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Secret Flight of N.Y. Yemenite Jews Raises Questions on Ties with Satmars

June 9, 2004
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The elaborate passage of Yemenite Jews from a New York City suburb to Israel has prompted a torrent of allegations. The Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs immigration and absorption, says its secret mission brought a Jewish woman and five of her children to Israel last week, raising suspicions that the family was held against its will by the surrounding community of Satmar Chasidim.

As evidence, the agency cited an effort last December to move the entire 21-member Nahari family to Israel. But two of the children mysteriously went missing hours before the flight to Israel, said Michael Landsberg, director of the Jewish Agency’s North American aliyah delegation. The whole family canceled the trip.

“Anyone can translate it the way anyone would like to translate it,” he said.

One Nahari son rejects the notion that family members were held against their will.

“It’s not right to lie about the Satmar,” Yechil Nahari told The Jou! rnal News, a suburban New York newspaper. “No Satmar stopped my mother. They have helped us. My mother wanted to go see her sick parents in Israel. She had visa problems, and this group offered her a free ticket.”

Yet Mrs. Nahari and her children are in Ashkelon’s Beit Canada absorption center, a spot typically reserved for new immigrants, not visitors.

When Yemen allowed its Jews to emigrate in the early 1990s, Satmar Chasidim, who are ideologically opposed to the idea of a Jewish state before the Messiah arrives, brought dozens of Yemenite Jews to the United States instead of to Israel. Among them was the Nahari family, which came eight years ago.

The Satmars promised the Naharis and other Yemenites idyllic conditions in the United States but kept them in tight, crude quarters and took away their passports, according to the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America and the Jewish Agency.

In some cases, they even forced Yemenite women to marry Satmar men who were ! disabled or unappealing, and exploited them for fund-raising, said va rious members of the federation.

Rabbi Chaim Freund, who said he brought the Naharis from Yemen to the community in Monsey, N.Y., vehemently rejected all charges against the Satmars and said he knew all along about the family’s plan to visit an ailing relative in Israel.

“Never have Satmars taken any passport from any Yemenite Jew or any other Jew,” he said.

Furthermore, he said the Yemenite Jewish Federation does not represent the Yemenites in the Satmar community.

“Yemenites in Monsey have no connection with any Reform Jews which don’t observe the Shabbos and kosher,” he said.

The Yemenite Jewish Federation, which is funded by the UJA-Federation of New York and is not a Reform group, insists that some Yemenites are being held against their will, and that all their moves are choreographed by the Satmars.

“The Yemenite people don’t know anything other than what Satmars are telling them, and they are afraid,” said a member of the Yemenit Jewish Federatio! n who asked to remain anonymous.

The Satmars are holding the Yemenites “hostage,” the woman said.

“Why in the world do we need the Israeli government to come here and do the Entebbe?” she said, likening Jewish Agency efforts in the Nahari case to the Israeli military’s 1976 rescue of passengers whose plane had been hijacked by terrorists to Uganda.

A spokesman for the Jewish Agency, Yarden Vatikay, said the Naharis had been “brainwashed,” told that their sidecurls would be cut and that they would become “goyim” if they moved to Israel.

Moshe Friedman, secretary to the Satmar rebbe, Moshe Teitelbaum, said the charge that the Nahari family was held against its will was “ridiculous.”

“I’m certain there’s no such thing,” he said. It’s “all political business.”

The Jewish Agency made up the story out of pique that some Yemenites elected to come to the United States rather than Israel, he told JTA.

Samuel Heilman, professor of Jewish studies and sociology a! t the City University of New York and currently a fellow at Hebrew Uni versity’s Institute for Advanced Studies, said the episode highlights a larger ideological conflict.

This is “just another skirmish in the ongoing war between the Satmar anti-Zionism and the Israeli pro-Zionism,” Heilman said.

When religious Yemenite Jews emigrated to Israel in the 1950s, Israelis attempting to absorb them into the fledgling, secular country pressured some to relinquish their religious customs.

In a few notorious cases, children who had become separated from their parents during the move to Israel were given to secular Israeli families, while their parents were told the children had died. Their ordeal came to light only decades later.

The “Yemenite child became a kind of symbol of the worst excesses of the Zionist state,” Heilman said.

In the early 1990s, when Jews again were told they could leave Yemen, Satmars tried to “save them from secular Zionism and save them from the loss of their religion and bring them to the true Jewish homeland ! — namely, Satmarville,” Heilman said.

Meanwhile, Zionists have been trying to show that “until these people are brought to the Jewish state, they’re not really free,” he said.

For five of the Nahari children and their mother, the journey to Israel began in the wee hours of June 1, when the family surreptitiously packed their bags, Landsberg said.

Later that day, the Jewish Agency sent a van to pick up the five children, who were dressed in their school uniforms. Their mother, who said she was going out to visit her father, joined them in the van, which took them to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.

The rest of the family remained in New York.

“I didn’t take them from their houses by myself. They asked for that,” Landsberg said. “We’re just helping them. Whatever they want to do, we are helping them.”

Scores of Yemenite Jews live in Orange and Rockland counties, according to David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations C! ouncil of New York.

Orange County also has many Satmars; many of th em live in a village called Kiryas Joel. The balance of New York’s Satmar community is centered in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg.

The episode suggests that the relationship between Yemenite Jews and Satmars in Rockland County is complex.

The Yemenite Jews were “induced to come here and their basic needs were taken care of in some way,” Pollack said. The question is “if they knew about all of their options, would they choose differently” — to stay in New York or emigrate to Israel.

That, Pollock said, “probably varies from family to family.”

Ephraim Isaac, president of the Yemenite Jewish Federation, charged that the Satmars exploited and abused a naive group.

He said that the two Yemenite families he visited in recent years lived in a cramped apartment, “almost like a jail room.”

When he went to visit, Isaac said, “each time I was told not to come during the day because they’re being spied upon by the community.”

It’s a “shocking, disgust! ing story that the Jewish community is partly responsible for,” Isaac said, referring to American Jewish groups that pushed for the Yemenites’ exit from Yemen but lacked a concrete follow-up plan for their resettlement.

Joel Petlin, an administrator in the Kiryas Joel school district, denied that the Yemenites were being abused.

Petlin said his bureau, which runs English-as-a-second-language programs for Yemenite Jews, would “be the first line” in catching any kind of funny business.

“They’re welcomed, they’re brought into the school system, they’re given places to live, food to eat, and every resource is made available to assist them in their resettlement,” Petlin said. “People are free to choose to stay or go.”

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