Jew of Yemen

Dear Friends,

This Pesah eve, as I recount the events of the Exodus with my family, I will be thinking of the remnants of the once thriving Jewish community of Yemen.  Legend dates the beginnings of the Yemeni Jewish community to the time of Solomon (c. 900 B.C.E.).  Archeological evidence places a community of Jews in northern Yemen shortly after the Roman dispersion at the turn of the first millennium.  It was a community that grew in number, prestige and wealth until Muslims came to rule in the medieval period.  Although Jews were declared to be dhimmis, or ‘a protected people,’ with rights of residence and religious practice, the Jews of Yemen came to suffer discrimination and persecution.  Laws prohibited them from wearing new clothing or jewelry, or to ride mules.  Later, pogroms destroyed their synagogues and yeshivot.  Still the community persisted in their residency, growing considerably into the early twentieth century despite their circumstances.

Their situation changed yet again with the founding of the State of Israel.  Concerned about their viability, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee airlifted almost 50,000 Yemeni Jews to Israel in an operation called “Project Magic Carpet” in 1949 and 1950.  Jewish emigration continued from Yemen to Israel, albeit in reduced numbers, until 1962, when a civil war put a stop to it.  Those Jews who were left behind were forbidden from emigrating or from even having contact with their Israeli relatives.

By 1983, only about 5000 Jews remained in Yemen.  Twenty-five years later, they numbered only 350 souls.  A handful settled in northern Yemen near the city of Rayda.  The majority of them were relocated at government expense to a gated community just outside the capital city of Sana next to the American embassy by Yemen’s president, Abdullah Saleh.

Today fifty-five Jews who live outside Rayda among unattended cemeteries in thousand year old stone house in hillside ghetto villages in an area controlled by Houthi militants, who are fiercely anti-Semitic.  Since President Saleh’s resignation two years ago, less than forty Jews remain in Yemen’s capital.  Because they had been protected by Saleh, they are looked upon as traitors by association to the revolution that overthrew the president.  “There isn’t a single one of us here who doesn’t want to leave,” a community elder told a reporter from The New York Times.  “Soon there will be no Jews left in Yemen, God willing,” he concluded.

Join me in remembering this handful of Jews this Pesah, who, like our ancient ancestors, want to leave a land of suffering.  Let us hope that they have the opportunity to join so many of their fellows who have made their journey to freedom.

Wishing you a joyful and most liberating Pesah, I am warmly yours,