On November 4, actress and human rights activist Angelina Jolie visited Seoul as a special envoy for the U.N. She called for protection for Yemeni refugees as well as increased international efforts to bring an end to the long-running brutal conflict in Yemen. It is estimated that more than 10,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced during the ongoing civil war.
Indeed, the world today faces considerable challenges on human rights issues and refugees, which may seem at times insurmountable. Yet, November brings us a unique glimpse into the matter, and a special opportunity to remind ourselves that not all is lost in the battle even against the most formidable of challenges.
On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly voted in favor of a resolution, calling for the establishment in the territory of Mandatory Palestine an Arab state and a Jewish state. Though far from being an ideal offer for Israel, the Jewish leadership accepted the resolution as it recognized the natural and legitimate right of the Jewish people to a state after thousands of years of exile. Jews everywhere received rejoiced in the streets. However, the Arabs rejected the proposed solution and embarked on a relentless war against Israel, a war which continues today.
Jewish resurrection in the State of Israel did not bode well for Jewish communities throughout the Middle East either. More than 850,000 Jews were forced out of their homes in Arab countries and Iran. Hence, on November 30, Israel and Jewish communities worldwide remember those “forgotten refugees” and their incredible pain and suffering. These communities lived there for millennia, and suddenly – often in the dark of night – and after suffering persecution and anti-Semitic violence, had to flee for their lives – and flee they did – leaving everything behind. This human tsunami headed to the tiny, fragile, nascent State of Israel.
Among those refugees was my family, both my paternal and maternal grandparents, who ran away from Yemen, leaving all that they had behind, and arriving in Israel with almost nothing but their clothes and souls intact.
In July, 2017, I visited Alaska’s Jewish Museum which had an exhibit showcasing a clandestine and daring rescue operation that brought thousands of Yemenite Jews to Israel during 1949. It was there that I spotted Captain Elgen Long, now 91 and the last surviving member of those “Iron men.” This Alaska Airlines crew with Elgen as their navigator, flew “On Eagle’s Wings” consecutively for weeks under enemy radar – without sleep or even showers – removing seats from the plane to fit more refugees – to rescue people they did not know, putting their lives at risk. They did it because as this humble man explains, “it was the right thing to do.” We have been thanking him since then.
In September, 2017 StandWithUs held an event in his honor at the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage. While there, I asked Elgen “Would you like to visit Israel again?” He replied, “Yes, very much.”
Together with the Israeli Association for Yemenite Jewish Heritage, we brought Elgen to Israel for the first time since 1949. We wondered what he wanted to visit – the Holy Sites? Jerusalem? Maybe meet with the State’s leadership? Witness its technological marvels? “All that is good and well, but I would like to see them”, he replied. “I would like to see some of those whom we brought to Israel – how are they doing? What have they done with the opportunity they’d been given? How are their children?”
And indeed, that’s what he saw: from the 50,000 people who were rescued from Yemen, a vibrant community of over 750,000 people emerged – filled with the laughter of children and the joy of being, a cultural powerhouse in their homeland. They embraced their “hero,” incredulous to finally see him again and introduced him to their children and grandchildren.
Witnessing the situation in Yemen today, it is easy – and terrifying – to imagine what might have been, had we not been rescued.