British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Michael Crouch
How the Colonial Service helped build Israel
Walking to Aden
This is a story of the remarkable efforts of a handful of anonymous British officers based in Aden and the Western Aden Protectorate who facilitated the transfer of the Yemeni Jewish population from their ancient home of Yemen to the budding state of Israel, over the period 1949-1950. Aden Colony was an important British port en route to India. Cosmopolitan Aden's hinterland was the Aden Protectorates, a polyglot collection of more-or-less undeveloped Arab fiefdoms, 'advised' by men of the Colonial Service. Without the influence and efforts of those few British political officers in the Western Protectorate, a remarkable event would not have eventuated. HMOCS should have awarded medals to those concerned: instead, it was another potentially embarrassing situation defused and the British Government could focus instead on the problems of post-war Britain.

The Jews of Yemen had been an integral part of Yemen's history, intimately involved in the commercial and intellectual life of the country. It is generally accepted that they were the oldest community in the Diaspora and it is quite possible that they first arrived in small numbers in what is now Yemen, as traders and merchants in about 1,000 BC. Over the centuries their social status gradually declined, although Jewish tribes assisted the Prophet Mohamed to cleanse the Moslem Holy Places of pagans. It was with the ascendancy of fanatical Imams of the Yemen and the conquest by the Turks that the Jewish communities were excoriated. By the start of the last century, these despised people in effect became the property of the Imams of the Yemen. However, when the Turks were in control, they did allow the Yemeni Jews to establish contact with their brethren elsewhere, enabling news of their deplorable conditions to filter out to the wider world.

Always, however, the Jews of Yemen anticipated that according to Biblical prophesy one day they would return to the Land of Israel. News reached Yemen of the foundation of the state of Israel in May 1948. Recognition of Israel by Britain released the British from trying to prevent illegal immigration into Palestine and, gradually, groups of Yemeni Jews managed to find sanctuary in the British Colony of Aden, where their increasing numbers began to worry the Governor. The Aden authorities were anxious to move out the hundreds of restless Jews milling in the crowded back streets of Crater and Sheikh Othman, fearing outbreaks of epidemics, and fighting between the new arrivals and the locals. But there was no sea transport for these people up the Red Sea (the Egyptians would not allow Jews through the Suez Canal). How else to transport the Jews to their Promised Land? Alaska Airlines (an ironic choice, given the Aden heat) accepted a contract to airlift the Jews to Israel.

It was recognised that there were thousands left in the Yemen who were determined to leave for Israel, but British authorities had no idea that they were setting in place a plan to evacuate almost the entire Jewish population of Yemen. After intensive negotiations between Aden, London and Tel Aviv and the Jewish Agency, plans were agreed to accept into Aden up to 1,000 Yemeni Jews a month, although there were reports that up to 20,000 might arrive within two months. The British were prepared to open the border on their side, if agreement could be reached with the Imam who coincidentally lifted his restrictions on 'his' Jews leaving. Reception camps were established for the new arrivals, away from the Aden centres of population.

How the Colonial Service helped build Israel
Alaska Airlines
And so it happened: it was a spontaneous and general exodus of a whole community. The prophecies of the Bible were being fulfilled and the Jews were to be transported to the Promised Land. They came from all parts of the Yemen and the Aden Protectorates, from some 800 localities. They sold their homes and most of their possessions at bargain prices and they started on the long walk to Aden, men and women carrying babies, old people, travelling in continuous groups of 40 or 50 persons, walking through the mountains and enduring bakingly hot days and chilly nights, along the dusty tracks and over mountain passes, their precious scrolls secreted safely. They needed to be: at every point the Jews were taxed, forced to pay bribes, or robbed of their meagre possessions. The journey to Aden took between some days and three months. Hundreds never made it through and their bodies were buried where they died.

Because the Jews had to pass through the Western Aden Protectorate they were subject to the whims of the various rulers seeking revenue. This was where the handful of political officers' role was vital: three sultans and the Sharif of Baihan agreed to a transit tax negotiated by the political officers. The Sharif asked if he could retain a few Jews passing through his state of Baihan (where there was no resident Jewish population) so as to fulfill the Qu'aranic injunction to protect 'People of the Book.' As a religious man he wanted to protect them but had no one to protect. "Even some old and infirm Jews would suffice ..."!

How the Colonial Service helped build Israel
Yemenite Jews
'Operation Magic Carpet' lifted the first plane load of Yemeni Jews bound for Israel on 15 December 1948; the first few flights were entirely of children (there were 200 orphans among the refugees). In the meantime, the common border between the kingdom of the Yemen and the Aden Protectorate was then closed by the Imam of the Yemen, alarmed at the loss of his skilled serfs, and by the British who were initially unable to cope with the exodus from Yemen. Still, groups of Jews managed the crossing. The Imam relented. The flood of humanity resumed. Up to fifty thousand Jews in all survived the journey and were flown out. Left behind was a small number of individuals who wished perhaps to complete some business, sell a house, and they intended to follow on, to join their families in Aden. They never did. Following on 'Operation Magic Carpet' the border was closed by the Yemenis. It was to be more than forty years later before it was possible for them to get news of their families in Israel who were themselves pining for loved ones left behind in the Yemen. In many cases, those abandoned were too elderly to survive the long period of waiting. When word could eventually get through from Israel to Yemen, the reply was often that the beloved father or grandfather had died, leaving a permanent void of sadness in Israel.

Those earlier political officers of my Service could not have foreseen how their endless discussions with the essentially medieval potentates they advised would have enabled a further skein to be added to the mixture of peoples that make up modern Israel. The Jews of Yemen 'came home,' to leave behind them a culture poorer by their departure - not only as silversmiths and traders - but by the loss of their culture and traditions.

The political officers returned to advising the sultans how to keep the Pax Britannica, to open up trading routes, and concentrate on modernizing a society colourfully described then as 'rushing headlong into the Seventeenth Century.'

Aden Map
Aden and Western Aden Protectorate Map, 1950
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 94: April 2008


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