Last week marked the 67th anniversary of Operation Magic Carpet, which was the airlift of about 50,000 Yemenite Jews to the newly independent state of Israel, but there is still a lack of consciousness among the public in matters that concern this history.
Perhaps the latest development concerning the mystery of the missing Yemenite children will spark renewed interest. There have been quite a few people whose names have become synonymous with Jewish immigration, but then there are also a few more worth mentioning such as my relative Zchariah Gluska—a great humanitarian and activist who dedicated his life to helping Yemenites, yet his legacy remains unknown to most. In this article, it is my wish to celebrate my great-great-uncle Zchariah, and who knows perhaps with the addition of Israel’s newly incorporated Aliyah Day for the commemoration of Jewish immigration to Israel, there may be more exposure to the people behind the scenes who made it all happen.
In order to understand Gluska’s life’s work, and the bleakness of the Jewish Yemenite refugee crisis, I have chosen to begin with a copy of a letter he received from a fellow activist in 1943 who was sent to Aden and Yemen to observe their condition.
The letter above was sent to Gluska by his colleague Yosef Ben David, and it provides an accurate account of the lives of Jews in the British protectorate region of Aden, including Yemen during 1943. We learn about the Jews’ yolk in exile; their subjugation by Muslim rulers and the Muslim population alike and the precipitous decline in their living conditions. One gets a sense that this community was totally forgotten, deserted by world Jewry. This must be so otherwise it would not have taken decades of persistent appeals, and often begging, to save them from the hands of their oppressors. The negligent treatment of Yemenites during their long wait in transit camps is quite palpable, but this state of affairs persisted for decades due to the imam’s religious intolerance and oppressive political stance towards his Jewish subjects. However, some of the blame could be attributed to policies that were enacted by the British in Aden and Palestine, but that’s not to say that the early Jewish organizations in Israel and around the world didn’t have a measure of control in the matter as well.
Yemenites owe a great deal of gratitude to Gluska who was the catalyst and inspiration behind every single Jewish organization that at some point helped Yemenite Jews settle in Israel after the second wave of immigration. Without his interference and stalwart petition for action, many more would have stayed behind.
And if it were not for his role in implementing equal rights for Yemenites in all spheres of life, and a brazen fight against a stubborn and narrow-minded establishment that held a myopic attitude towards Yemenite refugees, they would have remained anonymous, practically vanquished. Gluska’s solution for antipathy was placing Yemenites in key leadership positions in order to advance more understanding and expedite the help they desperately required, but for the most part this request was firmly ignored. Gluska didn’t lose hope and chose a new direction altogether; he assembled the Mizrach Youth Organization and The Yemenite Organization in Palestine, and he became a member of the first Israeli Knesset.
His personal diary reveals that his efforts to raise funds for rescuing the remainder of the Jewish refugees and helping them in Israel were continuously tyrannized by the Jewish Agency in Israel and America and ignored by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The Yemenite immigrants were concentrated in a number of distinct camps across the country as opposed to other ethnic groups that were dispersed all over Israel. It was supposed to be a temporary quick-fix, but it turned into their permanent residence for years. Since they were somewhat isolated from the rest of society, they were easy to ignore. This dark time in Jewish history added to the social crisis, created more unrest, contributed to loss of life and brought much agony to Zchariah and his supporters.
Zchariah Gluska was born in 1895; he lived in the village of Nadir in northern Yemen, and worked together with his father as a silversmith right up to their departure for Palestine during the second Aliya in 1909. A spiritual awakening of sorts and a messianic interpretation of political and socioeconomic factors had prompted their decision to leave. The economy had taken a turn for the worst due to drought and war; there was growing professional competition encouraged by the Turks (more Muslims were taking on artisan jobs), and growing restriction on work opportunities for Jews. They had always yearned to return to the land of their forefathers, but when they heard that Jews were settling on vast tracts of land purchased by Rothschild, they envisioned the Prophet Ezra’s call to immigrate. From that point on, all they talked about was their impeding departure to Eretz Hakodesh (the Holy Land). They deserted most of their possessions, and the only articles they brought with them were a few religious articles and provisions to last the journey to Palestine.
