Exodus 2009

Gaunt Yemenite Jews demonstrate for the resumption of government financial and food aid

Gaunt Yemenite Jews demonstrate for the resumption of government financial and food aid

One of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, the Jews of Yemen, looks likely to come to an end as rescue operations begin to bring Yemeni Jews out of the country to escape persecution from Islamist extremists.

London’s strictly-Orthodox community is working with Immigration Minister Phil Woolas to ensure at least 120 people can move to Stamford Hill, north London.

The Home Office is expected to agree before Pesach to allow them to settle in Britain. In parallel to the British initiative, the US government is thought to have agreed a deal with the strictly Orthodox Satmar community to allow those Yemenite Jews who do not come to Britain to move to New York state.

It is not known whether an emergency airlift operation will be deployed, as the Yemeni government is likely to facilitate the arrangement of passports and freedom to travel.

The majority of the country’s 400 Jews live in Raydah, around 50 miles north of the capital, Sana’a.

Those who move to London will be reunited with family members who have already left. They are of all ages, from children to pensioners, and include professionals and skilled trade workers. They speak Yiddish, Hebrew and Arabic; some have learnt English.

The cost of their arrival is to be covered by private Charedi donors who have provided written pledges of funding and arranged housing support.

Chanoch Kesselman, executive co-ordinator of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, said the operation was being co-ordinated by the Ezras Yisroel support group.

“It’s a life-saving effort. There has not been enough time for writing letters and administrative matters. It’s a small organisation and they have just got on with the job quietly and modestly,” he said.

Threats to Yemeni Jews have increased dramatically in the past three months. Last December, yeshivah teacher Moshe Yaish Nahari was shot dead by extremists.

Jewish homes have also been targeted by grenade-throwing local tribesmen.

A private meeting took place on March 16 between Mr Woolas, Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott and members of the Jewish community.

The JC understands Mr Woolas told the meeting that a rescue operation needed to take place “pretty damn quick”.

Mr Kesselman said: “The situation in Yemen is pretty dire. Their lives are in danger. Mr Woolas was very supportive and realised the need for them to escape the danger.

“It’s a particularly lawless country with armed tribesmen running around. A lot of the Jewish girls are being abducted and forced to marry local tribesmen. The Jews have it pretty tough there.”

The Yemeni community’s fate has been the subject of a long-running dispute between strictly-Orthodox groups working to bring them to Britain and the United States, and the Jewish Agency, which believes they should be resettled in Israel.

Last week, the American Jewish newspaper Forward reported that community members were reluctant to leave the Arab peninsula until they had received compensation for property and belongings they would have to leave behind.

Despite the danger, the paper said, many would stay for Pesach before making a final decision to leave.

On Tuesday, UN staff in Sa’ana reported that the 65 Jews currently living in the capital had not received food rations or financial assistance from the government for the past three months.

Community members staged an unprecedented protest outside government headquarters a fortnight ago to demand action.

The majority had been moved to live in the city, where the government has better security control, in order to receive extra protection.

Rabbi Yahya Yusuf, the leader of the Sa’ana community, said families were struggling to feed their children.

    Last updated: 10:25am, April 2 2009