After report, Yemen operation is happily out in the open

A Yemenite woman brought to the United States by Jewish groups and the U.S. State Department arrives at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. (Josh Strauss / HIAS)

A Yemenite woman brought to the United States by Jewish groups and the U.S. State Department arrives at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. (Josh Strauss / HIAS)

NEW YORK (JTA) — After months of stressing the need for silence, two major Jewish organizations and a former Bush administration official are embracing publicity about their roles in bringing Yemenite Jews to the United States.

More than 60 Jews, who were among the last few hundred living in Yemen, have been resettled in the New York suburbs, according to representatives of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Word leaked in the Israeli media last March that the two groups were working with the U.S. State Department and the government of Yemen to help Jews leave the country after a spike in intimidation and violence against the Jews, including the murder of a communal leader.

The stories appeared to be fueled by complaints from the Jewish Agency for Israel that some of the Yemenites were taken to the United States instead of Israel.

Jewish Agency officials were particularly upset over what they described as HIAS and the Jewish Federations, then known as the United Jewish Communities, working with the Satmar Chasidic sect. The Satmar community is anti-Zionist and reportedly has been on the ground in Yemen urging the Jews there not to go to Israel.

Officials at HIAS and the Jewish Federations countered that they simply had acted in accordance with the wishes of the Yemenites and disputed claims that they were working with the Satmars. The officials also asserted that public discussion of the operation could prompt the government in Yemen to stop it and end up endangering Jews who remained there.

Such concerns were echoed by Gregg Rickman, who worked for the Bush administration as the State Department official in charge of combating anti-Semitism, and went on to serve as a consultant for a segment of the Satmar community.

But last week The Wall Street Journal published a lengthy article on the operation, and now those who had counseled silence appear to be embracing the publicity.

Rickman was quoted in the article and subsequently wrote his own piece for the news Web Site The Cutting Edge. Officials at HIAS and the Jewish Federations sent out multiple media alerts about The Wall Street Journal story.

“We were very concerned and our State Department partners were very concerned about the press coverage at the time,"  the president and CEO of HIAS, Gideon Aronoff, told JTA Monday. "We disagreed with those in the Jewish Agency who spoke publicly about the migration, and we were grateful that the process was able to move along and hope those remaining are able to continue the movement without negative repercussions.”

Though a few hundred Jews still remain in Yemen, a HIAS spokeswoman said that those who had originally registered to leave the country had departed.

“Our sense is now that the story is out," Aronoff said, "we should talk about the collaborative effort for a good humanitarian cause.” 

The Jewish Federations raised more than $700,000 from local Jewish federations and HIAS to help resettle the Yemenites in the United States.

“The Wall Street Journal published a story on Saturday, but we still remain circumspect about what is going on and so does the State Department,” said Barry Swartz, the vice president of consulting of the Jewish Federations, who oversaw the mission.

Still, Jewish Federations spokesman Joe Berkofsky said, the organization has a responsibility to update supporters about the operations.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility to tell our stakeholders about this and to update them on what is happening, in addition to quietly holding behind-the-scenes briefings with leadership,” he said. “We had to tell them in a broader sense that this is happening and these are the details.”

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