The Jewish community of Yemen is an ancient one, thousands of years old. According to tradition, the first Jews who came to Yemen were wealthy Jerusalemites who, 42 years before the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem and the first Bet Hamikdash, heard the prophet Yirmiyahu’s warning of the impending catastrophe, and left for Yemen. Historians place the first Jewish community in Yemen 300 years later.
The Jews of Yemen are known for their talents as artisans, but also for their piety and commitment to Torah. Yemenite Jewry produced a number of outstanding sages, the most famous among them being Rabbi Shalom Shabazi (1619-1720) and Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (1720-1777). But Yemenite Jewish history also contains a great deal of pain and struggle – oppression, forced conversion, imposed second-class citizenship, and poverty. On numerous occasions, groups formed to escape Yemen and travel by foot to Eretz Yisrael – a distance of over 1,000 miles. Sadly, many perished along the way.
The 21st-Century “Magic Carpet”
Shortly after the founding of the State of Israel, in 1949-1950, the newly-established Jewish State launched Operation Magic Carpet, a mission to rescue Yemenite Jews and bring them to the Holy Land. Approximately 49,000 Jews were brought to Israel during this operation. Unfortunately, many of these new immigrants faced enormous challenges in their new home, suffering poverty, discrimination, and efforts to tear them away from their holy traditions.
Today, only several dozen Jews remain in Yemen, which has been torn apart by a bloody civil war that has raged since 2014. They are suffering dire deprivation as well as violence at the hand of the Houthis, an Islamist rebel group that has taken control of part of the country. Many of them are ill and starving, without water or electricity, and the children have no schools. The plight of Yemen’s Jews was the subject of a New York Times article published on February 19, 2015 entitled, “Persecution Defines Life for Yemen’s Remaining Jews.”
This article was shown to a number of prominent members of our community, including Mr. Morris Missry, and the chairman and executive director of the Sephardic Heritage Museum – Mr. Joseph Sitt and Rabbi Raymond Sultan. They knew right away that something had to be done.
The rescue program began by sending a journalist stationed in Yemen to go door-to-door to find out who wanted to leave the war-torn country. The journalist determined that although many were afraid to come right out and say it, they were all dying to leave – both literally and figuratively.
The Sephardic Heritage Museum proceeded to capitalize on its international web of connections, and vast experience in negotiations and diplomacy, reaching out to foreign governments and agencies. Already in 2015, they managed to bring 11 Yemenites Jews to safety. The story is worthy of an action movie – the group had to pass through 15 checkpoints, and the plane was escorted by an American jet until it touched down at a U.S. Airforce base in an undisclosed location.
Over the next several years, from 2016-2020, another 47 Jews were rescued. One of them, after reaching Israel, was photographed holding a Torah scroll next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The picture was widely circulated, and when the Houthis saw it, they promptly arrested another member of the Jewish community in Yemen on the grounds of conspiring to steal Yemenite artifacts. Rabbi Sultan and his team have been working to have this man released, but have not been successful. The man’s wife was kidnapped, and his father died from the aggravation caused by his son’s incarceration.
Seventeen Jews remain in Yemen waiting to be rescued.
Reunited in Dubai
The historic recent peace agreements signed last year between Israel and several Arab countries have become a valuable asset in this life-saving effort. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has forged a close friendship with Israel, has been instrumental in assisting the Sephardic Heritage Museum with their mission.
A Yemenite Jew in England contacted the Sephardic Heritage Museum and asked for help in rescuing his family members trapped in Yemen, whom he had not seen in 21 years. With the help of the UAE, which welcomed the family to their country, the family was brought to Dubai, which welcomed them. The climate and culture of the Emirates are far more suitable for Yemenite Jews than Western countries, and so the UAE was considered a perfect location for resettling the family.
Past, Present, and Future
The Sephardic Heritage Museum was founded primarily to preserve the rich history of the Syrian/Sephardic community, and to educate the current and future generations about our glorious past, which must continue to guide and inspire us. But in addition, they have shown a commitment to preserve not just history – but Jewish lives wherever they are in danger. To find out more about the museum’s work, and to take part in this life-saving effort, visit www.sephardicheritagemuseum.com.