The Eagles Have Landed
By Wendy Wippel
God promised His people, through the lips of Isaiah, that in the last days He would “gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth”. (Isaiah 10). Some rode on donkeys. Some came by boat. And 49,000 flew Alaskan Airlines.
In the years since 1948, when the new nation of Israel was founded, there have been a few occasions when Jews still in exile in hostile countries needed to be rescued by emergency airlifts:
Operation Ezrah and Nehemiah, for example in 1951. Iraq banned Jewish emigration shortly after the nation of Israel, was founded, but distaste for their resident Jews continued to increase. Five bombings of Jewish cafes and synagogues, however, induced the Iraqi government to allow emigration, as public sentiment toward the Jewish citizens continued to sour. El-Al and the Near East Transport Company (contractors), over the next six months transported 130,000 Jews to new Israeli homes.
Operation Moses, for another. A severe famine in a chunk of Africa in 1984 drove much of its population into Sudanese refugee camps (including large numbers of Ethiopian Jews) and word that the Jewish refugees were being particularly targeted for extinction reached the ears of U.S. and Jewish officials. TransEuropean airlines, who had previously flown Muslim residents to Mecca for pilgrimage, was hired to decrease the chances of trouble at the Sudanese airport, and (with approval of the Government of Sudan if kept secret), about 200 Jews were relocated to Israel. At that point, an Israeli journalist leaked the news that Jews were being rescued. Sudan immediately shut the operation down, leaving thousands stranded. Which set the stage for Operation Solomon.
Operation Solomon was a blitzkrieg effort by combined Israeli and American forces (headed up by George H. Bush) to relocate the Jewish population from Ethiopia. It was 1991, and civil war in Ethiopia had both the Communist junta party under Mengistu and Halie Selassie’s forces approaching Addis Ababa, the capital, with most of Ethiopia’s Jewry trapped between them. Both groups hated the Jewish population (who had ruled Ethiopia in medieval times) and an Ethiopian Holocaust was considered imminent. An eleventh-hour agreement (in which Selassie was paid a lot of money) paved the way for an airlift, in which 41 Israeli aircraft over 34 hours made non-stop flights back and forth to Israel until 14,310 new Israeli citizens had been delivered to their ancestral land.
Making this airlift, when those 14,310 new Israeli citizens got off those planes, particularly prophetic. Why? Because only 14,302 Jewish refugees had boarded. Eight new children of Abraham were born in flight!. Confirming–, amazingly– a passage in Jeremiah: “I will…gather them from the ends of the earth, among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor, a great throng will return.” Jeremiah 31:8 astoundingly predicts that the return of some of exiles will be short enough to be fulfilled by mothers while in labor!
Operation Magic Carpet, however, has my vote for Airlift Least Likely to Happen. When the new nation of Israel was signed into being on May 14, 1948, Arab forces immediately went to war against the newborn country. Israel prevailed, with the Israeli war of Independence won, Jews from the surrounding Arab countries came home. But not those living in Yemen.
The area that is now Yemen had been home to a substantial Jewish population since shortly after the Jews inhabited Jerusalem (the first Jews in Yemen thought to arrive as traders during Solomon’s reign). In the Muslim the nation of Yemen established after WWI, however, the Jewish population of Yemen was poverty stricken and persecuted as “dhimmis”, a subjected class of people with no civil rights. And when Israel had the audacity to win their war of independence, Jewish residents of Yemen weren’t just discriminated against, they were in danger. Attacks continued. Arabs rioted in Aden, killing 82 Yemeni Jews before setting the Jewish quarter on fire. Yemeni Jews went green light to join the throngs of Jews headed home to their new nation, but they were not permitted to emigrate. Until– unexpectedly, a few days past Israel’s first birthday, they were suddenly given the green light.
But now they had another problem. The Jews of Yemeni were the poorest of the poor in a very poor country. They had no way to get home. And the brand new country of Israel had very limited funds as well. Ben-Gurion, however, considered the regathering of David’s people first priority for the country, so he sent out staff to convince the Jewish populations of the west (mainly the USA) to donate to the cause.
They raised the money. And here’s where it gets really interesting.
Egypt had closed the Suez canal to prevent the Jews’ return, so any transport would have to be by air. It was 1949, and Alaska Airlines had just become the largest charter airlines in the world.
And this was going to be a big job. The JDC (A Jewish humanitarian organization) went to Alaska Airlines-specifically their new president, James Wootten, and asked him to do the job.
For free. (I guess there’s a reason that it was the Jews that invented the word chutzspah).
Wooten was all for it, but the CEO nixed it. Too much money. Not their circus, not their monkeys. But Wooten couldn’t let it go. He borrowed the money himself and found pilots that were willing to fly.
Yemen wouldn’t permit the refugees to fly out of Yemen, so Britain was coerced into setting up a landing site in the port of Aden and a base in Eritrea to house the ground crew, pilots, and planes. The planes had to be modified to carry extra fuel, as landing anywhere in Arab lands would mean a death sentence for both passengers and crew. Seats were removed and replaced with benches to enable more passengers per flight. (One hundred and 20 seats instead of 50).
That was the easy part. The hard part was when the refugees arrived in Aden, none of them having every seen a plane before. They wouldn’t get on. Reminded that the book of Exodus predicted that they would be brought unto God on eagles wings (Exodus 19:4) the passengers finally agreed to board. (It helped that the airline had painted eagles wings on the planes.)
Pilots limited by law to 90 hours per week in the states logged more than 300 miles or more leaving the base each morning to fly to Aden to pick up passengers, then up the Red Sea to Tel Aviv to unload, then to Cyprus to spend the night.
And repeat. Again and again and again. They were shot at in the approach to Tel Aviv. Planes on the ground were bombed. Warned from the beginning that landing in Arab territory would mean death, when one plane had to land in Egypt, the pilot asked for medical transport. “Why?”,the official asked. “Smallpox”. He answered. to a hospital as they had smallpox. He was permitted to refuel and continue the flight.
They repeated the passage day until every Yemen Jew waiting had been taken their new homes. 49,000 passengers, to be exact.
Funny. Although we use the term Operation Magic Carpet, Operation Solomon, etc, the Jewish word used instead of “operation” is “Mitzva”, meaning a kind deed.
And American Airlines personnel were responsible for about 49000 mitzvahs at my count.