Photo Analysis: The Departure of Jews from Yemen

By: Will Scott


Yemeni Jews during Operation Magic Carpet. Digital Image. Jerusalem Post.

Throughout much of human history, Jewish people have experienced oppression in nearly every corner of the globe. As a result, countless Jews have been expelled from their homes, forced to convert to a different religion, or killed during periods of turmoil. This cycle of persecution reached its worst point during the systemic genocide of Jews by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s. A major result of the Holocaust was the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, which would provide a safe haven for Jews from future acts of violence.

The establishment of Israel led to the migration of many Jewish communities to the new nation. This included Jews from Europe and the Americas, as well as from centuries- or even millennia-old Jewish populations scattered throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In the late 1940s, the Israeli government attempted to encourage further immigration in part by sponsoring various programs designed to help Jews leave their home countries for Israel. One of these policies was titled Operation Magic Carpet, and was designed to move most of the roughly 46,000 Yemeni Jews from Yemen to Israel between 1948 and 1950. The photograph on Page 1 depicts several Yemeni Jews onboard an airplane, which was the primary method of transportation used during Operation Magic Carpet. This photograph provides its audience with a detailed look at the Yemeni Jews during this important historical event. It also provides excellent background information on the greater trend of immigration to Israel in its early years and on the overall state of the Yemeni Jewish community.

There is an immense amount of detail present in just this single, black-and-white photograph. The first detail that is immediately noticeable is the clothing worn by the passengers of the airplane. Most of the Yemeni Jews on board are dressed in clothing that bears a great deal of resemblance to traditional Arab garb. This is particularly visible among the women in the picture. The vast majority of the women are wearing robes adorned with simple, decorative patterns, and headscarves as well. These outfits offer a stark contrast to the Western clothing worn by many European Jews who immigrated to Israel in the late 1940s. The garments worn by these women appear, in some ways, to be more similar to clothing worn by Middle Eastern women of non-Jewish backgrounds. This imagery challenges the perception held by some people that Israel was a nation founded primarily by white Jews from Europe. In truth, Israel has actually been a very diverse nation for its entire history, and this photo reinforces that fact.

Even as the majority of the women in the photo are dressed very simply, many of the men seem to be even more scantily clad. The visible men are all wearing simple robes, and at least one on the right side of the aisle appears to be shirtless. In other photos, Yemeni Jewish men seem to be wearing far more clothing. Moreover, all the subjects of the photograph look exhausted, and several people seen in the picture are sleeping. The ragged and tired appearance of the passengers on the plane is likely indicative of the conditions faced by Yemeni Jews at refugee camps, where they were forced to wait before their departure. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein writes that “many of these people stayed in the open air, in especially hot climatic conditions and heavy sandstorms, and there was a shortage of food, medicine, and medical care. Hundreds of people died in the camp in Aden.” Though this passage does not necessarily mention clothing shortages as a problem, it is safe to assume that the lack of other essential materials means that clothes were also hard to come by.

Aside from fatigue, another emotion displayed by the refugees in the photo is anxiety. These passengers had just endured a “wave of anti-Semitism” in their home country, and throughout the Middle East, which occurred in response to the establishment of the Jewish State. In a Jerusalem Post article about the deportation of some of the few remaining Yemeni Jews from their home nation in 2021, Tzvi Joffre states that the history of the Jews in Yemen dates back nearly 2,600 years. Emigration from a nation that so many preceding generations of Yemeni Jews called home was almost certainly a jarringly emotional experience for many of these refugees. Additionally, there was likely a fear of the uncertain in their new home. In a 2020 article, Joffre writes that the tiny number of Jews left in Yemen were steadfastly refusing to leave because of “fear they won’t be able to integrate into Israeli or US society.” Even after escaping Yemen, where forced conversions were not uncommon—and still occur in the present day—the community was faced with immense pressure to assimilate into the nascent, European-dominated Israeli culture.

Additionally, the photographic medium of this particular piece is significant. Photographs could be quickly and easily spread throughout the world by way of newspapers. This means photography was an effective means of highlighting the living situation of Yemeni Jews, as it would allow the rest of the world to become aware of the issues they faced.