They did not travel to Palestine through Aden, which became a requirement a few years later, and travel documents were not necessary either. They left by foot from their village through the hot and arid region of Tehama, until they reached the coast of Jizan. From there, they boarded two medium-size boats that sailed to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia; however, the journey by sea was rough. Many suffered from sea sickness, and their water supply had dwindled. To make matters worse, the day of their arrival in Jeddah they were not allowed off the boats because it was Friday—the Muslim’s holy day and as such, they were refused entry into the country. After a little bit of haggling and bribery they were allowed off the boats.
From Jeddah they set sail to Palestine, but unbeknownst to them the captain had dropped them off in Lebanon instead. When they finally arrived to the shores of Jaffa they sang and danced and kissed the ground, but their happiness was short-lived when the reality of discriminatory policies towards Yemenite immigrants had set the tone for their new lives practically from the get-go.
Zchariah observed with great interest his new surroundings and realized that changing his Yemenite old-world order was essential to achieving his first goal of finding work. Some aspects of his customs were not practical in a modern environment and integration with Jewish society was vital. However, Yemenites were deeply rooted in tradition and faith, and any small deviation from this path was heavily scrutinized and seen as a threat by family as well as strangers. Gluska shaved off his beard and cut off his simanim (side locks) and modernized his wardrobe by wearing a suit and tie. Yemenite Jews were recognized for their devout and pious ways; their outside appearance was an extension of their dedication to God, and an important part of their identity as Yemenite Jews. Yemenite Jews had been isolated in the Diaspora and were not exposed to Jewish Enlightenment. They revered rabbis and sages, so naturally this created conflict within a mixed Jewish society. When Gluska adapted his grooming habits and wardrobe, they saw it as outright betrayal, and it took some time for other Yemenites to accede to coexistence between their old and new way of life.
Gluska found work right away in a candy factory, and he managed to make a little bit of money, and even help his family move to a slightly larger apartment to better accommodate his eight brothers and sisters. But his advancement meant having to negotiate for fair pay and equal work conditions.
Even after enjoying a small measure of success, he was unable to settle into a comfortable rhythm of life; it was impossible for anyone with a conscience and a sense of duty to ignore the mass suffering of an entire community. Once he became privy to a pattern of inequalities in pay, as well as scarcity of land allocation for most of the Yemenite community, public service became his priority. In order to help other Yemenites acclimate to their new surroundings, he joined forces with Josef Sprinzak and organized the Mizrach Youth Group in 1911—an organization that arranged social events for men and women as well as lectures and Hebrew lessons. Yemenite women were at a disadvantage because they never learned Hebrew as it was a language reserved for prayer and the study of scripture. This became a great point of contention between Gluska and more traditionalist Yemenites who scoffed at the idea of women participating in education and worse, mixing with men. They felt that he was part of a movement that pushed for anti-religious coercion. This type of criticism towards Zchariah became part and parcel of his experience in public life; there were always those who were suspect of his motives and placed hurdles in his way within the establishment and among his fellow Yemenites, even though he was a selfless man who did nothing else but commit himself to the Yemenite plight.
Gluska was also a member of the Histadrut—the early Labour Movement, and as such he was able to influence their decisions with respect to the welfare of Yemenite immigrants. However, the organization had lost interest in helping Yemenites after a new wave of European immigrants arrived to Palestine. In order to help expedite the needs of his community, he insisted that they enlist a Yemenite to preside over Yemenite affairs. They grudgingly appointed Abraham Tabib, Gluska’s good friend and activist. But the Histadrut thought they’d outsmart them by sending Tabib to work from home, so he would not become privy to their affairs. This did not sit well with Tabib or Gluska, and that’s when they parted ways with the organization and formed the United Yemenite Organization of Palestine. Their organization became an independent entity that from then on would have representatives involved in matters that concerned immigration as well as work, housing, and education for Yemenite immigrants. With this move, they presented a new challenge for the establishment that relied on a popular negative stereotype of disorganization among the Yemenite community.
