Monday, 28 January 2013

Jews of Yemen (ctd) - Escaping arab oppression, 'Walking out of slavery into freedom' (Sepharadim: Part 5)

 Here Golda Meir recounts about how often uneducated and ill people from many countries in the diaspora were absorbed into Israel, people who could at that time not contribute to the state. The State of Israel was desperately poor after having survived the war and needing to give defence needs a high priority. So rationing was introduced in order to share the burden equally so as to give everyone, including the newcomers the bare minimum necessary to survive. Golda recounts how Schools and clinics had to be improvised in the face of many diseases from which the newcomers were suffering from, and yet  the doctors and nurses managed to cope, and Israelis did not complain, because they were helping their own people. 

From Golda Meir, My Life p214-216:

How did they keep themselves alive? They became master craftsmen, silversmiths, jewellers, weavers and carpenters. All over Israel today you can see and buy their delicate, exotic filigree work. Of course, those who couldn't keep their families alive by craftsmanship became itinerant workmen and pedlars, but for all of them life was more than degrading; it was also very precarious. Out of every 1,000 Jewish children born in Yemen, nearly 800 died, and all orphaned Jewish boys were forced to convert.But somehow the Jewish community of Yemen never disappeared, and every now and then Yemenite Jews either were given permission by the imam to leave Yemen or they escaped from it across the desert into Aden, hoping from there to reach the Holy Land - though very few ever did.

Still, when I came to Palestine in 1921, there were already some Yemenite Jews there. They had learned of the renewed settlement activity in Palestine from Shmuel Yavnieli, an East European Jew who had made his way through Yemen as early as 1908, finding these 'lost remnants' of his people and bringing them the message of the return to Zion. I was fascinated by them. I knew that they were capable of great feats of strength, but to me they looked like dar-skinned, fragile dolls in their colourfull traditional clothing (in Yemen they were not allowed to wear the same clothes as Arabs). Most of the Yemenite women in Palestine then wore lovely hooded garments and dresses over narrow, beautifully embroidered trousers, while the men, all of whom had long earlocks, were dressed in loose striped robes. During the war years, a few thousand Yemenite Jews who received permission from the British to leave Aden and enter Palestine sailded up the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal. But the majority were still trapped.

In 1947, a few days safter the UN vote on partition, there were dreadful Arab riots in Aden, and the situation of the Jews inside Yemen itself also worsened. In their despair and terror, thousands of Yemennite Jews - hearing that the State of Israel was at last coming into being - finally took their lives in their own hands and fled. They left their few possessions behind, gathered up their families and - like the biblical Children of Israel - began to walk out of slavery into freedom, believing implicitly that somehow or other they would get to the Holy Land.

They walked in groups of thirty or forty, set upon by Arab brigands, eating only the pitta (flat Arab bread), honey and dates they could carry and paying exorbitant ransoms to the various desert sultanates they passed en route for each man, newborn baby and Bible. Most of them did reach Aden and the camps organized for them by the Joint Distribution Committee and staffed by Israeli doctors and social workers, where they rested, prayed and read their Bibles. But since the Egyptians had closed the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping, there was only one way for them to reach Israel 0 and that was by air. Each day, 300 or 600 Yemenite Jews were flown to Israel packed into giant converted transport planes that flew them along the Red Sea route in what soon became known as 'Operation Magic Carpet'! That airlift went on all through 1949 and, by the time it ended, it had brought 48,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel.

Sometimes I used to go to Lydda and watch the planes from Aden touch down, marvelling at the endurance and faith of their exhausted passengers. 'Had you ever seen a plane before?" I asked one bearded old man. 'No', he answered. 'But weren't you very frightened of flying?'' I persisted. 'No', he said again, very firmly. 'It is all written in the Bible'. In Isaiah. ''They shall mount up with wings of eagles.'' And standing there on the airfield, he recited the entire passage to me, his face lit with the joy of a fulfilled prophecy - and of the journey's end. Today there are virtually no more Jews in Yemen, and the scars of their long exile have begun to fade. Ben-Gurion used to say that his happiest day would come when a Yemenite Jew would be appointed chief-of-staff of the Israel Defence Forces, and I myself think that day is not far off now (Ooops - that has still not happened, but Moshe Levy was of Iraqi extraction, Shaul Mofaz - persian).

