Jews had lived in Yemen for years, even before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC. The community had grown from the Maccabees’ time after the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 BC. Even though they comprised majorly small communities that lived in isolation, the Jews of Yemen had maintained the connection with other Jewish centers in the Middle East. They even had ties with Jews abroad, including those in Spain and Israel.
The Jews of Yemen believed that when the Prophet Ezra encouraged Jews to return from exile to rebuild the Temple in Israel (538 BCE), Yemen’s Jews refused. They believed that a new temple would also collapse, sending them into exile again.
This belief helped Yemeni Jews believe that returning to Israel was dependent on the Messiah’s arrival. Just as other Jews across the globe, this belief was a significant element in Yemeni Jewish rituals, prayers, and practice.
The Ottoman Empire controlled the large sections of Yemen by 1872, including San’a that had the highest population of Jews. Since Ottoman controlled both Yemen and Palestine, it was easier for the Jews in Yemen to move to Israel. From 1881 to 1917, about 5000 Jews from Yemen made Aliya. In addition to traveling being easier, most Yemeni Jews felt that by moving to Israel, they would have hastened the coming of the Messiah.
New restrictions that targeted Jewish emigration from Yemen reduced the number of Jews who moved to Israel in 1922. After the end of Israel’s War of Independence in 1949, the official policy of Yemen was changed, even though the Arab League objected. As a result, Jews could now leave Yemen only after selling their homes and property in Yemen.
Rumors spread regarding a planned Israeli operation aimed at airlifting Jews to Israel, making thousands of Yemeni Jews travel to Aden, a British colony. Some of the Yemeni Jews walked for weeks to reach their destination.
In February 1949, the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee coordinated the airlifts. The last two airplanes carried 177 Jews from Aden to Israel as part of “Operation Magic Carpet.” During Operation Magic Carpet, about 50,000 Jews from Yemen were moved to Israel from June 1949 to September 24, 1950. The operation ended on September 24, 1950. The Operation Magic Carpet was also termed “Operation on the Wings of Eagles,” a name inspired by the Biblical passage in Exodus 19:4.