Yemenite family makes aliya in secret op

"We just locked up our house and left," says Esther Ben-Yisrael as the news crews jostle around her.

Yemenite Jews 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Yemenite Jews 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Stepping off their plane and into the bright lights of Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday afternoon, the Ben-Yisrael family was on the final leg of its journey from one world to the next. The latest immigrants from the Yemenite community of Raida - a town fraught with tension between its Jewish and Muslim residents in recent months - the Ben-Yisraels, accompanied by another young man from their community, arrived in a special aliya operation, shrouded in secrecy, organized by the Jewish Agency and Yemenite Jewish Federation of America. As they stepped into the arrivals hall, the Ben-Yisraels looked as if they had walked through a time warp. "Thank God, I'm happy to be here," said family patriarch Said Ben-Yisrael, clad in a felt yarmulke and long black side curls as he stood in front of his wife and seven children. Greeted by a Yemenite rabbi who lives in Israel, Ben-Yisrael recited the "Sheheheyanu" prayer, which is said upon arriving at a particularly festive or joyous occasion. The crowd of reporters and cameramen who swarmed around the family as they entered the arrival terminal answered "Amen!" But the transition from old-world Yemen to the modern and fast-paced Israel proved to be daunting for the family, even in their first moments on the ground. The plane ride had been the family's first, and the shiny marble floors and bright fluorescent lights of the airport were no doubt a stark contrast to their former life in the developing Muslim country. Ben-Yisrael's wife and young children - the girls clad in traditional Islamic clothing and the boys in suits and ties - milled around, smiling nervously as reporters attempted to speak to them in Arabic. "We just locked up our house and left," said one of Ben-Yisrael's daughters, Esther, as she marveled at the flashing cameras and jostling news crews in front of her. Several weeks ago, Islamic extremists threw a hand grenade into the Ben-Yisraels' courtyard, which exploded but caused no injuries. Said hurriedly took his family and went to live in the Yemeni capital city of Sana'a, before departing the country for Israel. "I don't have much to say," Ben-Yisrael said, smiling. "We're tired, but it's good to finally be here, it's good to be home." When the family left the airport - bound for Beit Shemesh, accompanied by a Jewish Agency team - the young children sat outside on a bench as their parents loaded luggage into a waiting taxi van. Passersby, intrigued by the new arrivals, began to inquire about their trip. "Can you sing a Shabbat song?" David Girafi, a cab driver from Herzliya, asked the children in Arabic. Girafi explained that his parents had immigrated from Yemen before he was born, and after witnessing the scene that unfolded at Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday, Girafi said it brought him back to the photographs that had once hung on the walls of his family's home. "They remind me of my parents," he said, before breaking into song, as Esther, clad in her black hijab, joined him in a Yemenite rendition of "Ki Eshmarei Shabbat". "It's very emotional," Girafi said. While Yemenite Jews enjoy the special protection of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Salah, there has been an increase in the harassment of Jews by Islamic extremists in recent years. The tension boiled over last December when Moshe Yaish Nahari, a father of nine, was murdered by a local Arab. Threats against Yemen's Jewish community also rose following the recent military operation in the Gaza Strip. The Ben-Yisrael family are the first Yemenite Jews to leave for Israel since Nahari's murder. Jewish Agency officials on hand Thursday were all smiles, beaming at the family as they entered the terminal, and reflected on months of hard work against a backdrop of secrecy. "It's very exciting," said Moshe Vigdor, the Jewish Agency's director-general, as he stood in the background, watching the family arrive. "But we also hope that this is the beginning of more to come. We're following the situation of the community in Yemen very closely, and this is in no way the end of our work there." Eli Cohen, the director-general of the Jewish Agency's Aliya and Absorption Department, said that his agency was constantly working to help the Yemenite Jewish community and hoped to bring to Israel most of the Jews in Yemen who wished to immigrate. The new immigrants will receive special assistance from the JA, including a grant of NIS 40,000 per family. "This was a delicate operation, both because of the situation in Yemen and because of the family's special [religious and cultural] needs," Cohen said. "But when I first saw them, I'll tell you, my heart was pounding. This is what we do, this is our goal, and once again, we've brought Jews to live in Israel." About 280 Jews currently reside in Yemen, 230 of whom live in Raida in the Omran province, with the other 50 in Sana'a. The Jews now in Sana'a fled there from their homes in Sa'ade province about a year ago due to harassment by the Huthi, a terrorist group connected to al-Qaida. Most of the Jews of Yemen immigrated to Israel during Operation Magic Carpet in 1950. Several hundred Jews immigrated in two subsequent smaller waves - in the mid 1960s and in the beginning of the 1990s. Dozens of Yemenite Jews have moved to the US and London in recent years, brought there by Satmar Chassidim who object to their immigration to Israel due to concerns that they might abandon their religious observance. The Satmar are ideologically opposed to the formation of a Jewish state before the Messiah's arrival. When representatives of the sect initially entered Yemen, their message was welcomed by the anti-Israel Yemenite government. The Satmar sect has expressed its concern for preserving the ancient Jewish community, and recently its leader, the Satmar Rebbe, wrote a letter to US President Barack Obama asking for assistance to enable Yemenite Jews to emigrate to the United States.