Yemen’s last Jews flown to Israel in covert operation

Airlift of 17 Jews hailed as hugely significant moment in history of Israel

Yemeni Jews Yussef Saeed Hamdi (right), poses with unidentified guests on the first day of his traditional wedding party in the village of Raydah in Amran province, 70km north of Sanaa, in this 2008 photo. Photograph: Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images

Yemeni Jews Yussef Saeed Hamdi (right), poses with unidentified guests on the first day of his traditional wedding party in the village of Raydah in Amran province, 70km north of Sanaa, in this 2008 photo. Photograph: Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images

 

In a covert operation, the last remnants of Yemen’s Jewish community, one of the world’s oldest, have been flown to Israel, bringing to an end a decades-long mission.

Seventeen Jews arrived in Israel over the last few days, including a rabbi who brought with him a 600-year-old Torah scroll.

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government body responsible for Jewish immigration, known as aliyah in Hebrew, said the arrival of the final group of Jews from Yemen, which has never had diplomatic ties with Israel, was a highly significant moment in the history of Israel.

“From Operation Magic Carpet in 1949 until the present day, the Jewish Agency has helped bring Yemenite Jewry home to Israel. Today we bring that historic mission to a close,” he said.

“This chapter in the history of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities is coming to an end, but Yemenite Jewry’s unique, 2,000-year-old contribution to the Jewish people will continue in Israel.”

Some 50 Jews chose to stay in Yemen. They live in a closed compound adjacent to the US embassy and enjoy the protection of Yemeni authorities.

According to the Jewish Agency, attacks against Jews in Yemen have risen sharply since 2008, when a Jewish teacher was murdered in Raydah. In 2012, another Jew was killed in Sanaa and a young Jewish woman was abducted, forced to convert to Islam and marry a Muslim man.

As Yemen descended into civil war and the humanitarian situation in the country worsened, the Jewish Agency undertook a number of covert operations to spirit Jews out of Yemen, transferring some 200 to Israel in recent years.

American assistance

Arielle Di-Porto from the Jewish Agency said the final airlift took months to organise and was planned with American assistance without the knowledge of the Yemeni authorities.

More than 51,000 Yemenite Jews have immigrated to Israel since the country’s establishment in 1948. The majority of the community– nearly 50,000 individuals in total – were brought to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet in 1949 and 1950. Today, hundreds of thousands of Jews of Yemeni origin live in Israel. The community has had a profound impact on Israeli society, and includes a former Knesset speaker, an Olympic medalist, noted rabbis and four of Israel’s best-loved female singers.

However, the Yemenite aliyah also has a dark chapter.

In what became known as the Yemenite children affair, hundreds of babies of new immigrants, mainly from Yemen, disappeared between the years 1948 to 1954. Parents were told by hospital authorities that their newborn children had died, but they suspected that their children were kidnapped and given or sold to families of Ashkenazi Jews of western origin.

In several cases in recent years the children succeeded in tracking down their parents of Yemenite origin using DNA tests.