Yemenite move to US sparks Israeli ire

By Anshel Pfeffer and Marcus Dysch, June 4, 2009
Only 400 Jews are left in Yemen

Only 400 Jews are left in Yemen

The emigration of 113 Yemenite Jews to the United States over the next few weeks has opened up a rift between Zionist organisations and the Jewish American leadership.

The Zionist groups argue that the Americans should not be encouraging Jews to move anywhere other than Israel, while the Americans insist that Israel does not have a monopoly on resettling Jews.

The Yemenite group is headed for the anti-Zionist Satmar community in Monsey near New York. The Satmars, together with United Jewish Communities (UJC), are facilitating their emigration, together with the US State Department.

One senior Jewish Agency leader, speaking off the record, said that the rift is part of an ongoing argument. “The Jewish American leadership is not Zionist. They were quite happy to have Iranian Jews come to live in California and South American Jews in Florida. Our biggest argument was in the 1980s over the freedom of choice for Jews from the Soviet Union.

“They didn’t want to encourage them to go to Israel and changed tack only when they realised how much it would cost them to finance the range of services that Israel was prepared to offer to the Olim.”

The official Jewish Agency response was more measured, saying that the Agency “believes that all Jews from countries in distress, including the Jews of Yemen, should immigrate to Israel. This is especially the case when the alternative is moving to live in a segregated anti-Israel community in the diaspora.”

Avinoam Bar-Yosef, head of the Jewish People Planning Institute in Jerusalem, said that he did not believe the UJC had a non-Zionist agenda. “There are many there who are totally committed to Israel,” he said, “but I think that bringing these Jews to the Satmars is insane. There is a successful Yemenite community in Israel that can help them. I don’t think this was well thought out.”

Bobby Brown, a former advisor to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on diaspora affairs and a Jewish Agency veteran, said that “the UJC had an obligation to do everything in its power to bring this community into the Jewish consensus and into Israel. Realising that we are talking about a situation of clear and present danger to them, it is a problematic decision. They had to be innovative and work in co-operation with Israel. If they did not raise all the possibilities or work with the government, then they have made a mistake.”

Many in Israel believe that if the UJC had taken the Israeli government on board from the start, and enlisted other religious movements instead of the Satmars, the Yemenite Jews could have been offered sufficient incentives to bring them to Israel.

Officials in Jewish organisations, both American and Israeli, who have worked with Yemenite Jews in the past, say that the Israeli government shares part of the blame.

“The government wasn’t interested in such a small group of very religious Jews,” said an official who preferred to stay unnamed. “The current aliyah apparatus wasn’t geared up to take care of such a group and they just fell between the cracks. Now everyone is up in arms because Satmar got there first.”

The UJC spokesman in Israel, Dani Wassner, stressed that the UJC still “supports aliyah to Israel in every way but we also respect the right of any Jew to decide where he wants to live and support their freedom of choice”.

…while plans for a UK rescue stall

A plan to bring Yemenite Jews to Britain to escape persecution from Islamist extremists has stalled.

Members of London’s strictly Orthodox community met with Immigration Minister Phil Woolas in March to discuss bringing around 120 people to Stamford Hill.

It was thought they would arrive in Britain in April, shortly after Pesach, to be reunited with relatives who have already left Yemen.

But their departure has been delayed by protracted negotiations between the Home and Foreign Offices and the Yemenite government.

Chanoch Kesselman, executive co-ordinator of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, said that threats to Yemenite Jews had continued in the form of grenade attacks by local tribesmen and extremists. Last December, yeshivah teacher Moshe Yaish Nahari was shot dead.

“At least one cheder has now closed and people are scared of getting together and congregating in large groups.

“The Home Office and Foreign Office are well aware of the situation and are very sympathetic, but it’s not easy to get these people out.

“It’s one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world and the official Yemeni government policy is that the Jews are part of the country’s history. They want them to stay.”

He said it was hoped their move, to be funded by private Charedi donors, could take place during the summer.

The majority of the country’s 400 Jews live in Raydah, around 50 miles north of the capital, Sana’a. Many are reluctant to leave until compensated for their property.

Last updated: 12:15pm, June 4 2009