Final group of Yemenite Jewish immigrants arrives in Israel.
(photo credit: ARIELLE DI-PORTO FOR THE JEWISH AGENCY FOR ISRAEL)
SANA'A - The 67 Yemeni Jews who refused to join the recent secret airlift to Israel organized by the Jewish Agency are now seeking to follow suit. Sources in Yemen report that the group, comprised mostly of children and the elderly and located in the capital Sana’a and in the neighboring province of Amran in the city of Raydah, has been subject to constant harassment because most of their friends, neighbors, and community elders have left for Israel.
Speaking to The Media Line on condition of anonymity because of the fear of reprisals by Muslim Yemeni, one of those now trying to leave said the remaining Jews complain that in addition to increasing abuse by Muslims, there is no one to lead their religious rituals or to teach their children.
Those who remained behind have confirmed reports that the spate of publicity accompanying the mini-exodus and showcasing the 600-800 year old Torah scroll that the emigrants took with them has effectively drawn targets on the backs of those who opted out of the airlift. “The Jewish Agency’s decision to release the news about the manuscript arriving in Israel caused us even more seclusion. In Raydah, they treat us like strangers, even though we are Yemenis just like them. Our religion, which is different from theirs, has caused them to look at us with inferiority. They have fenced our houses in with stones and cut off the roads leading to our homes so that we do not escape or to make it difficult for us to get food or any other supplies we need into our homes,” he explained.
“After the news about the manuscript became public, people became very wary of us, accusing us of treason against our country, Yemen. Now they are always watching us. We cannot stand to live here anymore.”
In Raydah, most Jewish rituals used to be carried out in a small church built of cement blocks with barely enough room for 10 men, the required quota for Jewish communal prayer. In the middle this church is a black cloth with Hebrew writing where rituals used to be performed and celebrations conducted including prayers on Passover and other holidays; and circumcisions, all led by Rabbi Suleiman Bin Yaqoub. “
Although The Media Line was told that since the airlift and the rabbi’s departure the fear is that all Jewish rituals will become extinct in Yemen, it’s still possible to travel to Sana’a where a rabbi remains and the situation is not as bleak.
In fact, not everyone who chose not to board the Jewish Agency flight did so out of fear. For some, it was an economic decision. Saeed Al-Natehi and his wife Muzal Bint Uda, were unable to sell their home, a three-story structure with a large yard enclosed by a stone fence and an asking price of about $320,000 where they live with their three daughters, a son and two grandchildren.
Muzal says they will join the others as soon as their home is sold – which should not be long. Muzal notes that she and Saeed have received offers from their Muslim neighbors.
Muzal also expresses her love for Yemen, but concludes that, “currently the best solution is to leave.”
In sharp distinction to Rayda’s Jews, those in Sana’a were close-mouthed, refusing to discuss their situation or reasons for not having left for Israel when approached by The Media Line. Of those who did offer comments, one Sana’a resident said the silence is due to “security reasons” while another said that he cannot afford to buy a ticket to leave. That, however, seems unlikely given the Israeli government’s commitment to relocate Yemen’s remaining Jews.
It comes as a surprise to many that Jews are not officially prohibited from leaving Yemen. Khalid Al-Shaif, chief of Sana’a’s International Airport, told The Media Line that, Jews are free to leave the country and there is nothing stopping them. He explained that, “They are Yemenis, who are subject to the same rules as other citizens. We check their bags, and see their exit and entrance visas. Being Yemenis, we treat them as such; there is no religion-based bias at all,” said Al-Shaif.
That the Jewish Agency airlift of 17 Jews was illegal because Jews cannot leave Yemen was aggressively denied by Yemeni officials who insist the angry reaction was caused by the smuggling out of the centuries-old Torah scroll that according to officials, is the property of the people of Yemen. Nevertheless, the Jewish Agency has been criticized for allowing the media coverage of the Torah’s arrival in Israel, including photographs of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Rabbi Suleiman with the scroll that drew the angry reaction from officials and citizens. Arrests were reported to have been made at the airport after the group departed, but an airport employee, airport chief Al-Shaif, a Jewish resident of Raydah and a Jewish resident of Sana’a all told The Media Line it was not the case that any Jew had been arrested.
When The Media Line asked the Jewish Agency to comment on word that the airlift failed to rescue all of those who want to go to Israel, spokesman Avi Meyer said, “It was supposed to be the last massive operation. Our understanding was that those people remaining intended to stay there. We said that if any individual who wishes to make aliyah (move to Israel) we will facilitate and they should know that they are welcome in Israel.”
To the question of jeopardizing the safety of those who remained, Meyer said, “The immigrants themselves approved the publicity surrounding their arrival and have proudly spoken to numerous media outlets about their journey home.” Felice Friedson contributed to this article.
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