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The Last Jews of Yemen

September 2, 2020 | by Mitchell Stein

The rescue of Yemenite Jews will bring an end to 3,000 years of Jewish life in the country.

Between June of 1949 and September of 1950, the newly-founded State of Israel was already deeply involved in one of its first daring rescue missions. In what later became dubbed “Operation Magic Carpet”, (also known as “Operation on Wings of Eagles”), Israel sought to rescue approximately 49,000 Jews from Yemen and airlift them to the newly-founded Jewish State. One of Israel’s earliest missions, the country hoped to save Jewish lives threatened in the region and give them refuge and opportunity for a safe and prosperous life.

“Operation Magic Carpet” saw the largest exodus of Jews from Yemen, save for a handful of Jews who remained behind. Now, the future of Jewish life in Yemen has come under threat, bringing an end to over 3,000 years of Jewish life in the region.

It is believed that Jewish life in Yemen can be traced as far back as the era of King Solomon, in which merchants traveled into the Arab peninsula and stayed there, creating generations of Judaism in the region of Yemen today. Yemen’s Jewish community is one of the oldest diasporic Jewish communities in the world, chronicling back over 3,000 years. Today, it is estimated that only approximately 50 Jews remain in the region, with much of the population leaving upon the founding of the State of Israel. In many ways, the Yemenite Jewish way of life and religious beliefs have gone unchanged over the last few thousand years. But those years have not been easy for this struggling community, who faced frequent antisemitism, which now threatens the survival of Jewish life in Yemen.

In the late nineteenth century, life began to get difficult for the Jews of Yemen. They were subject to a series of anti-Jewish laws that made life for the Jews uncomfortable, including restrictions like not allowing to wear bright clothing, ride animals, and that Jewish orphans were forced over into the care of Muslim citizens in order to prevent Jewish life from growing. Between 1888 and 1914, it is estimated that about ten percent of Yemen’s Jewish population traveled to British Mandated Palestine on foot. The danger heightened when in 1948, an anti-Jewish pogrom erupted in the city of Aden as a response to the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, an attack which ultimately saw the killing of 82 Jews and the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses.

Israel gave a new home to the majority of Yemen’s Jewish population, save for a handful that remained, despite rising antisemitism.

In recent years as Iran-backed Houthi rebels have threatened the remaining Jewish population. The Houthi movement, an Islamic political movement that emerged in Yemen in the 1990s, is a key player in what is believed to be a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their slogan is: “Death to America. Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews”.

The Jewish population is concentrated in two main cities, Raida and Sana, where they live within a fenced metal compound guarded by Yemeni troops. In 2015, the Houthis overthrew the government in Sana and they have gained control of most of the northern region of Yemen. Hatred toward the Jews has run rampant, including only allowing Jews to work certain jobs or requiring permission to travel to certain regions, which other citizens were not required to do. There have been many reports of public beatings, humiliations, and property confiscations from Jews by the Houthi officials and the public.

In July of 2020, reports began to surface that the Houthi attacks on the small Jewish population have taken a dramatic turn and that the rebels were now pressuring and forcing the Jews to leave. The Houthis placed bans that restrict Jews from traveling to areas within Yemen, restricting the purchase of food, and enforcing rules that stipulate the Jews must sell their houses to local residents. The Houthi government denied these claims, saying that the Jewish population had nothing to fear.

The Jerusalem Post recently quoted Yemini sources that Houthi efforts have turned violent. “It then started, in fact, killing, jailing and deporting many of the Jews in the governorates of Saada and Amran.” The source said that although they had not yet found an ultimate place to turn to, “the Jews are getting ready to leave Yemen.”

There is the hope of securing their safety. The Jerusalem Post, via a report by Al-Araby with contributions by Reuters, claims that as a result of the historic “Abraham Accords” peace treaty between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the remaining Jews of Yemen will be permitted to emigrate to Abu Dhabi, and a plan to rescue them will unfold shortly. As a result of a query by Israel, the move occurred via a request by the UAE to Iran, which asked for the facilitation of the transfer of the remaining Jews, which is being overseen by “the United States, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths and Emirati-Iranian coordination” according to Al-Araby.

Most of these Jews have resisted the ability to emigrate to places like the United States, or even Israel, due to their fear of diminishing their established religious and cultural practices. Unlike many of the Yemenite Jews who fled during periods of unrest, they preferred to find a Middle Eastern country similar to the lifestyle they have grown accustomed to. With the newfound peace between the UAE and Israel, the remaining Jews of Yemen now have a new place to turn to.

As one of its founding principles, Israel will continue to stand for the protection and safety of Jewish people around the world, not only providing safety for Jews in their homeland but in the diaspora as well. The Israel-UAE peace treaty will hopefully stand as a contributor to the protection of the Jews of Yemen and provide them with a path to a safe and prosperous life.

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