Their departure from the group was seen as an underhanded move, a calculated political maneuver to weaken the Histadrut, and there were even more hurdles and more obstacles to combat. It was almost as though they were punishing the Yemenite who had dared . . . It’s obvious to me that political motivations as well as jealously spurred such scheming behavior—after all Zchariah was a force to be reckoned with. He dressed well and stood tall; he had a deep, commanding voice, great communication skills, charisma, intelligence and a supreme understanding of the politics of the region, and always peppered his speeches with biblical verse and interpretation. Instead of embracing this man wholeheartedly, there were those who still felt threatened by him. He was the minority who stood up to important organizations and their heads, and pointed out their hypocrisy, despite their up-to-date knowledge of the critical state of Jews in Yemen and Palestine. He managed to get under their skin and it became something of a personal vendetta to stop Gluska in his tracks. Somewhere those organizations had lost their way; their vision had become obscured by bigotry and pettiness—they viewed the Yemenite immigrants as inferior and unworthy, and created an impenetrable wall that kept anyone from raising their economic and social standards. So many years after immigrating to Palestine nothing had changed–they were still living in temporary housing quarters that were overcrowded and without sufficient water or food supplies. They still looked emaciated and suffered a high death toll.
There were some good people, of course, within the establishment who valued the Yemenite immigrants’ industriousness and discipline, but even so, it is inaccurate to give all the credit and adulation for saving Yemenite Jews to the very organizations that ignored them for many years. Furthermore, Gluska’s westernized looks may have helped him to a degree, but within his own community there were those who believed that a man who supposedly deserted his roots was incapable of representing his own people or worse—that he was in the business of profiting from his work and not so much caring for Yemenites. How funny that they actually thought this while he simultaneously fought the Board of Education for their refusal to recognize the Yemenite culture as part of the curriculum in Yemenite schools—a battle that he won at the very end.
The 1920s signified the beginning of a crisis in Yemen that would last for decades and extinguish any last hope that the refugees were clinging to. This outcome was a direct result of factors that came into play once the Turkish Empire had relinquished its rule over Yemen a few years earlier. Imam Yahya introduced old sharia laws that traumatized the Jews; new British immigration criteria created more hardships, and Jewish leadership from the Yishuv (early Zionist leadership) was inept and uninterested in helping Yemenite Jews. The transit camps in Aden were overcrowded, people slept on the streets, there was no food, no proper care or provisions and tuberculosis was rife among its population. The main victims were children who were dying at a rate of 3-4 per week. The imam’s zealous application of draconian edicts, namely the reintroduction of the Orphan Decree meant that any child who lost their father would be removed from their family and converted to Islam. Already there were instances of children that were taken away by force and converted, and to make matters worse entire communities would be punished for harboring orphans and community leaders were tortured and jailed. Also, the British immigration requirements would change every few months and they were exclusive to people who had prospects of employment, financial guarantees and no older than 35. The Zionist Organization had a stake in deciding who would receive those Palestine certificates and their preference was for healthy individuals experienced in farming who also spoke Hebrew, artisans were also considered.
To add one more twist, Jews who wished to leave for Palestine were not allowed to sell their belongings, and once they left for Aden—the only port of exit to Palestine at that time—the imam would confiscate their assets. Letters from Yemenite refugees began pouring into the country and piling up on top of people’s desks, and these letters described insurmountable misery. Gluska knocked on the doors of every organization, he traveled abroad to raise more money for aid and he also called for the appointment of Yemenite representatives in the immigration department of the Jewish Agency that would eventually oversee the processing of Palestine applications. All he heard was “no,” and the smallest measure of relief seemed impossible. Even the British refused to wave the fee they required from each refugee vetted for immigration.
Gluska was the one who insisted on a Yemenite delegate attending the 14th Zionist Congress in Vienna in order to better present the Yemenites’ interests. He was chosen for the task, and when he left Palestine on August 8, 1925, he set sail on a ship that left the port of Jaffa and without a penny extra for his travels he was sent to the fourth class compartment.
During his first day at the Congress he was shocked to discover that their official language of communication was German, a language he did not speak or understand but his colleague Yoseph Sprinzak arranged for an interpreter. Also, most of the delegates had never seen a brown-skinned Jew in this type of gathering, and they were equally intrigued when learning that he was of Yemenite descent. They were under the impression that all Yemenites were diminutive in size and wore simanim and a beard, but he looked nothing like it. After the first two days of lectures they convened for the different committees, but he was warned that only prominent representatives would actually get the floor to present their issues.
