exported goods, but transportation of people too.

ARI ARIEL: Most of the time, the story is told starting with Magic Carpet, because that's the big migration. But it's really a much older story.

MANYA: That’s Ari Ariel, a Middle East historian at the University of Iowa who focuses on Jewish communities in the Arab world and Mizrahi communities, those who immigrated from Arab countries to Israel and elsewhere in the Diaspora. 

His own family left Yemen for Israel in the 1930s. Professor Ariel has spent the last decade trying to piece together that lineage and the history of Yemeni Jews. He notes that between 1872 and 1881, Ottomans retook parts of Yemen where they had previously ruled centuries before. They also ruled over Palestine. 

But that wasn’t the only significant transition. In fact, just in the span of five decades leading up to 1922, monumental transitions unfolded. The Ottoman Empire fell apart. Yemen became independent, both Jewish and Arab national movements arose, and the British, who obtained a mandate over Palestine in 1922, expressed support for a Jewish national home – Israel. 

ARI: So, there are big economic changes. More and more imported goods start to enter Yemen, and Yemeni Jews, who are craftsmen, largely, and small-scale merchants, really can't compete. So, you have documents complaining about the price of imported shoes and other kinds of imported things. 

So, in 1911, the Zionist movement, for the first time sends an emissary to Yemen, because they want Yemeni Jews to move to Palestine. And here, there's also an economic factor. For the Jewish nation to redeem itself, Jews have to fulfill all economic roles. 

What that means is they really want Jewish farmers. So, they send a guy named Shmuel Yavnieli. He goes and he walks, he goes around to different villages. It's kind of an intrigue story. He goes from village to village trying to get Yemeni Jews to move. 

When he writes back to Jerusalem, he makes it pretty clear, the only Jews who he thinks he's going to be able to get to move to Palestine are the ones who aren't doing so well economically. And that if the Zionist movement agrees to pay for, say, their transportation or housing, or things of that nature, that they may move, and he is successful at doing that. 

From my perspective, as a historian, that's important, too, because from that point, pretty much most Yemeni Jews who leave Yemen are going to Palestine. That's not true initially. So in the earlier periods, you have lots of Yemeni Jews going to East Africa, to India, to Egypt, a small number to the U.S., actually. So you get these movements. But once it's directed by a state, or I guess, a state like structure, in the case of the Zionist movement, at this point, the flow becomes much clearer to Palestine. 

MANYA: The Tzubari family’s initial departure from Yemen – aunts, uncles, cousins – is part of that larger story of migration. But Shahar’s grandparents came amid the events of the mid-20th Century that sparked the most significant exodus. Within a three-month period, nearly 50,000 Yemeni Jews, including Shahar’s grandparents and great grandparents, poured out of Yemen and made Israel their new home. This is their story as told to me by Shahar and his father Ze’ev Tzubari.

Ze’ev Tzubari’s parents were born in southwestern Yemen. For generations they had been dairy farmers. Before they left in 1949 through Operation Magic Carpet, they lived in Ta'iz, once known as the nation’s cultural capital. 

ZE’EV AND BENNY (TRANSLATOR): [speaking Hebrew]

ZE’EV: In Yemen? 

BENNY: Yes, you remember what they did?

ZE’EV: They had, what I remember, goats, cattle, they had cattle.

BENNY: In Ta’iz? 

ZE’EV: In Ta’iz, there, we had cattle.]

MANYA: Ze’ev spoke to me in Hebrew, and a family friend, Benny Gamlieli, translated. Here’s Benny.

BENNY: By the way, my parents as well came through this project by Alaska [Airlines] and brought, as I said, over 50,000-55,000 Jewish people from Yemen came through this project. You know this Aliyah, that we call the Magic Carpet.

MANYA: Operation Magic Carpet was the nickname for a joint venture of the Israeli government, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, to transport Jews from Yemen to Israel. Its official name was Operation Kanfei Nesharim, which, translated from Hebrew means “On the Wings of Eagles”, referring to the passage in Exodus: “how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to me…”

BENNY: So during thousands of years, the Jewish people used to dream, that the Messiah will come, to go to Israel, to go to the Holy Land, to see the city of Jerusalem. It was a dream during thousands of years.

MANYA: There are a number of theories about why the exodus from Yemen took place at this moment in time and the circumstances surrounding it. Ze’ev’s translator, Benny, said Jews and Muslims lived side by side. But being Jewish wasn’t easy. Since the seventh century, Jews in Yemen were considered second class, which varied in meaning from ruler to ruler. Since 1910, the imam of Yemen had an agreement with the Ottomans to take care of the Jews. 

