Families flee Yemen for US

By Paul Berger, November 5, 2009
Follow The JC on Twitter

Dozens of Jews have been evacuated from Yemen in a clandestine operation by the US government.

Yemen’s Jewish population is thought to date back about 2,500 years. The majority of its Jews, about 49,000 people, were airlifted to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet during 1949 and 1950. By the beginning of this year, about 300 remained.

Yemen has become increasingly unstable and growing Islamic militancy has brought a rise in antisemitism.

Last December, a leading member of Yemen’s Jewish community was shot dead by a man demanding he convert to Islam. Following the Israeli offensive in Gaza, Yemeni Jews say they were harassed and attacked.

A State Department spokesman said members of the Jewish community approached the US embassy in the capital, Sanaa, “seeking options”.

Around 120 Yemeni Jews had been expected to move to London in April, after the Home Office agreed to them rejoining family members who had settled in Stamford Hill. But despite the danger, the Yemeni Jews decided to remain longer in their homes.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the US embassy issued visas because it feared further attacks could weaken US public support for Yemen.

Meanwhile, Jewish charities raised $715,000 to support the refugees. A spokesman for the Jewish Federations, who met the Yemeni Jews shortly after they arrived in America, said they described a climate of fear in Yemen.

Jewish men had to wear Arab headdresses and wrap their peyot behind their ears to hide their identity. Women wore burkas.

“They didn’t have any visible institutions like synagogues,” he said. “They had to meet in people’s apartments.” For the first time, the new immigrants have been hanging mezuzot on the outside of their doors instead of the inside, and openly celebrating festivals like Succot.

The first Yemeni Jews arrived in New York in July. Since then about 60 people have immigrated. They have been relocated to the Jewish community in Monsey, a suburb popular with Orthodox Jewish groups.

However, not all of Yemen’s Jews have chosen resettlement. Some will go to Israel. But others have hinted that they will stay where they are.

“They’ve been living there forever,” said the state department spokesman. “Picking up your whole family and moving to a new country is very difficult for some people to do.”

Last updated: 4:42pm, November 5 2009