NEW YORK (Jan. 25)
A small community of Jews who fled their homes last weekend after a Muslim leader threatened to kill, rob or kidnap them will return imminently, Yemen’s government says.
As of Thursday, however, it wasn’t clear whether the Jews actually had returned home.
“A number of government levels from a number of countries” have been involved in seeking a solution to the Jews’ plight, said Stanley Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews in Arab Countries. “There seems to be an evolving resolution.”
According to news reports, 45 Jews from the village of Al-Salem sought refuge in a hotel in the capital of the Sa’ada region and asked for protection from Yemeni authorities, to whom they reportedly pay a special “minorities” tax in return for security.
The threats began with a letter attributed to the followers of Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi, a reputed al-Qaida ally whom the government has accused of trying to overthrow the regime.
In the letter, the tiny Yemeni Jewish community was accused of “doing things which serve mainly Zionism,” as well as corrupting society and spreading vice.
According to reports, the threatening letter arrived Jan. 10, but the Jews stayed put until one community member was threatened directly by a group of four masked men. The men warned that if the Jews didn’t leave their homes in two days, “they will have only themselves to blame.”
In an interview Monday with Israel Radio, one resident confirmed that the government had urged the Jews to flee.
The Yemen Times reported Wednesday that Prime Minister Abdulqader Bajammal had promised state protection for the country’s Jewish minority, which numbers several hundred people.
Several Jewish sources told JTA they believed the commitment to be credible, citing the importance the Yemeni government places on good relations with the United States.
“We don’t allow anyone to harm any of the Jewish citizens in Yemen,” Bajammal said Tuesday, according to the newspaper. “We strongly reject what happened to Jews in Sa’ada.”
Most Jews left Yemen for Israel shortly after 82 members of the community were killed in 1948 pogroms. In the 1990s, another group of Yemeni Jews was brought to Israel, leaving only a small remnant of a community whose roots in Yemen date back centuries.
Organizations that conduct relief operations for threatened Jewish communities around the world would say little about the situation this week.
In a brief interview Amir Shaviv, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, told JTA that “no action is needed” to assist the Yemenis. According to Shaviv, Yemeni Jews are free to leave the country but have chosen to stay.
Yemeni Jews dispute that characterization, telling JTA that community members effectively are stuck in Yemen because they cannot liquidate their assets.
“These are people that want to leave but know that if they do leave without their assets, they’d have to be asking for handouts, which they don’t want to do,” said Sampson Giat, former president of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America. “These Yemeni Jews are very proud people and they’ve been in Yemen for centuries.
“The only way that those Jews can be helped is from the American government,” he added. “It has to be on a governmental level. Jewish organizations, even the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, doesn’t have the capacity to help them.”
Officials from the Presidents Conference did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
A statement Wednesday from U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said he had spoken to Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi. Qirbi said the Jews would return to their homes Thursday, but it couldn’t be confirmed Thursday that they had indeed returned.
The government said it would look into Jewish property losses and make restitution, according to Ackerman.
“The Yemeni government has denounced the threats and acknowledged its responsibility for the safety of all Yemenis,” he said. “But the real test will be their follow-through, as well as the actions of the local governor and the local sheiks, who have also committed themselves to protect this endangered Jewish community.”
JTA Washington intern Rachel Mauro contributed to this story.