Yemen loses the last of its Jews to Israel
SANA'A - Salem Yahia died at the age of 35, four years after having contracted liver disease. He was so poor that he could not afford to buy medicine he needed for treatment. He was among the last Jews living in Yemen.
Mahmud Taha, a researcher in Jewish affairs, used Yahia’s story to illustrate the living conditions of the Jewish minority in Yemen. “No Yemeni Jew owned agricultural land or real estate or a store,” Taha said. “None of them also benefited of a monthly salary as government employees. However, they are not in worse condition than the rest of Yemeni people. Everybody suffers from poverty and overall misery.”
Jews were an original part of Yemeni society. Even before the spread of Islam, most regions of Yemen had people who practiced Judaism.
“Yemeni Jews are the guardians of a unique and rare cultural heritage. They have preserved ancient manuscripts of the Torah and speak a very old Hebrew dialect but their political role in Israel is practically nonexistent and they usually boast about being from Yemen,” Taha noted.
Migration campaigns to move Yemeni Jews to Israel started in 1949. Israel relocated as many as 50,000 Jews from Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet over a two-year period. Many Jews chose to leave Yemen because of increasing hostility towards them following Israel’s founding and massacres of Palestinians. The mass migration was also due to pressure from Western governments and the rise of Arab nationalism in Yemen.
However, with the reunification of Yemen in 1990 and the introduction of a pluralistic political system, it has become quite common to see the remaining Yemeni Jews travel to Israel and return to Yemen with no restrictions or harassment.
After the outbreak of the war between government forces and Houthi rebels in March 2015, Jewish migration to Israel in small groups resumed. The Houthis evicted about 70 Jews from Saada governorate. They ended up in a tourism complex near the US embassy in Sana’a and the Yemeni government provided them with food and small monthly stipend.
“But when the Houthis took control of Sana’a, the Jews feared retaliation and about 30 of them chose to leave Yemen,” Taha said.
Houthi political activist Amal al-Maakhazi rejected any link between recent Jewish migration to Israel and the rebels’ occupation of Sana’a.
“Jewish migration existed well before the appearance of the Houthi movement in 2004,” she said. “Their displacement from one area to another in Yemen is due most of the time to the irreverent behaviour of some of their members and their non-conservative culture, which clashed with the conservative Yemeni society.”
Khattab al-Rouhani, a member of the anti-Houthi Islamic Reformation Party, accused the rebels of persecuting Jews. “Their expression ‘damned be the Jews’ was illustrated by the eviction of Aal Salem clan from their villages in Saada, the destruction of their homes and confiscation of their belongings… They can boast that they are fighting Israel now,” Rouhani said.
Ali al-Ahdal, a history professor at Sana’a University stressed that historically the Jewish community in Yemen was well integrated and preserved. “Their material and moral rights were always guaranteed,” he said. “They were free to practice their faith and rites in their temples, free to celebrate Jewish feasts like Yom Kippur and the Jewish New Year. They would dance and be festive and Muslims would join them in their celebrations.”
Economically, Yemeni Jews were not discriminated against, Ahdal said, adding: “The meagre tax they had to pay annually at some point was later repealed and they were exempt from tribal rules and conventions.”
The 19 Yemeni Jews who arrived in Israel on March 21st were among the last members of the Jewish community that once numbered more than 60,000. A few dozen still live in Sana’a and Reedah in Amran. The Jewish Agency put the number at 50.
One of them, Saaed al-Yahudi, denied reports that the Jews who recently left the country for Israel took with them a 500-year-old Torah scroll.
“The copy of the Torah that appeared in their possession is their own. In the past, every two Jewish families would have one copy of the Torah they would use at Shabbat services,” he said.
“The history of the Jewish presence in Yemen is being obliterated today by forgetfulness,” said Taha. “Sana’a’s old Jewish neighbourhood Bekaa al-Yahud has almost disappeared. The temples were turned into houses and their distinctive features wiped out. The building, which used to belong to the most famous of the Jewish judges during the rule of the imams, is far gone.”