Tel Aviv and Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat – “What kind of question is that? Of course we are Yemenis. [We are] Jewish Yemenis…and [we are] Israelis also.” This is how Rabbi Said Bin Yisrael, the Jewish Yemeni citizen who, along with his family, emigrated from Yemen to Israel last week, defined his identity to Asharq Al-Awsat. He said, “My wife, my children, and I, are Israeli Yemenis. As for my grandchildren, I am not sure, perhaps [they will be] just Israelis. I don’t think they will forget our Yemeni roots, but I cannot be certain.”
After a short silence during which Rabbi Said Bin Yisrael arranged his thoughts, he said, “One thing must be understood about Yemeni Jews. We are not something new to Yemen. There have been Jews present in this great country for centuries…since the destruction of the First Temple [Solomon’s Temple] over two thousand years ago. The harassment that we have experienced from time to time does not change anything about our Yemeni nationality. Our affiliation to Yemen flows through our veins. The strength of this affiliation is the same as our affiliation to our Jewish identity. We have a strong presence in Yemeni history and civilization, since the Kingdom of Sheba. It is not possible to erase this history.”
Rabbi Said Bin Yisrael recently immigrated to Israel from Yemen. He is 31 years of age, his wife Samha is 30 years old, and together they have seven children ranging between four months and 12 years of age. They were residents of the town of Rydah, which is located northwest of the capital Sanaa where the remaining community of Yemeni Jews [that number approximately 280] have gathered.
Rabbi Bin Yisrael said that he [previously] had no plans to leave Yemen, since his people have a long history there, and their continuing presence [in Yemen] ensures this. Speaking about the harassment that the Yemeni Jewish community was occasionally subjected to he said, “Ordinary people in Rydah did not harass us. On the contrary, we had excellent relationships with our Muslim neighbours. I did not have a television in my house so during the [Gaza-Israel] war I would watch television at my neighbour’s [house]. We would speak together about the war like brothers. I would say to them that I am just like them and that the war has nothing to do with me. These debates would end peacefully. But outside on the streets we began to feel the influence of Islamic extremists and their hatred for us. They would swear at the Jews. We were threatened and insulted. Rocks were thrown at us. We were forced to spend most of our time at home. Our economic situation began to deteriorate. But after the war things began to get back to normal. Only one Yemeni family emigrated [from Yemen].”
Bin Yisrael takes a deep breath before revealing what finally convinced him to emigrate from Yemen, saying simply, “When Moshe was killed.”
He is talking about Moshe al Nahari, a Jewish teacher and father-of-nine who was shot to death in Rydah’s market on 12 December 2008 by a Yemeni citizen. Yemeni Jews feared that this would signal the outbreak of a new round of violence that would result in more murders, especially following the events of Israel’s war on Gaza, and the aggressive bombardment that resulted in high civilian casualties, including children. Rabbi Bin Yisrael said, “Even my neighbours told me; do you see what your Jewish people are doing to the Palestinians?”
Rabbi Bin Yisrael confirms to Asharq Al-Awsat that al Nahari’s murder triggered a wave of fear amongst the Jewish population of Yemen. A Yemeni minister reassured the Jewish population of their safety, and informed them that [Yemeni] President Ali Abdullah Saleh himself was guaranteeing their safety, offering anybody who wanted to be transferred to Sanaa and given government protection. Indeed, 50 Yemeni Jews from Rydah took up the president’s offer, and they were transferred to a hotel in Yemen where they remain until today.
Rabbi Bin Yisrael reveals, “I was undecided. The Minister’s [offer] gave us peace of mind. We sincerely trusted President Saleh when he said that he would protect us. This [protection] is a Yemeni trait and this is true Islam. But the situation changed when a hand-grenade was thrown at my house. This occurred a month after the death of Moshe al Nahari. The hand-grenade was thrown at the house and exploded underneath the window of the children’s room. Miraculously none of my children were killed. That’s when I made the decision to emigrate.”
Bin Yisrael fell silent at this point, as revealing the details of how his family came to Israel is strictly forbidden. Israeli military classification prohibits the publication of any such details; all Bin Yisrael reveals is that following the hand-grenade incident, his wife informed him that she would not spend one more day in Yemen, and the next day Rabbi Bin Yisrael informed her that they would be leaving for Israel. He told his wife, along with his eldest daughter Esther, not to reveal this information to anyone but to say that they were all travelling to America to visit family. He sold his car for half its worth, and bought a new Yemeni oven for making bread, packed his things, and then he and the family went to a hotel in Sanaa where they awaited the signal from the Jewish Agency for Israel [JAFI]. When the family eventually arrived in Israel, they were greeted at Ben Gurion Airport by Israeli officials, members of JAFI, and members of the press. At the press conference [held there] Bin Yisrael said “Thank God we arrived safely. We are safe now. We have nothing against the Yemeni government; our problem lies only with the militants.”
From the airport the family was taken to the Immigrant Absorption Centre in the city of Beersheba for orientation on life in Israel. Here the family learnt about life in Israel, learning Hebrew, and participating in recreational programs and prayers, while also attending lectures on life in Israel and Zionism.
After three months at the Immigration Absorption Centre, the Bin Yisrael family will move to the city of Beit Shemesh, which lies between Jerusalem and Beersheba, where they will stay with relatives. State grants contribute 15 thousand dollars towards the price of a house, in addition to the availability of a loan. Bin Yisrael said, “Look at the joy of the children here! In Yemen they were trapped [in the house] as their mother forbade them from going out, but since our migration they are running all over the place…Here they don’t want to stay still or go to sleep!”
While the emigration of the Yemeni Jewish family, which was carried out by Israeli Special Forces, was met with support throughout Israel, there are different feelings in Yemen, especially in light of the government’s silence on this issue. According to a number of sources within the Yemeni Jewish community, Yemeni Jews have been subject to harassment by persons believed to be extremists even prior to the outbreak of the Gaza War last year, which may have been “the straw that broke the camel’s back” so to speak.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Brigadier General Mohamed Al-Ramli, Chairman of Yemeni Immigration and Passport Control, who declined to comment on the migration of the Yemeni Jews, and any link between this and the Ministry of Interior. Asked whether the Jewish family had passed through the airport, the Director of Sanaa Airport, along with the Chief of Security, both denied having any knowledge of this transfer.
The “special operation” which resulted in the migration of Rabbi Said Bin Yisrael and his family from Sanaa to Israel, has been at the centre of much debate in Yemen. There are those who have named it “Operation Magic Carpet” in reference to the nickname Operation Magic Carpet [officially designated Operation on Wings of Eagles] that took place between 1949 and 1950 and brought 49,000 Yemeni Jews to Israel.
Today Rabbi Said Bin Yisrael and his family are starting a new life in Israel; but the questions remain. Will Israel provide a better life? Will the Bin Yisrael family face the same problems as those faced by African Jewish immigrants to Israel? Will the rest of the Yemeni Jewish community join the Bin Yisrael family in Israel?
It is too early to tell.