On November 30, we remember the mass departure and expulsion of Jews from numerous Arab and Islamic countries – the migration, in many cases forced, of literally hundreds of Jewish communities as they were harshly persecuted and left to flee in the mid-1900s. It is no secret that as antisemitism and discrimination towards Jews spread like wildfire across the Arab world, governments all the way from Morocco to Iraq adopted anti-Jewish measures, sometimes actively expelling Jewish citizens, most of whom eventually sought refuge in Israel.
One such country that contributed to the displacement of some of these Jewish Arabs was Yemen. Yemen actually had one of the oldest Jewish communities in the whole Arab world, with roots dating back thousands of years. On top of this, historically, the Jews of Yemen were successful as business-owners and respected members of the community, contributing to both economic and religious growth in the area. However, as the Arab persecution of Jews rose in the mid-20th century, anti-Jewish sentiment intensified in Yemen too, and Jewish life became increasingly precarious as their communities faced discriminatory measures, violence, and economic restrictions, peaking in the 1940s.
The unbearable situation for the Jews of Yemen eventually led to Operation Magic Carpet in 1949: a clandestine operation to airlift Yemenite Jews out of danger and bring them to Israel. This covert mission was widely seen as a success, and by its completion, over 50,000 Yemenite Jews were resettled in the new Jewish state.
But what many people do not know is that this was not the first time a mass emigration from Yemen to the Land of Israel took place, despite it being the most significant. The wave of Yemenite Aliyah that took place just a few decades earlier is in fact a largely untold story…
When the Zionist Organization was founded in 1897, they set out almost immediately to increase the rate of global immigration to the Land of Israel, then still part of the Ottoman Empire. However, despite their best efforts, there was a group of Jews who seemed untouchable: the rich and powerful Yemenites. Yemenite Jews, often jewelers, dealers of precious metals, and coffee merchants by trade, were overwhelmingly well-to-do. While of course not every Yemenite Jew was rich, it certainly seemed that the community had the economic resources to thrive in the Middle Eastern landscape. The Yemenite Jews tended to be religious and often highly mystical, prizing their kabbalistic knowledge, messianic beliefs, modest dress codes, and pious nature. It was also known that much of the community’s accumulated wealth was spent in Judaic pursuit. For example, in the city of Sana’a, where roughly 7,000 Jews resided, no less than 28 synagogues were built by the city’s Jews.
But as new waves of Aliyah were taking place from around the world, the Zionist Organization firmly believed that these Yemenite Jews with their wealth and talents should not be left behind. Their solution to this matter came in the form of one Shmuel Varshovsky (more commonly known as Shmuel Yavnieli). Yavnieli was a young Zionist living in Ottoman Palestine. In the early 20th-century, when the Zionist Organization unveiled plans to send an undercover agent into the depths of Yemenite society and promote a mass emigration, 29-year-old Yavnieli seemed like a good choice for the job: he spoke many languages, could vaguely pass as a Yemenite, and was an ardent Zionist willing to prove his worth.
Yavnieli’s first job was to grow out his sidelocks, as he would be immediately uncovered as an outsider if his haircut didn’t fit in with the common hairstyle of Yemenite Jewry. As a matter of fact, fitting in with Yemenite society was crucial to his plan, as he needed to integrate deep into their community before he could earn their trust and gain some influence. Of course, the sidelocks were not enough. He also purchased some traditional Yemenite items of clothing, including their unique style of tallit, which they wrapped around their shoulders and wore all day like a scarf. He also started practicing Yemenite greetings and local phrases and gestures, slowly improving his skillful imitation.
His final step was to collect some money from the Zionist Organization so that he would fit in with the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the elite Yemenite Jews. But Yavnieli wasn’t done yet – he also decided to change his name.
Yemenite Judaism, as mentioned, was highly kabbalistic and messianic, and the Yemenite Jews held an integral belief that the Messiah would be ushered in by a messenger by the name of ‘Ben Yosef’ (Son of Joseph). This idea of a pre-messianic messenger is not found in most Ashkenazi or Sephardi teachings, but for the Yemenite Jews, the presence of Ben Yosef was a canonical event which would certainly occur before the Messiah could arrive. Thus, Yavnieli decided to change his last name to ‘Ben Yosef’ to give himself legitimacy when encouraging the Yemenite Jews to help usher in a new age and begin the messianic global return of Jews to the Land of Israel. His first name Shmuel had to be changed too, as it sounded far too Ashkenazi, and would have revealed him as an outsider within seconds. So, Yavnieli left Israel in November 1910 as ‘Eliezer Ben Yosef’, a man who looked and acted so Yemenite that truly no one would doubt his pedigree.
Yavnieli knew that he had to be subtle if he was to earn any influence in this new land, so the plan was for him to pose as a messenger of the great Rabbis of Israel, who had ostensibly sent him out to learn about Yemenite culture. To give this ruse legitimacy, he carried with him two letters of recommendation which could not be refuted: a letter from Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, a renowned Jewish religious leader who would later become the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine; and Jerusalemite Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel who would become the first Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. This was a serious misunderstanding of Yemenite Jewry, which Yavnieli assumed would subscribe to one of the two mainstream branches of Judaism, and thus be impressed by at least one of these sponsors.
With the help of Rav Kook, Yavnieli had also composed a list of 26 questions which he would ask the local Yemenite Jews as part of his ‘research’ – questions such as “do you forbid marrying more than one wife?” or “do you practice Jewish custom in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch or the Rambam?” Such questions gave Yavnieli legitimacy as an agent of the two esteemed Rabbis, and also served as a tool to validate the authenticity of the Yemenites’ Judaism in the eyes of their co-religionists.