But that did not prevent the Yemeni government from imposing heavy taxes or applying an even more troubling interpretation. Known as the Orphan’s Decree, Jewish children under the age of 12 who lost a parent could be handed over to a Muslim family and converted to Islam – ostensibly for their protection.

 In 1924, the King of Yemen restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Then, in November 1947, after the Holocaust sent a wave of European Jewish immigrants seeking refuge in their biblical homeland, the United Nations voted for the partition of Palestine and the creation of an independent Jewish state. 

Days later, rioters targeted Jewish homes and businesses in Aden. That pogrom killed an estimated 82 Jews. Historians debate what role that pogrom played but because the migration had been building up to this point, Professor Ariel does not believe anti-Jewish violence was a driving force behind what came next. 

In 1948, the King of Yemen, the imam, opened the window for three months for Jews to leave under two conditions: leave everything behind, and teach the Yemeni Muslims your trades in order to maintain the economy. 

With only three months, Jews seized the opportunity.

ARI: It's not entirely clear why he gives permission at that point. But there are different stories. One is that maybe a Yemeni Rabbi tells him a story about a dream, that this is kind of fate and that Yemeni Jews are supposed to . . . because the Imami its legitimacy is religious, and it understands these kinds of movements. So, the idea of a Messianic movement is kind of appealing to the Muslim side of this as well, in a sense. 

There's another story that he's paid. There's some sort of element of bribe because people are given money for the number of Jews that leave Yemen.

MANYA: But that moment was also a time of political strife in Yemen that – as most times of political strife do – threatened the welfare of the Jewish community. After the riots in Aden, Jews already had good reason to worry. 

Then in 1948, the imam of Yemen, who had agreed to take care of the Jews, was assassinated. If Jews saw their fortunes aligned with the imam, now they had even more reason for concern.

ARI: It's about a moment of political instability and about the changing nature of government and society in Yemen, which pushes some Jews to leave because they've been so aligned with the imam. 

MANYA: Jews came from hundreds of towns and villages throughout Yemen, some walking for weeks and months to reach Aden, where between June 1949 and September 1950 more than 380 flights took off for Tel Aviv. Those Kanfei Nesharim, eagles’ wings, were provided by Alaska Airlines.

BENNY: Alaska Airlines was the only company who agreed to do the journey. And you know what they did to absorb as much as they can in one plane? They took off all the seats and they filled them like sardines. 

MANYA: For the harrowing mission, the airline stationed flight and maintenance crews throughout the Middle East and outfitted newly acquired war-surplus twin-engine planes, with extra fuel tanks to guarantee a non-stop 3,000-mile flight. 

British officials warned pilots that if they had to stop along the way, those angry about the establishment of Israel, would surely kill the passengers and crew. To reassure the Yemeni passengers boarding the one-way flights from Aden to Tel Aviv, the airline painted the outstretched wings of an eagle above each airplane hatch. Planes were shot at, the airport in Tel Aviv was bombed. But miraculously, no lives were lost.

BENNY: For three months it was a crazy situation. And the government cannot say, ‘Oh, we have no room for you.’ That's why they built tents.”

MANYA: Tents. A temporary tent city, or a ma’abara in Hebrew, was where Ze’ev’s parents and grandparents lived when they first arrived in Israel.

ZE’EV: [in Hebrew: Five meters by five meters, that in each corner of the tent was a family. Here’s a family, here’s a family, here’s a family . . .] 

BENNY: Five meters by five meters one square. And in each tent, four different families, each corner of the tent was settled by a family. 

MANYA: Ze’ev’s family shared a tent with other families from Yemen. That wasn’t always the case. Sometimes each corner would be occupied by families from four different countries. Another tent could have Olim Chadashim, the Hebrew term for new immigrants, from Romania, Iraq, Yemen, and Egypt. 

BENNY: Impossible to describe that terrible situation, that years, the beginning of the State of Israel, of course, until the government, you know, start to build, to establish cities and to try to absorb as much as they can, Olim Chadashim, you know, Jewish from all over the world.

MANYA: In 1952, Ze’ev was born in one of those 5-meter-by-5-meter tents. But his father Natan did not know right away that Ze’ev had been born. He was already fighting for the Israeli army’s Golani Brigade, the troops that had defended the Jewish state from the Arab nations that attacked Israel as soon as it declared independence.

ZE’EV: My father was in the army. Yeah. He didn't know that I was born. 

BENNY: He knew it later because he was busy in the army in one of the missions, one of his job, whatever, as a young fighter, so it took it took a few weeks, (ZE’EV: a few weeks) to find his father to let him know that ‘You’re lucky because the boy was born . . . now you have a son.’ 

