Journeys to Freedom: IDF Rescue Operations

On Passover, the Jewish People celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt and their journey to freedom in the Land of Israel. In honor of the holiday, we’re honoring stories of daring crossings and escaping persecution. There was no need to part the seas – airlifts sufficed for bringing hundreds of thousands of Jews to safety. Here are three stories of these rescue missions.

Operation Magic Carpet

Yemenite Jews have long had ties to the Land of Israel. Religious zeal and an upswing of  anti-Semitism brought waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries to places like Silwan in Jerusalem and Kerem HaTeimanim in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. After the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which called for the establishment of a Jewish state, state-sanctioned oppression of Yemen’s Jewish community only increased. Violent riots broke out that year in the port city of Aden, Yemen, killing 82 Jews and injuring tens of others. Jewish property was destroyed, and shops owned by Jews were looted.

In 1949, with the situation rapidly deteriorating for its Jewish population, the Imam of Yemen decided to allow Jews to leave the country. Worried they would have a small window of time before the Imam changed his mind, Israel undertook Operation Magic Carpet (also known as Operation On Wings of Eagles) to airlift Yemen’s Jewish population to Israel. The operation was challenging. Jews traveling to the meeting point, a camp called “Geula” (redemption) near Aden, needed to move covertly to avoid hostile locals and authorities. From September 1949 to September 1950, about 500 Yemenite Jews were airlifted to Israel every day. 50,000 Yemenite Jews immigrated through Operation Magic Carpet, including Haim Oshri, one of the Paratroopers featured in the iconic Six-Day War photo of the liberation of Jerusalem.

Haim Oshri, on right, immigrated to Israel from Yemen at the age of five.

Haim Oshri, on right, immigrated to Israel from Yemen at the age of five.

Operation Moses

In 1974, the Derg, a military junta rose to power in Ethiopia. This new government, led by Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, was hostile to the country’s ancient Jewish population, the Beta Israel. The situation for the Beta Israel continued to worsen into the 1980’s. Famines, civil war, and the influence of the Derg’s Soviet patrons exacerbated the difficulties of the Jewish population, who were forbidden from emigrating by the government. Some Ethiopian Jews fled by Israeli ships, departing from Sudan. In 1984, the Israeli government deemed this process too dangerous, and ended it. That November, in a closed-door session, the Israeli government decided that the IDF would airlift the Beta Israel to safety in Israel.

Beta Israel arriving in Lod Airport, Israel, in Operation Moses

Beta Israel arriving in Lod Airport, Israel, in Operation Moses

In order to carry out the operation, Ethiopian Jews were urged to cross into Sudan. The journey from Ethiopia to Sudan took between two weeks and a month. It was often traveled by foot over unforgiving terrain, leaving travelers vulnerable to robberies, hunger, and sickness; many perished along the way. From the refugee camps in Sudan, Israeli Air Force planes flew over 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to new life in Israel. The mission was dubbed Operation Moses, after the biblical patriarch who led the Jewish people out of Egypt to the Holy Land, just as the Beta Israel crossed the desert to freedom in Israel. More rescue operations followed; Operation Moses and the two operations that followed, brought waves of Ethiopian Jews to safety. Over 130,000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel.

Operation Ezra and Nehemiah

The Jews of Iraq have a long history of culture, philosophy, trade, and study, and that was reflected for centuries in their high status in Iraqi society. Even after Iraq gained its independence from Britain, Jews continued to hold important cultural and governmental posts. But as anti-Zionist sentiment grew and Nazi propaganda started flowing into the country in the 1930’s, the Jews of Iraq found themselves victim to terrible violence. The 1941 Farhud, a massive pogrom that took place in Baghdad on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, was the culmination of this anti-Jewish provocation. Hundreds of Jews were killed, and hundreds more were injured. Jewish properties and businesses were destroyed and looted. Shaken by this extreme violence, Jewish communities were no longer safe in Iraq.

With the declaration of the State of Israel, the Iraqi government tightened its hold on the Jewish population. Jews were barred from holding many professions, and Zionism carried a death sentence. Jews were regularly rounded up on suspicion of “treason” or related offenses, only to have their assets seized. In March 1950, the government decided that Jews who wish to emigrate may do so – so long as they renounce their Iraqi citizenship, never return, and forfeit all of their assets and property. The Israeli government quickly organized a rescue mission, dubbed Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, after the biblical figures who led the Jews out of their exile in Babylon.

Immigrants deplaning in Israel

Iraqi immigrants to israel deplaning after arriving in Israel.

At first, very few people were willing to register to leave, fearing that the registration lists would expose them to the government. As violence persisted, though, most Iraqi Jews took the opportunity to leave. Each Jew leaving Iraq was allowed to bring one 66 pound suitcase and $140, the rest was seized by the government. Israel flew 125,000 Jews from 1950-1951.


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