During these sessions he insisted on Hebrew as the official language of communication, and to his surprise it was the first time anyone had ever suggested this. Most delegates sneered at his ridiculous idea, and Dr. Motzkin banged his gavel in order to stifle Gluska and prevent him from raising his request again. He also threatened to throw him out of the hall, but Gluska fought back and challenged Motzkin on his baseless intimidation. As a result, the delegates communicated in Hebrew for the first time in history. Right there he managed to impress the masses, but he also alienated others who saw him as a burdensome agitator.
Gluska was also afforded the opportunity to talk in front of the assembly and he was able to explain in great detail the persecution of Jews in Yemen and the discrimination against Yemenites in Palestine. He described the deteriorating conditions in transit camps and asked for more financial aid and the approval of Palestine Certificates. He took the opportunity to point at Arthur Rupin and identify him as a Zionist leader who said that Yemenites were brought to Israel for work purposes only and not for settlement. He also pointed at Menachem Ussishkin who stood at the helm of the Keren Kayemet (the Jewish National Fund), but continuously refused to allocate land for Yemenite settlement.
Gluska received a loud applause. To his credit, he was able to secure a lot more money for Yemenite settlement in Palestine and travel certificates for those stuck in Yemen. This was just a small measure of success, because back home he would still have to withstand the same old bureaucratic obstacles. But all the same, he managed to save a few more lives and raise more awareness before the world stage.
During the 16th Zionist Congress, Gluska complained about the policy of limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine as practiced by the Immigration Department of the Jewish Agency and asked that representatives from his organization should take charge of the office in Aden. The Congress understood the urgency of the situation and instructed the Executive to pay special attention to countries where Jews had suffered from political persecution. They ordered a new office and new personnel in Aden but did not appoint Gluska’s team for the job.
The 1930s and 1940s depicted much of the sameness, more red tape, letters and travel and fundraisers and even a long stint in America where he was in charge of an office that dealt with Yemenite affairs. But what’s interesting to note is the deviousness in which the Jewish Agency in Palestine and America, as well as the JDC collaborated to undermine Gluska at every turn. The Jewish Agency in Israel decided that independent organizations would need a special license in order to hold fundraiser’s in America. When he applied for the license he was denied. The letter that I have included is one that gives you a taste of his grief, which is haunting and unmistakable. He practically resigns himself to defeat and feels completely deserted by God.
At one point Dr. Goldman, the chairman of the Jewish Agency ordered Gluska to return to Israel, but Gluska raised an interesting point: he wanted to know why the Jewish Agency had given Agudat Yisrael three hundred thousand dollars only a week beforehand. Specifically, this was an issue for Gluska who questioned their priorities because Agudat Yisrael were an anti-Israel and anti-Zionist party, while Yemenites had committed their lives to Israel, becoming members of the Etzel, Lechi and Haganah—they worked the land and died in Arab riots and war. Goldman’s excuse for refusing funds was that the Yemenite Organization was not a political party and as such they could not receive money.
Gluska was undeterred even by Goldman. He held a number of press conferences in America that were boycotted by prominent Jewish journalists due to pressure from the JDC. He was also accused of conspiring against the Israeli government. However, all of the publicity did pay off in the end because religious leaders finally heard him. They were horrified by his accounts, so were congregants in synagogues and this prompted many in the Jewish community to write to JDC and threaten to withhold their donations if they would not help Gluska. This was the true story behind Operation Magic Carpet, and all the glory attached to the JDC should be viewed with great scrutiny.
Gluska’s work continued even after the latest airlift from Yemen, because when those refugees arrived they were terribly sick and destitute and moral was very low. They required long-term rehabilitation and a lot more funding for basic provisions, and the Israeli government fell short of fulfilling these needs. When not embroiled in politics and fighting for fair distribution of land and resources, Gluska traveled from one Yemenite settlement to the next to check on their living conditions and provide on-site help. The Israeli society had already recognized the Yemenites’ contribution to society, but they also viewed them as an ungrateful bunch once they voiced their complaints. They were very good at putting pen to paper and flooding the different government agencies with letters. But Israelis had absolutely no clue of the underhanded politics and discrimination dealt to Yemenites by their own government. If they had become a priority, this chapter in history would have read a little differently.