In a broader context, this image is important because of the complex circumstances surrounding Operation Magic Carpet. As a new and vulnerable nation, Israel was eager to attract any support that it could possibly get. The Israeli government, according to Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, had an incentive to spread imagery of suffering, persecuted Jewish refugees from Yemen and elsewhere around the world, because their ‘rescue’ provided the benefit of positive publicity. Edward Warburg and Dr. Joseph Schwarz of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) “praised Israel for agreeing to take in the Jews of Yemen despite its own hardships and called what Israel was doing a ‘heroic and inspiring act.’” Warburg and Schwarz claimed that this was a demonstration of the “determination of the new state to offer haven to distressed Jews.” Additionally, the presence of an airplane in the photo allowed the Israeli government to make the bold claim that the group that “represented the ancient, biblical past of the Jewish people” had been “redeemed by means of a technological invention that fulfilled the biblical vision” in spite of numerous logistical problems with the operation.

The depiction of the Yemeni aliyah also had the application of encouraging immigration to Israel from other places. In describing the wave of immigration as religiously motivated or “magical,” Israeli authorities were able to appeal to Jews in other nations, who might be led to believe their experience could be similarly uplifting. Moreover, this narrative was also appealing to the residents of Israel, who arrived at the airfield by the hundreds “to see the end of the Magic Carpet,” according to a 1950 article in the Jerusalem Post.

In both Yemen and Israel, Yemeni Jews faced—and continue to face—marginalization, albeit in different forms and for different reasons. In 1948, “the Jewish community in Yemen experienced political and economic persecution, the most serious case being the accusation that Jews in Sana’a had murdered two Muslim girls and the imprisonment of the community leaders.” However, it is also true that “the situation stabilized in early 1949” and that “when the Jews began leaving, there were no anti-Jewish incidents in Yemen.” In Israel, rather than facing antisemitism, Yemeni Jews were burdened with negative orientalist stereotypes about their way of life. In particular, many Israelis of European origin perceived that the Yemeni community suffered from “lack of modernity…primitiveness, and…cultural and social backwardness.” This led to a program of assimilation that many Jews who remained in Yemen came to fear, making them hesitant to move to Israel as their situation deteriorated in later decades. Simultaneously, Jews still in Yemen have faced hardship in the form of persecution. According to the Jerusalem Post, “Houthi officials have forced Jews to sell their homes and land for low prices” as part of a broader scheme to force the last remaining Jews in Yemen out of the country.

As discussed previously, the photo depicts the Yemeni Jews as tired, impoverished, and in need of rescue, and the Israeli plane as the method of salvation for these people. However, Esther Meir-Glitzenstein criticizes this narrative. Aside from the logistical issues that caused shortages, and in some cases, deaths, Meir-Glitzenstein describes the publicity campaign surrounding the Yemeni Jews as an “orientalistic description.” She also states that some claims of antisemitic violence were overstated, “and evidence of a comfortable, tranquil life was suppressed or concealed.” The photo above was published alongside an article in the Jerusalem Post which featured the text of a 1950 article detailing the end of Operation Magic Carpet. Neither the modern background text nor the 1950 article mentions the hardships faced by Yemeni Jews in refugee camps or the problems of integration into Israeli society. In fact, the article from 1950 actually describes the scene at the airfield as a fairly joyous and exciting occasion. For this reason, the use of this photo might be seen as misrepresentative of the Yemeni community and its experiences.

Close examination of the photograph can reveal a great deal about the Yemeni Jewish community during Operation Magic Carpet—both the state of the community and the hardships that they faced. It also gives insight into the background of Operation Magic Carpet itself, as well as the general trend of immigration to Israel. However, some of the imagery present in the photograph can be used to push a narrative that is misrepresentative of the Yemeni Jewish community. The study of multimedia such as this photograph related to the Yemeni Jews is important because of their marginalization. Modern events, especially the deportation of nearly all the remaining Jews of Yemen, have created serious threats to the community, which must be addressed, in part, with a preservation of history.