Federation helps Jews escape to Israel
By Amy R. Kaufman
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One of the largest waves of immigration of the 20th century was the exodus of Jews to Israel after World War II. Nearly 700,000 came from 70 countries between 1947 and 1951, according to historian Martin Gilbert.
Because the Holocaust was linked to Jewish persecutions in the 20 centuries since the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine, and Jews everywhere had held fast to the hope of return, many refer to the modern immigration as “the ingathering of the exiles."
In 1941, David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, predicted that after the Allied victory only “five to eight million” Jews would remain of the world’s 16.5 million Jews, according to historian Shabtai Teveth. Ben-Gurion declared, “Zionism now is one, and only one, thing: the concern for the rescue of five million Jews.”
Two years later, only one-quarter of the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries remained alive.
From August 1945 until the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, all Jewish immigration to Palestine was illegal, and no other country would accept the Jews. The fond dream of a Jewish homeland became an overwhelming necessity.
How many heroes—presidents, pilots, soldiers, humanitarian aid workers, underground networks and grandmothers filling tins with coins—made rescue possible? On Israel’s 60th birthday, we might begin a count that cannot be completed.
In all of these perilous journeys, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee played a vital role, as they and their Jewish Federation partners do today in the continuing saga of Jewish immigration to Israel.
It was not only from the cauldrons of Europe that Jews fled to Israel, boarding salvaged ships like the Exodus 1947, whose passengers were sent back to the British Zone of Germany. An influx of 123,371 Arab-speaking Jews came from Iraq. At the end of 1949, Communist Romania released 117,950 Jews who had endured slave labor camps and death marches.
The JDC funded this rescue and also helped 45,336 Jews from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria to reach Israel. The 37,260 Jews of Bulgaria and 34,547 Jews from Turkey made their way to Israel.
Jews also fled to Israel from Egypt, Syria and Libya, where they had been subjugated under the dhimma (“outsider”) laws.
The Jews began to flee Yemen in 1949, when, under a new law, fatherless Jewish children under 13 were torn from their mothers to be raised in Muslim homes, according to historian Joan Peters.
Operation Magic Carpet, named for the hundreds of planes that filled the air, brought 3,800 Yemenite Jews to Israel the first year, and in 1951 another 110,000 were evacuated.
Portlander Robert Maguire Jr. of Alaska Airlines, was chief pilot of Operation Magic Carpet. Upon his death in 2005, the New York Times recounted, “Few of the Yemenite Jews had ever seen an airplane. But the airline painted an eagle with outstretched wings over the door of each craft, and the Yemenites went aboard,” remembering Isaiah’s prophecy: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”
Jewish Portlanders and the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland played a heroic role in Operation Exodus, the rescue of Russian Jews.
After some 200,000 Soviet Jews settled in Israel in the 1970s, the gates of emigration were again slammed shut in 1983. At that time, Natan Sharansky, later a prominent figure in Israeli politics, was in his sixth year of incarceration in a Siberian labor camp for his role in the movement to “let our people go.”
With the fall of the Communist regime in 1992, Soviet Jews were free to emigrate. JFGP announced it was selling seats at $1,000 apiece for a “flight to freedom” to bring 250 Soviet Jews to Israel in a jumbo 747. Portland’s Jerry Stern bought all the seats in the aircraft, and he and his wife, Helen, accompanied the refugees to Israel in one of their many Jewish rescues.
JFGP then announced it would sell seats on a second plane to bring Soviet Jews to Israel. “The community stepped up and filled that plane also,” said Charles Schiffman, executive vice president of JFGP.
Together, United Jewish Appeal and its Jewish Federation partners raised $882 million, enough to take half a million Soviet Jews to Israel.
About two years before, 20,000 Beta Israel, or Ethiopian Jews, escaped to Israel in the harrowing Operation Solomon.
Nearly 8,000 Ethiopian Jews had been airlifted to Israel in 1984 in Operation Moses, but the secret mission was suspended when the news leaked. Some of the Ethiopian leaders who had facilitated the airlift were imprisoned for life.
In 1990, famine and civil war drove 20,000 Ethiopian Jews to Jewish Agency welfare centers in Addis Ababa. After 4,000 had been airlifted to Israel, 15,000 waited in the embattled capital to emigrate.
They became pawns of the Ethiopian dictator, Col. Haile Mariam Mengistu, who held them for ransom, demanding military aid in exchange for their release.
According to Asher Naim, then Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, a settlement of $35 million was negotiated, but before the funds cleared the New York bank, Mengistu had fled the country, leaving the Jews and their rescuers in “limbo between two regimes.”
Negotiators devised Operation Solomon. As rebels closed in, Israel asked the U.S. to urge them to permit the rescue. The Israeli Air Force mobilized 35 planes, and within 25 hours, 41 flights had airlifted the Jews to Israel.
Schiffman said all those who have contributed to Jewish federations, including JFGP, have supplied humanitarian aid and facilitated the absorption of every wave of immigrants to Israel. In addition to supporting local agencies, he said JFGP funds are directed to UJC in New York City, “the parent body of all the Federations,” which allocates about two-thirds to JAFI and about one-third to the JDC.
“We are part of a worldwide system,” said Laurie Rogoway, JFGP campaign director. “We can do so much for Jewish needs globally because we have the mechanism in place.”