Secret Yemen Rescue Imperiled by Communal Turf Battles

Leaks of Planned Operation Put Delicate Negotiations at Risk

Escape: A group of Yemeni Jews arrived in Israel in February after a rescue mission whisked them out of the Arabian peninsula.
Escape: A group of Yemeni Jews arrived in Israel in February after a rescue mission whisked them out of the Arabian peninsula.

By Anthony Weiss

Published March 19, 2009, issue of March 27, 2009.
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A secret and delicate operation to evacuate a substantial portion of Yemen’s tiny and beleaguered Jewish population has been thrust into public view and put at risk by infighting among rival Jewish organizations. In the wake of disclosures in the Israeli newspaper Maariv, the organizations involved are now accusing one another of endangering Jewish lives.

The Jewish Agency, which has historically rescued Jews threatened by antisemitism and brought them to Israel, is locked in an apparent battle with a coalition of American Jewish organizations over the coalition’s operation to bring Yemeni Jews to the United States. The American coalition includes United Jewish Communities — one of the Jewish Agency’s main funders — and a leading figure in the Brooklyn-based Satmar Hasidic sect, Rabbi David Niederman.

The two groups have been working in parallel on evacuating Yemeni Jews: UJC and Satmar with the United States government, assisted by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and a number of other organizations to bring Yemeni Jews here, and the Jewish Agency, which has been working with the Israeli government to bring them to Israel.

The Yemen government, which is friendly to the United States but faces militant Islamist sentiment domestically, has not opposed the Jews’ departure so long as it is done quietly.

Representatives of each side have insisted that any revelation of their activities would endanger the lives of the Jews living in Yemen and the negotiations to bring them out of the country. Yet organizational leaks have brought both operations to light.

UJC sent an e-mail to this newspaper March 17, seeking to avert publication of a news story disclosing the operation. The e-mail quoted Gregg Rickman, a former State Department official in charge of combating antisemitism who, according to a Jewish communal official close to the negotiations, is now a consultant for the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, led by Niederman. In the e-mail, Rickman stated that if Yemeni Jews suffered harm after a news organization published information on America’s ongoing negotiations with the Yemeni government, the Jews’ “blood will be on their hands,” referring to the news organization.

Rickman declined to comment for this article.

The following day, an article appeared on the Web site of the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv revealing UJC and Satmar’s plans to bring the Yemeni Jews to the United States. It quoted senior Jewish Agency officials who criticized UJC’s operations for violating the tradition that rescued Jews be brought to Israel, accusations that were repeated to this newspaper.

“When there are Jews who are in distress, there is one exit for them — going to the State of Israel,” a senior Jewish Agency source told the Forward. “That is the fight that the Jewish Agency has with UJC.” The Jewish Agency source also accused UJC and Satmar’s operation to bring Jews to the United States of putting the Jewish Agency efforts to bring Jews to Israel in danger — and thus endangering the lives of Yemeni Jews who wish to leave.

Joe Berkofsky, a spokesman for UJC, declined to address the Jewish Agency source’s accusation.

“We’ve been working closely with the Jewish Agency to encourage the Jews in Yemen to go to Israel and to get as many of them as possible to go to Israel. That’s our first goal,” he told the Forward. “Some of them are determined to come to the United States. Our primary goal, our core mission, is to help Jews in need and to save Jewish lives.”

Though Yemen once had a Jewish population of 60,000, the vast majority were evacuated to the State of Israel in 1949 and 1950. Starting in the late 1980s, another some 1,500 Jews were found to be in Yemen, and over the next decade and a half, more than 1,000 of those, too, left for Israel, as well as some to the United States.

The remaining 250 to 400 Jews still living in Yemen have become something of a political football in the Jewish world. Representatives of Neturei Karta and Satmar — both anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox sects — have actively discouraged them from moving to Israel. Satmar has provided financial and other support to the Jewish community there. Calls to Niederman requesting comment for this article were not returned.

The Satmar Hasidim have also helped a number of Yemeni Jews move to the United States and settle in Satmar areas. In 2004, the Jewish Agency evacuated several dozen Yemeni Jews from Satmar communities in upstate New York and brought them to Israel, charging that the Yemenis had been held against their will. Satmar officials denied the allegations.

The remaining Yemeni Jews are almost all in the small town of Raida, north of the capital, an area dominated by Arab tribes where the government’s authority is tenuous. These Jews have resisted leaving Yemen, despite numerous opportunities to do so. But a number of organizations, including both Jewish groups and Amnesty International, have become increasingly concerned about their safety there following the murder of community leader Moshe al-Nahari. The Yemeni Jew was gunned down by a Muslim neighbor who reportedly declared that the killing was because al-Nahari would not convert to Islam. The killer was brought to trial, where he was found mentally unstable and forced to pay a fine.

Other Yemeni Jews complained that they were being harassed and threatened by their neighbors, and that they felt more and more in danger.

In response to growing concern that his government could not protect the Raida Jews, Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, offered to move them at government expense to the capital city of Sanaa, which the government controls more securely than other parts of the country. The government had already settled in Sanaa some 45 Jews who had left the northern town of Sadaa, near the country’s border with Saudi Arabia, claiming that they were not safe.

But it now appears that at least a part of the Jewish population feels unsafe staying in the country at all. According to Berkofsky, 113 Jews are currently being processed by the State Department to come to the United States as refugees. Those who come and wish to stay will be settled around Monsey, a town in upstate New York with a large Orthodox population, including a number of Satmar Hasidim. Others may wish to immigrate elsewhere to join family members who left earlier.

The Jewish Agency had already begun to transport some Yemeni Jews out of Yemen. In February, 10 Yemeni Jews arrived in Israel, to great fanfare in the Israeli press and to the undoubted consternation of Yemen’s government. According to the Jewish Agency source, the efforts to transport out the remaining Jews to Israel have since stalled.

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