increasingly perilous situation led to the emigration of virtually the
entire Yemenite Jewish community - almost 50,000 - between June 1949
and September 1950 in Operation "Magic Carpet." A smaller,
continuous migration was allowed to continue into 1962, when a civil
war put an abrupt halt to any further Jewish exodus.
Until 1976, when an American diplomat came across a small Jewish community
in a remote region of northern Yemen, it was believed the Yemenite Jewish
community was extinct. As a result, the plight of Yemenite Jews went
unrecognized by the outside world.
It turned out some people stayed behind during Operation "Magic
Carpet" because family members did not want to leave sick or elderly
relatives behind. These Jews were forbidden from emigrating and not
allowed to contact relatives abroad. They were isolated and trapped,
scattered throughout the mountainous regions in northern Yemen and lacking
food, clothing, medical care and religious articles. As a result, some
Yemenite Jews abandoned their faith and converted to Islam.
For a short time, Jewish organizations were allowed
to travel openly within Yemen, distributing Hebrew books and materials
to the Jewish community.3
Today, Jews are the only indigenous religious minority
besides a small number of Christians, Hindus and Baha'is. The small
community that remains in the northern area of Yemen is tolerated and
allowed to practice Judaism. However, its members are still treated
as second-class citizens and cannot serve in the army or be elected
to political positions. Jews are traditionally restricted to living
in one section of a city or village and are often confined to a limited
choice of employment, usually farming or handicrafts. Jews may, and
do, own property.4
The Jews are scattered and a communal structure no
longer exists. Yemenite Jews have little social interaction with their
Muslim neighbors and are largely prevented from communicating with world
Jewry. It is believed that there are two synagogues still functioning
in Saiqaya and in Amlah.
Religious life has not changed much in Jewish dietary laws, Jews are
not allowed to eat meals with Muslims. Also, marriage is absolutely
forbidden outside of the religion.
During the past few years, about 400 Jews have immigrated
to Israel, despite the official ban on emigration.5
The State Department reported that in mid-2000 "the
Government suspended its policy of allowing Yemeni-origin Israeli passport
holders to travel to Yemen on laissez-passer documents. However, Yemeni,
Israeli, and other Jews may travel freely to and within Yemen on non-Israeli
In January 2001, the ruling "General People's
Party" placed a Yemeni Jewish citizen on the slate for parliamentary
elections for the first time. The candidate, Ibrahim Ezer, was reportedly
recommended by President Ali Abdallah Salah as a gesture to the incoming
Bush administration in a bid to receive economic aid for Yemen. The
General Election Committee, subsequently rejected Ezer's application
on grounds that a candidate must be the child of two Muslim parents.
Political analysts speculated that the true reason was a desire not
to establish a precedent of allowing a Jew to run for office.7
In 2008, in response to multiple violent attacks on Jewish citizens, including the murder of Rabbi Moshe Yaish Nahara'i by an Islamist radical, President Salah planned to relocate the Jewish community members from the Amran district and the city of Raidah to the capital, Sana. Once there, each Jewish family would receive a plot of land
and join the community of around 50 Jews already transferred to the capital city in 2007. In Sana, the Jews faced less danger of attack from their Muslim neighbors as the government maintains law and order.8
In 2009, also in response to the heightened threat
to the Jewish community from Islamist radicals, the United Jewish Communities,
the US State Department, local federations, and the Hebrew Immigrant
Aid Society began working together to implement the evacuation of close
to half of the remaining Jewish population in Yemen. 110 Yemenite Jews
were scheduled to be evacuated over the course of two weeks in March
2009. The expense of absorbing the immigrants would be $800,000 that
would go towards resettlement costs including food, housing, and social-service
In 2009, Yemeni authorities moved 70 Jews from northern
Yemen to a compound in Sanaa, openly admitting they could not protect
them elsewhere; and the Yemeni Jews did not have the means to earn a
living in their new homes. On May 22, 2012, Aaron Zindani, a Jewish
Yemeni man, was stabbed to death in the capital city of Saana, and his
friend believes Al-Qaeda may have been behind the attack.
Yemen's Jews numbered fewer than 400 in 2009, but the
numbers have seen a drop by 20 percent due to emigration, mostly to
the United States.10
There are currently less than 100 Jews living in Yemen, with some estimates claiming even fewer. In October 2015 the Yemeni government handed down an ultimatum to the tiny Jewish community: convert to Islam, or leave. Yemen's Jews sought out asylum in Israel and the United States due to the country's ongoing war with Houthi rebel tribes. The government ultimatum stated that they would not be able to protect the Yemeni Jews if they remained in the country as Jews. 11 The U.S. and Britain, country's that have historically helped Yemeni Jews and facilitated bringing groups of them to Israel, closed their embassies in Yemen in early November 2015. Yemeni Jews have suffered terribly during the country's civil war, and are almost completely oppressed by the Houthi leadership. Houthis are forcing the last Jews in Yemen to fight in their civil war against Saudi Arabian forces, often on the front lines.
Nineteen of the last remaining Jews in Yemen were airlifted to Israel on March 21, 2016, by the Jewish Agency. The secret operation, which rescued all but 50 Yemeni Jews, had been in planning for over a year and included coordination with the U.S. State Department. The remaining Jews refused to leave, even though transportation to Israel was offered. Jewish Agency chair Nathan Sharansky excitedly stated, “From Operation Magic Carpet in 1949 until the present day, the Jewish Agency has helped bring Yemenite Jewry home to Israel. Today we bring that historic mission to a close. This chapter in the history of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities is coming to an end, but Yemenite Jewry’s unique, 2,000-year-old contribution to the Jewish people will continue in the State of Israel.” 12 A Jewish man, Rabbi Yahia Youssef Yaish, was arrested by the Yemeni government the following week for helping the group smuggle a historic and culturally significant Torah scroll out of the country. The Rabbi, along with a Muslim airport worker, were arrested after authorities learned of the operation through news media. The Yemeni government contests that the Torah is government property and does not belong to the Jewish community. 13
1. David Singer and Lawrence
Grossman, Eds. American
Jewish Year Book 2003. NY: American Jewish Committee, 2003.
2. Howard Sachar, A
History of Israel, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), pp. 397-98;
Maurice Roumani, The Case of the Jews from Arab Countries: A Neglected
Issue, (Tel Aviv: World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries,
1977), pp. 32-33; Norman Stillman, The
Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times, (NY: Jewish Publication
Society, 1991), p. 498.
Post, (February 15, 1992); Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (February
Communities of the World; U.S.
State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997.
Communities of the World.
Department of State, 2001
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, Released by the
Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, (October
Post, (January 30, 2001).
8. Haaretz. (December 18, 2008).
Post, (March 18, 2009).
10 Gabe Kahn, "Yemeni
Jew Murdered in Sanaa," Israel
National News, May 22, 2012.
11 Ruthie Blum. “Druze-Israeli deputy minister says Yemen told Jews to leave or convert to Islam,” Algemeiner, (October 11, 2015).
12 Ilan Ben-Zion, “17 Yemenite Jews secretly airlifted to Israel in end to 'historic mission',” Times of Israel, (March 21, 2016).
13 “Report: Yemen imprisons two for helping smuggle out Torah,” Jerusalem Post, (March 25, 2016).