Visitors to Yemen Report That Jews Are Reluctant To Be Rescued

New Assessment at Odds With Communal Groups' Dire Warnings

By Anthony Weiss

Published March 25, 2009, issue of April 03, 2009.
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In recent weeks, Jewish organizations have insisted that Yemen’s tiny Jewish population is in grave danger and that a secret evacuation is necessary to bring the people to safety. But a new report written by on-the-ground observers suggests that one of the primary barriers to the Jews’ departure is the resistance of the Jews themselves.

According to a copy of the report seen by the Forward, a high-ranking member of the Yemeni government has offered his assurance that Jews are free to leave for any country they like, whenever they like, and one of the primary obstacles to getting the Jews out of the country is their insistence that they be compensated for the houses they will leave behind. The report does say that the Jews there are concerned about their safety, but it also made clear that the Jews’ concerns about their material situation weighs heavily in their decision-making.

UJA-Federation of New York board member Linda Mirels and an unnamed representative of the Israeli Foreign Ministry wrote the report.

The safety of the Jewish community in Yemen, which numbers roughly 300 people, has been a matter of concern to various organizations, Jewish and otherwise, since December 2008, when community leader Moshe al-Nahari was murdered in the Yemeni town of Raida by a Muslim neighbor who declared that he murdered al-Nahari for refusing to convert to Islam.

The Jews of Yemen are the scant remains of a population that once numbered some 60,000 but largely departed during the 1950s and ’60s. Those still there have refused to leave despite numerous opportunities to do so.

One Jewish communal official close to the efforts to evacuate the Yemeni Jews said he had not seen the report but the Jews’ resistance to leaving was consistent with the community’s history.

“These things are always complicated,” the official said. “Remember, every one of these families had a chance to go already in 1994, and for whatever reason, they decided that their life in Yemen was at that point preferable.”

Both the Jewish Agency for Israel and a coalition of American organizations that includes the United Jewish Communities, New York’s federation, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and the Satmar-run United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg have presented attempts to bring Jews out of Yemen as an essential, life-saving operation. In a public statement released on March 18, UJC president Howard Rieger declared, “The entire Yemenite-Jewish community now lives in fear of Islamic extremists and the persecution they may inflict in response to Israeli and world events. As a result of worsening conditions, this community is actively seeking to leave the country.”

But it now appears that the picture on the ground is more complex. According to Mirels’s report, Yemen’s Jewish community is under the jurisdiction of Sheikh Mohammed Naji al-Shaif, one of Yemen’s most important sheikhs and a close adviser of Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Al-Shaif argued that the best option for the Jews would be for them to move to the capital city of Sanaa — where the Yemeni government has the greatest control over security — and build new houses on land provided by the government, with government financing.

But, the report states, “The Sheikh made it absolutely clear to the community that he would facilitate the acquiring of passports and that anyone is free to travel and to leave the country at any time, whether to Israel, America, or any country of their choosing.”

In fact, some Yemeni Jews have already done so and have returned.

“Many members of the community have been to Israel to visit and report having family there, but have opted to return to Yemen,” the report notes. It also says that some of the Jews have stated that there are insufficient work opportunities and inadequate living arrangements offered in Israel.

The Jews in Yemen are now nervous, according to the report. Al-Nahari’s murderer, Abdel Aziz Yehia Hamoud al-Abdi, was sentenced to pay a fine, found mentally unstable and then released, leading the Jewish community to complain that he was lightly punished because his victim was a Jew. The Yemeni Jews also complained about threats from Muslim neighbors against themselves and their property.

A UJC spokesman pointed to the threat of violence against the community, stating that the U.S. government had recognized the Jews of Yemen as “a persecuted religious group deserving of refugee status,” and reiterated that the Jews “have demonstrated a clear desire to leave.”

But it remains unclear how many are actually willing to do so.

“Housing compensation is clearly a stumbling block,” said the report, as Jews are demanding that they be compensated for their houses in Raida before leaving. Those who have tried to sell their houses have been unable to do so, apparently because their neighbors believe the houses will soon be abandoned anyway. The Yemeni government has offered to buy the houses, but only after the Jews have settled in Sanaa.

According to the spokesman, Rieger did not recall the report’s existence. Rieger is listed among the original e-mail recipients of the report.

The concerns about publicity that Jewish organizations have expressed do appear to be justified in one particular area, namely that the Yemeni government was reportedly embarrassed by publicity suggesting that life was not safe for Jews in Yemen, who needed to be evacuated.

Citing the recent murder and other attacks, Jewish communal officials involved in the rescue operations said that Yemeni Jews’ financial concerns did not disprove that the community is in danger.

Maxine Finkelstein, the Jewish Agency’s North American CEO, said that “people always have concerns with their financial situation,” even in rescue situations.

Finkelstein added that the Yemeni émigrés to Israel were being offered an additional 40,000 shekels — slightly less than $10,000 — in addition to the normal package of absorption benefits.

It also appears from the report that there is one additional area of divergence between the Yemeni Jews and those organizations that have been attempting to evacuate them. American Jewish officials have declared that some 110 people who have applied to leave for the United States will arrive by Passover. According to the report, however, the Yemeni Jews have declared that they would like to spend the holiday in Yemen.

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