Behind the Headlines: Wave of Immigrants from Yemen Finds Life Harsh in ‘promised Land’
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Behind the Headlines: Wave of Immigrants from Yemen Finds Life Harsh in ‘promised Land’

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Yosef Keim does not want his complaints to dissuade anyone — including his relatives still in Yemen — from joining him in Israel.

“Everyone has to come,” he insists, saying God is fulfilling the promise to gather the exiles from all over the Earth.

But nonetheless Keim has harsh words about his new home, and his complaints echo those of other recent Yemenite immigrants.

Some even speak of returning to the Arab country where they were kept isolated from the outside world for 40 years.

In the past year, half of the 900-member Jewish community of Yemen has departed, and the rest are expected to follow.

This was the first major emigration since 1954, although some Jews were able to sneak out in 1962 during the chaos of the civil war between North and South Yemen.

In the past three years, the newly unified Yemenite government has followed a relatively liberal course, which includes the right of Jews to leave.

The Yemenites have faced a profoundly difficult transition.

It is a transition from a way of life that has changed little in the past 2,000 years to a modern society where daily life involves mortgage payments, electric bills and jobs that do not allow for the traditional mid-afternoon siesta.

Unlike the 45,000 Yemenites who arrived in the new state in 1949 and 1950, these newcomers are not being housed in tents and are not having their traditional side curls shorn.

They are being housed initially in Jewish Agency absorption centers, alongside immigrants from Ethiopia and elsewhere.

But they remain distinctive.

At the absorption center here in Ashkelon, Yemenite men crouch on a ledge bordering the sidewalk. Next to them, women sit separately, their long-sleeved dresses, resplendent in rich blues and greens, distinctively Yemenite. Little girls play in long skirts and pantaloons.


“The broad majority are extremely happy, and you can see that in people continuing to leave Yemen,” says an American who familiar with the Yemenite immigrants.

“You can find people among any immigrant group who have high expectations and who are disappointed,” the American added.

Count among the disappointed several immigrants at an absorption center in Rehovot.

“We are not like the Russian Jews who come with one child and one dog,” an exasperated immigrant told a group of Americans visiting from the United Jewish Appeal last month.

“We have 11 children. We were jewelry makers in Yemen, but we tried it in Israel, and it didn’t work out,” he said.

“Now we have to learn another job. We have problems. We can’t speak Hebrew, to write and to read. We don’t have a profession.”

And, in fact, some have two wives.

Should they thank the government for providing two very generous mortgages to buy two apartments for them?

Or should they curse the two bills they get each month?

“Electricity, rent, health insurance, rent, telephone, everything,” said Amriyom Barhiali, counting on his fingers the bills pouring in.

“I have nothing. I have nothing to eat. Eight months I’ve been here. I have no food. What to eat? How will I make money? I have family in Yemen, an auto, money, it’s true. Now I don’t have anything,” said Barhiali, a middle-aged man with a thin face and long side curls.

He went to the Interior Ministry to apply for a passport to return to Yemen. They sent him a bill for 1,300 shekels — to repay roughly $500 in government assistance to help him settle.

“I don’t have the money to pay the government,” he complained.

According to a report in the Yediot Achronot newspaper, one family at the Rehovot absorption center has already left Israel, and five more are planning to follow.

The families were convinced to leave Israel by anti-Zionist Satmar Chasidim and are relocating to Brooklyn, the newspaper reported.


In Yemen, most of the Jews were silver-smiths. Their craftsmanship was renowned, and with their departure, some of the sparkle has gone from the Yemenite markets.

But in Israel, they find they can no longer sell their wares to tourists or others willing to pay high prices. And the bills keep piling up.

“In Yemen, you can get by working only two days a week,” said one woman who works with the Yemenites in the Rehovot absorption center, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Now they come here and we say, ‘You have to go to work.’ He finds work, and says, ‘What, do you think I’m a slave? They won’t let me smoke, want me to work 10 hours a day.’ “

Arnon Mantver, director-general of the Jewish Agency’s immigrant absorption department, says the Yemenite Jews are being well cared for.

“They will realize that this system is more supportive than in Yemen. There is social security that takes into account their situation,” he said.

“If they won’t be spoiled by different groups who try to intervene, they will fit in very well.”

Other veteran Israelis also give short shrift to the Yemenites’ complaints.

“When they came in 1949, my family had a very hard absorption,” said one woman of Yemenite origin who works with the new immigrants. “They had no houses, only tents. When it rained, it came in. The wind blew, and whoop! There went the tent!”

But that is not how the newcomers see it.

“When they came, you could just throw a stone and claim the land. Today you have to pay 200 shekels for a $50,000 mortgage,” said one.

A look at those numbers — less than $70 monthly payments for a $50,000 apartment — and it is clear that the Yemenites are being heavily subsidized by the government.

It is also clear that they do not fully understand the society they have entered.

For Keim, one of the biggest shocks was having to surrender his own weapons when he immigrated, at a time when Arabs seemed to be killing Jews with abandon.

The religious situation is confusing too.

“I can’t tell a Jew from an Arab,” Keim said. The Jews in Israel, he said, do not wear yarmulkes or side curls.

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