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Jews in Islamic Countries: Yemen

Jewish Population
1948: 55,000    |    2020: <501

In 1922, the government of Yemen reintroduced an ancient Islamic law requiring that Jewish orphans under age 12 be forcibly converted to Islam.

In 1947, after the partition vote, Muslim rioters, joined by the local police force, engaged in a bloody pogrom in Aden that killed 82 Jews and destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes. Aden’s Jewish community was economically paralyzed, as most of the Jewish stores and businesses were destroyed. Early in 1948, the false accusation of the ritual murder of two girls led to looting.2

This 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

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 for a time there were two synagogues 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 passports.”6

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 programs.9

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.10

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, countries 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 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 approximately 50 Yemeni Jews, had been in planning for more than 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 Natan 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

There are currently fewer than 50 Jews living in Yemen, with some estimates claiming even fewer. The remaining Jews reportedly plan to immigrate to Abu Dhabi following the announcement on August 13, 2020, that Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreed to normalize diplomatic ties. A Yemeni rabbi said 100 Jews remained and they all planned to move to the UAE, which agreed to accept them at the request of the United States.14

1 David Singer and Lawrence Grossman, Eds. American Jewish Year Book 2003. NY: American Jewish Committee, 2003; Yoni Weiss, “Report: Yemen’s Remaining Jews to Move to UAE Following Israel Treaty,” Hamodia, (August 16, 2020).
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.
3 Jerusalem Post, (February 15, 1992); Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (February 26, 1992).
4 Jewish Communities of the World; U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997.
5 Jewish Communities of the World.
6 U.S. Department of State, 2001 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, (October 26, 2001).
7 Jerusalem Post, (January 30, 2001).
8 Haaretz. (December 18, 2008).
9Jerusalem 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).
14Yoni Weiss, “Report: Yemen’s Remaining Jews to Move to UAE Following Israel Treaty,” Hamodia, (August 16, 2020).