16 Yemeni Jews Immigrate to Israel, But Most Remain Behind

By Anthony Weiss

Published June 24, 2009, issue of July 03, 2009.
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A new group of émigrés from Yemen’s tiny Jewish population arrived in Israel, but the fate of a controversial plan to evacuate a larger contingent to the United States remains up in the air.

A group of 16 Yemeni Jews, from three families, arrived June 21 in Israel, where their arrival was reported by Israeli media. On the same day, a judge in Yemen sentenced to death a Yemeni Muslim man who had been convicted of murdering Jewish community leader Moshe Yaish Nahari.

The immigrants were brought to Israel by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the organization traditionally charged with organizing aliyah to Israel from foreign countries, and they arrived on the same day as the opening of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors meeting.

These developments come even as Jewish organizational officials continue to work on a much debated plan to bring a contingent of up to 113 Jews from Yemen to New York, particularly the largely Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey in upstate New York. The attempts to evacuate Jews from Yemen have generated squabbles among Jewish organizations over whether Jews in perilous circumstances should be transported to Israel or to the United States.

Though Yemen was once home to about 60,000 Jews, most have left through a series of rescue operations since 1949, or have departed of their own accord. Most of those Jews who remain — estimates range from roughly 250 to 400 — have resisted repeated entreaties to leave Yemen for safer circumstances, despite periodic threats from neighboring Muslims over the years.

The most recent concerns were triggered after Nahari was murdered December 11, 2008, in the northern city of Raidah. His killer, Abdul Aziz al-Abdi, publicly declared that he had shot Nahari because Nahari refused to convert to Islam. The murder sparked concerns that Jews were not safe in Raidah.

Al-Abdi was convicted by a Yemeni court and was originally sentenced to pay a fine to Nahari’s family, but Nahari’s family protested and demanded that al-Abdi be sentenced to death. On June 21, an appellate court sentenced al-Abdi to death.

According to the Web site of HOOD, a Yemeni human rights organization, the ruling triggered a violent response.

“An armed tribal group ranging 20-25 is surrounding the court building after the announcement of the Amran Appellate court’s ruling today,” the Web site stated in a June 21 posting. “HOOD has received a call from its lawyers, Masha’s [Nahari’s] defence team before court proceedings, asserting that ‘they are seized inside the court with some of the other journalists and Masha’s family members by an armed tribesmen belonging to the convicted al-Abdi.’”

Violence and instability are widespread in Yemen, which has been cited by the United States and international observers as a foothold for Al Qaeda. On June 15, three foreigners who had been kidnapped were found dead in the country’s Sadaa region, while six other kidnapped foreigners remain missing.

Those Jews who remain in Yemen have said they want to be financially compensated for their property before they would be willing to leave, and have rebuffed an offer by the Yemeni central government to move to safer quarters in the capital cit of Sanaa, where the government exerts more control.

But Yisroel Schulman, who has been helping to coordinate resettlement efforts for any Yemeni Jews who immigrate to the United States, said that planning continues apace.

“Yes, they are coming; yes, they are arriving,” said Schulman, who is president of the New York Legal Assistance Group. “Those that are coming here indicated to the U.S. State Department that they wanted to come here.”

Schulman estimated that immigrants from Yemen would arrive throughout the month of July. Jewish officials had originally said that Yemeni Jews would arrive in the United States before Passover.

Contact Anthony Weiss at weiss@forward.com

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