Behind the Headlines: Emigration of Yemenite Jews Comes in Wake of Yemen’s Political Changes

Aharon and Saadya Tsabari, Yemenite Jewish brothers who had been separated for 33 years, were finally reunited this month.

Saadya, who had remained in Yemen when his brother immigrated to Israel, is one of nearly 300 Yemenite Jews who have arrived in Israel over the past year, after decades in which the gates of Yemen were barred to Jews who wished to leave or to enter.

Another 800 to 900 Jews remain in Yemen.

The unification of the Tsabari family reflects the dramatic political changes that have taken place in Yemen in recent years.

The Republic of Yemen is now being hailed as the first democratic country in the Arab world, following free parliamentary elections held in April.

This is in contrast to the situation which prevailed in the Yemen Arab Republic in the north, where most of the Jews had lived, and in the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which had been as devoutly Marxist as its name. The two countries were formally united in May 1990.

The new country’s constitution guarantees every citizen the right to travel. By allowing its Jews to travel, the new state of Yemen is also responding to the U.S. government, which has raised the issue at the behest of the American Jewish community.

The recent democratization of Yemen reverses decades in which Yemen was one of the most isolated countries in the Arab world.

During that isolation, 43,000 Jews immigrated to Israel in 1949 and 1950 in massive airlifts dubbed Operation Magic Carpet.

A few thousand more Jews left through 1954, and a few more on the eve of Yemen’s 1962 civil war.

ANTI-ZIONISM DIDN’T SINK IN

For most of the past four decades, however, the doors of Yemen have remained firmly shut. Jews were forbidden to send letters abroad, although some did and were sent to jail.

The occasional visit of a journalist or film maker was cause for rejoicing, when Yemenite Jews in the West could see pictures of their kin.

In the 1980s, the Jews of Yemen began receiving their first regular visitors: members of the fervently Orthodox, anti-Zionist Neturei Karta sect.

Through their connections with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Neturei Karta received permission from Yemenite authorities to visit the Jews, distributing prayerbooks and other religious articles.

The Neturei Karta delegations also passed out anti-Zionist tracts, attempting to convince the Yemenite Jews that they would be better off waiting in Yemen until the arrival of the Messiah, rather than going to Israel, where many of their relatives had allegedly embraced secularism.

“They decided they would create a little reservation of Jews in Yemen,” said Hayim Tawil, chairman of the U.S.-based International Coalition for the Revival of the Jews of Yemen. However, the anti-Zionist propaganda did not sink in, he said.

In September 1989, Tawil became a member of the first specifically Jewish group, apart from Neturei Karta, that was allowed to visit Yemen.

His delegation was officially invited by the government of the northern Yemenite state, where the Jews lived. By then, unification, which had been official policy since 1972, was well under way, with telephone links established between the north and south.

Tawil, the son of Yemenite Jews, said the group was warmly received by the government of Yemen.

On that and subsequent missions, visitors brought thousands of Jewish books. While most of the remaining Jews in Yemen kept their millennia old religious practice, it was a community devoid of leaders. Only the old people had actually studied with teachers or rabbis.

Instead, said one visitor, “parents would teach their children. They would sit while working with silver, the children would be grouped around a book and would chant aloud from the Torah. The father, who knew it by heart, would listen as children chanted.”

The visits from abroad became more regular.

YEMENITE GOVERNMENT ‘WAS VERY KIND’

In 1991, two Jewish schools were opened up, with assistance from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The JDC also helped finance the books and humanitarian aid brought to the Yemenite Jews.

Three years ago, Tawil brought back with him a 90-year-old Yemenite Jew, the first to leave the country in 30 years.

Last year, the departures began in earnest.

Under Arab League policy, travel to Israel is barred. The Jews leaving Yemen therefore travel to Europe, from where they are reunited with their families in Israel.

The evacuation of Jews from Yemen had been proceeding under the evil of Israeli censorship, despite efforts by Neturei Karta to publicize the departures in an effort to torpedo them.

Finally, the accumulated publicity and the heightened volume of the fervently Orthodox debate concerning the immigration led to the lifting of the censorship.

In the wake of the publicity, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih reiterated his country’s free travel policy.

The Yemenite “government was very kind,” said Tawil. They understood human rights, he said, “and decided to let the Jews emigrate.”

Tawil said the emigration should not be looked at as a mass immigration to Israel, but as the exercise of the rights to free travel and family reunification. Most of the Yemenite Jews have relatives in Israel.

Also playing a role in the opening of Yemen were intercessions by the American government.

“We worked closely with (former Secretary of State James) Baker’s State Department, members of Congress, and with the Clinton administration. They were very responsive, and consistently raised this issue with the Yemeni government,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

A year and half ago, the Conference of Presidents and JDC convened a committee of the Jewish organizations working for Yemenite Jews.

“The U.S. government has indicated that they consider this one of the key factors in U.S.-Yemeni relations,” Hoenlein said.

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