Gluska was voted in to the first elected Knesset; he refused to be affiliated with any of the popular parties, and took full advantage of this new platform to complain about the unfair treatment of Yemenites. At one of the sessions he argued: “The community of Yemenite Jews is the first victim. Those responsible in the government forget that an entire community of 50,000 Jews is oppressed . . . For the moment they protest silently, but this silent protest may become an open and stormy one. The day is not far off when a great cry will break forth from the mouths of those people.” (Zvi Zameret, The Melting Pot in Israel: The Commission of inquiry Concerning the Education of Immigrant Children During the Early Years of the State, page 21.) The truth is that both Golda Meir and Ben Gurion exhibited the very same bullish behavior towards him. Whenever Gluska spoke before the Knesset, Golda would shout “Go back to America,” and Ben Gurion accused him of being a liar. I laughed when I read his retort; he told Golda that she had no right to tell him where to go as he had lived in Israel before she had emigrated from America, and he spent a lot more years in public service than she had, so perhaps it was more fitting for her to leave, and Ben Gurion got what he deserved too.
When Gluska ran for another term in the second Israeli Knesset, the Yemenite Organization canvassed all over Israel in their bid to help gain enough votes. My mother remembers her part in the election; she was 10 years old at the time, she sat in the back seat of a green car—the make she can’t remember—but it had a megaphone attached to the roof and in her hands she held onto a piece of paper and announced the following message: “Listen here, listen here citizens of Shaariam, Zchariah Gluska needs your votes in order to represent your needs in the Knesset . . .” Unfortunately, their attempt at gaining more support and more seats failed. The other political parties won the trust of most Yemenites by promising to better represent their concerns. It was a big blow for Gluska who counted on his own people to help elevate the status of his organization to that of a political party, so they would have more influence and better prospects of being heard. But one can also understand why immigrants had entrusted their hopes in more powerful and influential political parties rather than a small Yemenite organization that continuously battled the establishment.
Gluska’s story is long and inspiring, for it spans a 50-year period of time. When you follow the paper trail of letters to and from community leaders and organizations from around the world, you get a better grasp of this disturbing chapter in Jewish history, but you also discover a hero. You learn of the uphill battle he fought in Palestine to be recognized as an equal, and gain representation for his organization in matters of immigration, land allocation, housing, work, and education for Yemenites. He also raised the issue of the missing Yemenite children from hospitals, but the affair was in its infancy in terms of gaining public awareness. He managed to make his mark at a time when Yemenite refugees did not evoke the same feelings as perhaps European refugees had. He expected everyone to treat him fairly, and never shied away from pointing fingers and requesting accountability for poor decisions and inaction.
His journey is one of great extremes—from his early days in Yemen, living under Islamic subjugation where Jews would pay Jisya—a Jew tax, and be punished for the most ridiculous, mundane offenses such as brushing against the clothing of a Muslim, or riding a donkey in town and not dismounting when crossing paths with a Muslim; raising their voices during prayer, building houses taller than a Muslim’s etc.,–to navigating his way as a new immigrant in Palestine and finding his calling in public service. Zchariah Gluska sacrificed his entire life for the good of the Yemenite community. He was found dead in a hotel room in Montreal, on September 17, 1960, while en route to another fundraiser in America. He had always suffered from poor health, terrible allergies and asthma would slow him down temporarily, but in the end the day-to-day pressures from his job had finally caught up with him. He was only 65 years old when he died; he had married twice but his devotion to work destroyed those short-lived marriages. When anyone would ask him about children he always said that he regarded each and every Yemenite orphan as his own.
His brother Yaakov Ben David Gluska published his diary post mortem, and the book is filled with acknowledgments from people who made up the early Yishuv as well as rabbis and community leaders from all over the world, including President Zalman Shazar who described Gluska as a man teeming with energy and inspiration—a man who constantly demanded and put up a vociferous fight, because the Yemenite cause had always been ingrained in his soul.
In many ways, although he did not work alone, I see Gluska as a Yemenite Herzl—a man of strong character who had witnessed just enough to ignite a fire and stir the winds of change. My hope is that every Jew should learn about Zchariah Gluska, because even though he did not seek it in his lifetime, he deserves to be recognized for his vision, generosity, and sacrifice.