As Yavnieli arrived and settled into life in Yemen, he met two great influences, who would seriously help boost his social and political standing within this foreign community. The first was the heavily Zionist, and incredibly wealthy, Banin family. This aristocratic family already had close contact with the Jews in the Land of Israel, as they were major philanthropists of Zionist pursuits and had even donated enough money to build at least one large synagogue in Tel Aviv. With their support, Yavnieli’s life in Yemen was made considerably easier. His other vital contact was Rabbi Ishack Ben-Ishack Cohen – the leading Rabbi of the Aden Jewish community. “This man deserves to be written in the book of gold” he wrote of the great Rabbi, who immediately boosted Yavnieli’s esteem, and as we shall see, went on to help Yavnieli significantly with his mission.
Once Yavnieli, with the help of these valuable contacts, had earned both the trust and respect of the Yemenite Jews, he was finally able to start working on his real goal, which was of course initiating a new wave of Aliyah – Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel.
This process began with a pamphlet, which he wrote and published during his stay in Aden. The pamphlet opened with a description of pre-state Israel, then still known as Ottoman Palestine, promising that it was a progressive and successful country with wonderful doctors, an above-average schooling system, where there were lots of games, sports and leisure activities to participate in. He continued to promote this idealistic vision of a land in which everyone spoke the language of the biblical forefathers, and no other nations would interfere in Jewish matters. Instead of a sultan, the Jews were described as the leaders of their own society!
Yavnieli’s pamphlet explained that there were many Jewish landowners and farmers who needed help managing their businesses. The idea was not for the Yemenite Jews to become laborers, but instead to help with the financial and business initiatives of the existing farmers and factory owners. The pamphlet proclaimed that any Jew who truly loves Zion, is of workable age and ability, and has the funds to do so, should immigrate to the Land of Israel. Yavnieli’s pamphlet promised that if they were to do so, their needs would be entirely taken care of once they arrived, and they would also be assured of life-long employment. To appeal to their religious instincts, Yavnieli concluded with quotes from the Bible to persuade the Yemenite Jews that the time had come for an ingathering of the exiles and a messianic rebirth of a Jewish sovereign nation. He strongly encouraged the Yemenite Jews to be part of this redemption story.
The pamphlet had its desired effect.
Soon, Yavnieli had rebranded himself as an ‘immigration officer’ and started to manage the emigration of Jews from Yemen to Israel. Yavnieli began traveling from city to city, stopping wherever he found a Jewish community, now preceded by his well-known reputation. He would come with a glowing recommendation from Rabbi Ishack Ben-Ishack Cohen and, using his recently affirmed high status, he would seek out an influential person in each community to help deliver his pamphlet and recruit potential Aliyah pioneers. The Yemenite Jews were a receptive crowd. Yavnieli described them as having a collective “awakening” to the call of Israel, and soon he had queues of Jews waiting to sign up and board boats headed for the promised land.
Rabbi Ishack helped immensely with this newfound demand, and the two men got to work compiling lists of potential immigrants. Once they had gathered enough people to fill a boat, they would send a letter containing the identities of the Yemenite Jews to Dr Arthur Ruppin, the director of the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization, to arrange their papers. These lists can actually still be found in the Zionist Archives, and to this day they are helping Yemenite Jews discover their heritage.
But this wave of Aliyah was not turning out to be what Yavnieli and the Zionist Organization had expected. While their initial goal was to bring the able, working-age men to the Land of Israel, Yemenite culture places a strong importance on family values, and none of the Yemenite husbands would leave their wives, children, or parents behind. Instead of the desired wealthy young men, the boats were quickly filling up with grandparents, children, aunties and uncles! So many families arrived at Yavnieli’s make-shift emigration centers that he had to persuade most of the families to wait until the next Jewish holiday before they made their move! Hence it came to pass that during the Sukkot festival of 1911, roughly 1,500 Yemenite Jews set sail for Ottoman Palestine.
There was lots of enthusiasm for this mass-departure. In fact, Yavnieli documents a story of a family who were so eager to move that they tried to sell their house to raise the funds to travel. When they couldn’t sell their home in time, they dismantled the house instead, and sold the individual planks of wood, in order to get the quick cash that they needed to board the next Aliyah ship.
But wealth remained a dividing factor in this process, despite the fact that the excluded poorer Yemenite families were keen to join in the exodus, too. Yavnieli did not want to leave even a single willing Jew behind. Instead, he sent long letters of appeal to Dr. Ruppin, and Rabbi Binyamin Feldman, the Secretary of the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization. He encouraged them to find funding to bring over the disadvantaged families, stating that they could do farm work and manual labor upon their arrival, which was sorely needed during those years. With funding secured, extra boats were chartered from the Ostrich Shipping Company in order to bring even more Yemenite Jews to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Ishack helped verify which families would need reduced ticket fares and sent lists to Dr. Ruppin of families who would be taking the subsidized chartered shipping boats to Israel.
Yavnieli stayed in Yemen, helping hundreds of Jewish families make the move, until the outbreak of World War II. When he finally left to return home, he departed as a true hero.
Just a few years later, the tide turned in Yemen, and the remaining Jews found themselves fighting against a discriminatory and corrupt government armed with antisemitic rhetoric and bigoted rulings. As the country began to rally in earnest against the Jews, and almost all of the Arab world followed suit, most of the remaining Yemenite Jews were forced to await rescue in the form of Operation Magic Carpet, 35 years after the end of Yavnieli’s efforts.
But as Yavnieli watched the tragedy of the expulsion of Jews from Yemen and the surrounding Arab lands, which we commemorate annually on November 30, he could at least clear his conscience, knowing that he single-handedly brought about an entire wave of Yemenite Aliyah.