With Islamist terrorism taking a horrific toll in Europe, with the countries of the European Union bickering over which of them should accept more refugees from the war-torn regions of Asia and Africa, and with the continued domination of the American Presidential campaign by a candidate who boasts (among many other things) about his ability to build a wall to separate the United States from Mexico, it would be easy to overlook one small piece of good news from Israel — and that’s precisely why we shouldn’t overlook it.
The good news in question did receive a respectable amount of coverage in the New York Times, and it was reported by other mainstream news outlets as well. But unless something unexpected happens, it will be mostly forgotten by next week. That’s not a criticism of the mainstream media. Their purpose is to report news, and a crisis resolved doesn’t remain news for very long — especially when so many unresolved crises are screaming for attention.
What am I talking about? Last week, it seems, Israel successfully completed the rescue of nineteen Jews from Yemen, the last Yemenite Jews who wanted to leave that country, (which has been devastated by a de facto civil war), and the last remnants of an ancient Jewish community that numbered 55,000 when Israel became a State in 1948. Most of Yemen’s Jews were airlifted to Israel in 1949 and 1950, in what was dubbed Operation Magic Carpet. Some Yemenite Jews hung on longer, with a steady trickle emigrating to Israel intermittently. By 2009, fewer than 400 Jews remained in Yemen.
As Yemen’s de facto civil war worsened, Israel quietly began the process of evacuating the remaining Yemenite Jews. The nineteen Jews rescued last week were reportedly the last ones who wanted to leave. One of them, a rabbi, brought with him a Torah scroll said to be five hundred years old. About fifty Jews have chosen to remain in Yemen.
Since Israel does not have diplomatic relations with either Yemen or Saudi Arabia (which through its blockade effectively controls Yemen’s coast), there is some mystery surrounding the precise manner in which the rescue was accomplished. The details of the rescue operation were not disclosed, in case any of Yemen’s remaining fifty Jews change their mind about staying. We may not know all the facts until the relevant documents are declassified some decades hence.
The rescue of the last nineteen Jews who wanted to leave Yemen is unlikely to loom large in Israel’s history. None of those nineteen individual Jews is likely to achieve great things, (although, as the lottery says, you never know). The community from which they came, moreover, effectively ceased to exist more than six decades ago. The more recent rescue operations were mostly a humanitarian action rather than a historic migration. Israel did not go to such lengths to rescue these nineteen people because of some contribution they are likely to make to Israeli society. Israel rescued them because they are Jews in need of a place of refuge.
As a religious Zionist, I firmly believe that the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is a Divine gift that enables the Jews as a people to participate in the redemptive process that will culminate in the coming of the Messiah. In the unmistakably unredeemed world in which we live, however, the State of Israel is still a human institution. Like all human institutions, it is unavoidably flawed, and its accomplishments are inevitably imperfect.
The rescue of the Yemenite Jews is no excerption. Many have criticized the Israeli governments of the 1950’s for the coerced secularization of and manifest disrespect for the Jewish communities of Asia and Africa (often imprecisely denominated Sephardim) in general, and the Yemenite Jews in particular. There is some validity in that criticism, but it needs to be put in context. The Israel of that era was a young country with limited resources surrounded by implacable enemies and called upon to absorb in the course of a decade a refugee population larger than itself.
Like most religious Jews, I would have preferred that Israel’s secular governments in its early years had been more religion-friendly, but God sometimes works in mysterious ways. In an eerily appropriate finale to the rescue of Yemen’s Jews, one of the photographs circulated after the news of this rescue broke showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeting the refugees while displaying the 500-year-old Torah scroll. (Yes, I know, the New York Times didn’t publish that picture; I guess some miracles take a little longer.)
The bigger news, of late, has included European anguish at the sheer volume of refugees seeking entry and, here in the United States, an increasingly ugly anti-immigrant populism that seems to be dominating the Presidential election campaign. For Israel, however, resettling refugees is not a humanitarian gesture or a political issue. It is, rather, a fundamental part of the State’s raison d’etre. The foundation of political Zionism was the determination that never again would Jews be forced from their homes and have nowhere to go.
Home, in the oft-quoted words of Robert Frost,”is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” The Holocaust demonstrated the risk of confronting modernity without such a home, and the promise of Israel was that Jews would never again be such a people. In recent months, while the rest of the world was falling over itself to avoid taking refugees, Israel was quietly demonstrating, once again, its commitment to keeping that promise. Its rescue of the remnant of Yemenite Jews got little attention because Israel’s commitment to take every Jew who wants to go there isn’t news — and for that we should all be grateful.