Reading over what I have just written I am still amazed by the sheer number of the immigrants we absorbed. but we weren't dealin gwith abstract numbers then. It wasn't the arithmetic of the Law of the Return - the bill passed by the Knesset in July 1950 giving the right of immigration to all Jews and automatic Israeli citizenship to all Jewish immigrants - that most concerned us. What worried us was how were we ever going to feed, clothe, house, educate and generally care for those thousands of immigrants. How and with what? By the time I arrived back in Israel, there were 200,000 people living (if that's the word) in tents all over the country, more often than not two families to a tent - and not necessarily families from the same country or even the same continent. apart fr om the fact that none of the services we improvised in such a rush really worked well or were geared for so many thousands of people, there were also a great many sick, under nourished and handicapped people who might have managed better had they been housed differently but who just couldn't cope at all under the circumstances. The man who had lived through yeaers of Nazi slave labour, survived the DP camps and braved the trip to Israel and who was, at best, in poor health and, at worst, badly damaged physically and entitled to the best possible conditions, found himself and his family (if he still had one) living in unbearable proximity with people with whom he didn't even have a common language. Nine times out of ten, he even regarded his newneighbours as primitive because they had never seen a flush toilet. Even then he might have pulled himself together faster if we had been able to give him a job at once or move him into more adequate housing or somehow give him the sense of permanence for which, like all reugees, he longed. Or consider the illiterate woman from Libya or Yemen or the caves of the Atlas Mountains who was stuck with her children in a draughty, leaky tent with Polish or Czech Jews who prepared their food differently, ate things that made her feel sick and, by her standards, weren't even Jews at all, either because they weren't observant or else because their prayers and rituals were totally unfamiliar to her.

 In theory, non of this should have mattered. In theory, no over crowding, no misery, no cultural or intellectual differences should have been at all important for people who had experienced the Holocaust or for those who had literally walked out of Yemen through the robber-infested, scorching desert. But theory is for theoreticians. People are people, and the tensions and discromforts of those hideous tent cities that I saw everywhere in 1949 were really unbearable. Something had to be done at once about housing, and jobs had to be created for those unhappy people as soon as possible. Their health and their nutriion were taken care of more or less adequately: the  TB, trachoma, ring-worm, malaria, typhoid, dysentery, measles and pellagra that the immigrants brought with them were all being coped with, though I don't know how our overworked and exhausted doctors and nurses did it. And all of the tent cities had 'schools' of some sort where Hebrew was being taught intensively. But in 1949 housing seemed an insurmountable problem.

as for our resources, despite the magnificent response of world Jewry, there was never enough money. Thanks to our neighbours, our defence budget had to stay sky high, and anyhow all the other essential needs of the state had to be met somehow. We couldn't close down our schools or our hospitals or our transport or our industries (such as they were) or put too tight a rein in any way on the state's development. So everything had to be done at the same time. But there were things that we could do without after all - so we did without them. We rationed almost everything - food, clothing and shoes - and got used to the idea of an austerity that lasted for years. Recently I came across one of my own ration books, a drab little booklet issued by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in 1950, and I recalled the hours I stood in line for a few potatoes or three eggs or the frozen fish on which we feasted so gratefully - when we got it. Luckily, I still had clothes from my stay in Russia. But most Israelis had a very hard time indeed. Their standard of living dropped drastically. Whatever had been sufficient for one family in 1948 now had to be shared with two or three other families. Oldtimers, who had just emerged from months of a terrible war, might have been forgiven for rebelling against the new demands made on them. But no one rebelled. A few people said that perhaps the immigrants should wait wherever they were until times were better here. But no one, no one at all, ever suggested that the burden was too heavy or that the infant state might collapse under it. The national belt was tightened - and tightened again - and still we all managed to breathe. And about one thing we were all in agreement: without those Jews, Israel wasn't worth having.

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