That was the beginning of the war. It's funny to say the beginning and the end – no beginning and no end. War, all the time. 

The minute when the Prime Minister David Ben Gurion declared about this young state of Israel, declared our independent country, at the same time – booming and shooting from the four different countries, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, attacked Israel. So we have 10 months of fighting, 24 hours a day. 

So his father Natan, he went to the army and by the way, in the army, he didn't get money, let me tell you, but you know what, he got? Uniform and food. That's enough, I can survive. You know, you know what I mean? As long as they feed him, and bring him some uniform, clothes, thank God, everything is okay. Every second, day was, you know, problems, shooting, whatever along the border. So, we have to protect the young country that starts to build itself.

MANYA: Natan returned after the birth of his son. The government moved the families to cabins where Ze’ev’s sister was born, and eventually to an apartment where his younger brother was born and raised. 

Natan connected with an older brother who had come a decade earlier and found work building roads and planting trees – literally laying the foundation for and cultivating the nation of Israel. 

ZE’EV:  Ok, so after that we [in Hebrew: . . . good, let’s speak in Hebrew. We studied at the schools, and my mother would always say ‘I work like a donkey for you, only so you should learn and exceed your parents.’ She used to work for an Ashkenazi family, they owned a pharmacy . . . Yes.]

MANYA: His mother found a job working as a nanny for the family of an Ashkenazi pharmacist.

BENNY: She found, his mother, the way they treat the children, how much they spend, because they have money. And it's mainly for education, mainly for studies. Because of the study. She said, ‘I'll do my best for my children as well.’

MANYA: While progress has been made in closing the education and income gap between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim in Israel, it was difficult from the start. At that time, many Ashkenazim, Jews from Europe, had more financial resources and they were well-educated. Meanwhile, Mizrahim, including Jews from Yemen, left everything behind and did not have the same level of education.

But Ze’ev’s mother saw no reason why her family could not follow the same path as the Ashkenazi family for whom she worked. She and Natan set out to forge a bright future for their children.

BENNY: And she said, she talked to her children. And she said ‘Listen guys, we are poor people. But I work 24 hours a day just because of one reason. I want you to study. I want you to be well-educated. I'll do my best. I sacrificed my life for you, for the three of you, and your father as well.’ So, their parents work, as I said, so hard to earn money to promise them a good education. 

And she found, because she learned from the Ashkenazi family, she said, why not to do the same for my children and that's why he describes the very hard difficult situation at that time, that how many hours a day they miss their mother because she was out working trying to get more money to promise them a good education in Tel Aviv at that time.

MANYA: Ze’ev understood and appreciated what his mother and father provided and did what they asked of him. He studied and took care of his brother and sister while his parents worked.  At the age of 16, he entered a special military academy in Haifa, then, like his father Natan, served his time in the Israeli Defense Forces. 

When he got out, he found a job working for a utility company on the Sinai Peninsula, which at that time, prior to the Israeli Egyptian peace treaty, was under Israeli control.

BENNY: The peninsula of Sinai, it's a huge area, it's a desert, but with a beautiful golden seashore from Eilat to Sharm El Sheikh. 250 kilometers, which is like, 150-60 miles length to the south, and the southern city of that peninsula, called Sharm El Sheikh. 

And a lot of young people went there, mixed with the Bedouins, to find a job and he earned a lot of money because as long as you work far away from the center, from the country, you have a chance to earn much more. So let's say, a double salary a month. Gave him a chance to help his family in southern Tel Aviv and the old place that he used to live, his parents. 

MANYA: But in addition to earning money to send back to his family, Ze’ev also took advantage of that beautiful golden seashore and took up a hobby – windsurfing. He married an Ashkenazi woman, the daughter of a German businessman who left Germany before the Holocaust.

Instead of returning to the HaTikva neighborhood, what was then a high crime area in Tel Aviv, Ze’ev and his wife moved to Eilat and when he became a father, Ze’ev took Shahar and his sister Tal to the shore of the Red Sea every day in hopes they too would fall in love with the ocean. And they did. 

SHAHAR: I started windsurfing as well at the age of 6-7. Basically, she was windsurfing for fun as I was windsurfing for fun. And when I got to the age where I had to decide, I decided to go for a special athlete program in the army, because I was good. And I wanted to go to the Olympics, and I wanted to continue with the sport. 

MANYA: Because Shahar grew up in Eilat, away from where his father’s family remained, his exposure to Yemeni customs and culture was limited. 

