By Sam Sokol
The Jewish Agency for Israel declared an end to immigration from Yemen this week, following the successful conclusion of a covert operation that brought 19 people here over the past several days.
The quasi-governmental organization’s spokesman Avi Mayer admitted that around 50 Jews remain under government protection in the war-torn country, which is embroiled in a bitter and protracted civil war. He indicated that as they have expressed no interest in emigration, it is possible to term this week’s arrivals the “historic end of Yemeni aliyah.”
The final group arrived Sunday evening, including the rabbi of the town of Raydah, who brought with him a Torah believed to be more than half a millennium old.
In an interview on Channel 2 broadcast on Monday, the rabbi held up the scroll and recited the Shehecheyanu blessing, which is generally said at exceptionally happy occasions.
The remains of Aharon Zindani, who was murdered over accusations of witchcraft in 2012, were also flown to Israel.
According to agency chairman Natan Sharansky, Sunday’s flight was “a highly significant moment in the history of Israel and of aliyah. 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.”
Around 51,000 Yemenite Jews have immigrated to Israel since 1948. Anti-Semitic violence has been a growing problem in Yemen in recent years, with incidents such as the 2008 murder of Jewish teacher Moshe Nahari in Raydah and that of Zindani, as well as the forced conversion and marriage of a Jewish woman to a Muslim the same year.
Concern for the community reached a fever pitch January 2015 with the takeover of Sanaa, the capital, by Houthi rebels who had previously kicked out Jews from the town of Saada in 2007. The Houthi logo features the phrases “Death to Israel” and “Damn the Jews.”
“The Jews of Yemen are in big danger now,” Michael Jankelowitz, a former agency spokesman, said at the time, adding that the situation “should trouble the leaders of the Jewish Agency who have been, trickle by trickle, bringing them out.”
According to Mayer, the agency has “undertaken numerous covert operations to spirit Jews out of Yemen and bring them to Israel, rescuing some 200 in recent years.”
“Some 50 Jews remain in Yemen, including approximately 40 in Sanaa, where they live in a closed compound adjacent to the U.S. Embassy and enjoy the protection of Yemeni authorities. They have chosen to remain in the country without Jewish communal or organizational infrastructure. The Jewish Agency will continue to assist any Jew who wishes to make Israel his or her home,” he said in a statement.
Speaking to the Jerusalem Post, Mayer declined to comment on a Channel 2 report claiming U.S. State Department involvement, although Manny Dahari, who moved from Yemen to the United States a decade ago and whose parents were on Sunday’s flight, confirmed an American role in the rescue.
Speaking by phone from Washington, Dahari said that he had been in contact with the Jewish Agency and the State Department since October regarding the matter.
“It’s weird and emotional, especially since I have been working tirelessly with the State Department and Jewish Agency,” he said. “It’s sad that Yemenite Jewish history has come to an end, but at the same time it’s exciting that they have come home.”
Advocates for Middle Eastern Jews praised the operation, with Stanley Urman of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries calling it “another chapter in the continuing saga—the displacement of Jews from Arab countries—and Israel’s historic role as the homeland of the Jewish people.”
“We praise the Jewish Agency for diligently working to assist the last Jews of Yemen, affirming the State of Israel’s important role in providing rescue and refuge to endangered Jewish communities in the Middle East and beyond. With far fewer than 75 Jews remaining in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, we feel a sense of sadness and loss as the gates of our pilgrimage sites, holy burial sites, cemeteries, synagogues, and Jewish quarters will be forever closed, marking an end to over 2,500 years of continuous Jewish history,” said Sarah Levin of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. “Our greatest hope is for the last Jews of Yemen, now settled in Israel, to thrive, and for Mizrahi and Sephardi communities and elders to continue proudly passing down and sharing the vibrant traditions and contributions of our Mizrahi and Sephardi ancestors.”
Speaking at a Likud faction meeting on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the State of Israel is committed to Jews living in “danger zones” and seeking to make aliyah. He referenced several previous operations and said that seeing Yemenite children in Israel “moved me to the depths of my soul.”
“Just as we have an obligation to bring our brothers in Ethiopia to Israel,” he continued in an apparent response to recent criticisms of his global immigration policy by coalition MKs. “I was active in this during my many years as prime minister and I am acting on this now,” he said. “Already this year we will bring many hundreds of them to Israel and the rest will follow.”
Netanyahu met with the immigrants on Monday, observing their Torah and celebrating their arrival. “I am very excited to see you here. It is exciting that you know how to read the Torah. This is the foundation,” the premier told them. “For many years we thought to bring you, and with G‑d’s help it worked out.”
Ethiopian Israelis held a rally outside of Netanyahu’s office on Sunday to protest a recent government decision to restrict the community’s immigration.
Around 9,000 people have been waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar transit camps for the past several years in the hopes of making their way to the Jewish state. However, Jerusalem closed its doors in 2013 following a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport at which officials declared the “end” of Ethiopian aliyah.
The fate of the prospective immigrants has been a matter of some debate, with Ethiopian-Israeli activists protesting what they portray as the breaking up of families.
When Ethiopian aliyah “officially ended,” supporters of the decision, such as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael–Jewish National Fund chairman Eliezer Sandberg, described a radically different situation than that portrayed by the activists. He called those left in Ethiopia gentile relations of Ethiopians in Israel. “I believe we all have relatives of relatives of relatives who don’t [meet] the criteria [for aliyah]. I think it’s a mistake to blend together the joy of the return and the closing of the operation from Ethiopia with the personal issues of some people,” Sandberg told the Jerusalem Post in 2013.
According to the cabinet decision, any Ethiopian who moved to Gondar or Addis Ababa after January 2013, is willing to convert to Judaism, and has relatives here who can apply for his acceptance, will be eligible to move.
Since the government announced that it will limit Ethiopian immigration, Likud MKs Avraham Neguise and David Amsalem, chairmen of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs and the Committee for Internal Affairs and the Environment, respectively, have broken coalition discipline in a mini-legislative rebellion, accusing the Netanyahu administration of looking for an excuse not to bring the rest of the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel. (JPost.com)
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.