SHAHAR: So I kind of knew the roots of my father. And every time we went there, we went to the market, and I saw my cousins, and they were going to the synagogue with my grandparents. And we did the kiddush, and eating Yemeni food and connecting more to the roots of the Yemen side of my family, and hearing the stories and sharing the stories. But in a way, I was a bit disconnected, because I was living in Eilat.   

So, like, less connected to the Yemen side, but my family name Tzubari and the roots. Also my appearance, it's more Yemeni. So when I became more known, the connection with the Yemen side became stronger and stronger. 

MANYA: Shahar lost his grandparents this past year. But before they passed away, he made a point to listen to their stories. 

SHAHAR: We tried to observe many of the history and their story about coming to Israel. And it's fascinating that when they were young, at the age of 10, or 12, they walked so many miles to come here, because they had hope. They didn't know what to expect, but they had hope. That they come here, and everything will be better.

MANYA: He appreciates how far the family has come since his grandparents and great-grandparents arrived in Israel and lived in that 5-meter by 5-meter tent. 

SHAHAR: Basically, it's a funny story. Because where my father was born and raised, or where my grandparents first lived when they came to Israel, now it's the most expensive place in Tel Aviv. And the parents of my wife are living in this neighborhood, in the penthouse.

MANYA: Shahar also recognizes the role he plays in his family’s and nation’s progress, and how intertwined the history of his family is with the future of the Jewish nation. He realizes now that protecting Israel, defending the Jewish state, is part of growing up Israeli. It’s not the diversion he once resented. 

SHAHAR: So when I was young, I felt like it's kind of stalking me. But now I'm older, and I have athletes, which are also soldiers, because now I'm a coach, and I see all the positive things, because sometimes athletes think that they are the center of the world. And it's not so true because they are living in a system, doesn't matter which system it is– it’s the Federation, it’s the Olympic committee. You always have a boss, and you're always in a system. 

And I think that the journey that I pass in the IDF, it's a good journey to build yourself and realizing and taking everything out there . . . and realizing that, okay, I might be the best athlete in the world, but I still have responsibilities. So it gave me a lot of tools and abilities for life.

MANYA: In March 2021, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels deported the last three Jewish families living in Yemen, marking the end of that country’s 2,600-year-old Jewish community within its borders. I asked Shahar if he would ever want to go to Yemen to trace his family’s footsteps, once it’s safe for Jews and Israelis. 

SHAHAR: For me, it's a pity that, of course, this is life and politics, but I can't go there because I'm an Israeli, and I have an Israeli passport. And if I had another passport, I could go … Yeah, it’s a shame.

I have this thing that I really want to visit all the Arab countries, not only Yemen, because as an Israeli, learning about the conflict . . . in the end, I think that all the Arab nations, we are very similar. And we are neighbors, and you know, as neighbors, we have the same temperament. And we share many of the values of the family, and being together. For me, I think being able to visit those places, it's a dream come true.

MANYA: Just as military service and family history have shaped Shahar, windsurfing has given him perspective too. The waters of Eilat can be soothing, serene, utterly breathtaking. But storms churn up fierce waves for which the strongest surfer is no match. And that’s when Shahar really likes to be on the water. A fearless determination that goes back generations.  

[Video clip from after the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics Windsurfing RS:X event]

Moments after he sailed across the finish line in Beijing and claimed that bronze medal, Shahar plunged into the water. A reporter shoved a cell phone into his hand to film Shahar sharing the victory with his family back in Israel. 

Nearly 60 years later, another leg of the journey from Ta’iz was complete, another dream fulfilled.  

SHAHAR: If you think about it … just to, one day, to wake up, take all your belongings and move. It's a brave act. In hard times, or not even in hard times, just sometimes when I do represent my country as an athlete, so I think about those moments, and it makes me feel pride that my grandparents or my family look at me and say ‘OK, it was worth it.’

MANYA: Yemeni Jews are just one of the many Jewish communities who in the last century left Arab countries to forge new lives for themselves and future generations. Join us next week as we share another untold story of The Forgotten Exodus.

Does your family have roots in North Africa or the Middle East? One of the goals of this series is to make sure we gather these stories before they are lost. Too many times during my reporting, I encountered children and grandchildren who didn't have the answers to my questions because they had never asked. That's why one of the goals of this project is to encourage you to find more of these stories. 

Call The Forgotten Exodus hotline. Tell us where your family is from and something you'd like for our listeners to know such as how you've tried to keep the traditions and memories alive. Call 212.891-1336 and leave a message of 2 minutes or less. Be sure to leave your name and where you live now. You can also send an email to theforgottenexodus@ajc.org and we'll be in touch.

Many thanks to Shahar and his father Ze’ev for sharing their family’s story. And thank you to Benny Gamlieli for translating Ze’ev from Hebrew.