Page last updated at 09:24 GMT, Friday, 18 December 2009

Yemen's last remaining Jews: A community in decline

Younger members of the Jewish community in Yemen
There has been a Jewish community in Yemen since at least the 6th Century

By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC News, Sanaa

Jewish leaders in Yemen say that there are now only 370 Jews left in the country, and the number is falling.

In recent months US officials and Jewish organisations have been flying Jews out of Yemen because, they say, it is too dangerous for them to remain.

Last year a Jewish man was murdered outside his home; many others have been threatened.

Rabbi Yusuf Mose Salem came to the Yemeni capital Sanaa after fleeing his home in North Yemen

Rabbi Yusuf Mose Salem
Rabbi Yusuf Mose Salem fled his home two years ago

He looks completely broken. Whenever he speaks, he weeps.

"They gave us a warning to leave in seven days or they would kill us," he told the BBC World Service, referring to militant Shia rebels in the north of the country.

"They destroyed the house, they levelled it to the ground. They left nothing for us, we fled with what we were wearing."

But despite the tears, the rabbi is determined to hang onto and to keep alive a tradition that goes back thousands of the years.

'Operation Magic Carpet'

"The Jews of Yemen go back to at least the sixth Century AD," says historian Tim Mackintosh Smith.

"We know this because there was actually a Jewish king here, Dhu Nuwas."

I don't want the Jews to leave the country, and the Jews don't want to leave. This help is hurting us
Rabbi Yusuf Jaish
Yemeni rabbi

Following anti-Jewish riots in Yemen in the late 1940s, tens of thousands of Yemeni Jews were evacuated to Israel as part of an international airlift known as 'Operation Magic Carpet'.

On a smaller scale something similar is happening today.

US Jewish groups have raised US $750,000 to fly Yemeni Jews out of the country, in a programme initiated by the State Department.

Israel is also organising flights, and so far this year something like 20% of Yemen's remaining Jews have left.

No future

But not all Jews in Yemen think this money is being well spent.

Rabbi Yusuf Jaish says the money raised in America should be spent on preserving their community in Yemen.

"If people want to support us," he says, "they should help us with schools and in marriages, but they should not be helping us to leave".

He says he wants the free flights to America to stop.

"I don't want the Jews to leave the country, and the Jews don't want to leave. This help is hurting us."

But the airlift organisers think it is time to accept the inevitable.

Yair Ya'ish, president of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, says he does not see much of a future for the community in Yemen.

"It's gotten very dangerous," he says.

"We're working very closely with them to try to get the remnants that are there, that are interested in leaving of course, to get them out to wherever they want to go."


Shaukat Khani is one of those who took the decision to leave.

Three months ago he moved his whole family, including his wife and nine children, out to New York.

"There were some ignorant people, Muslims who'd practise discrimination. There were some killings. It was unsafe, that's why we left."

He also says life as a Jew in Yemen was difficult: "We had no-one to take care of the children in school, and we could not get meat butchered properly. There was no-one to take care of the weddings."

Mr Khani says he is very happy now in America: "There are Jews here, and schools for our children and hospitals for sick people."

"God bless the United States. We have been so well taken care of in so many details of our life. They give people whatever they want."

Print Sponsor

'Climate of fear' in south Yemen
15 Dec 09 |  Middle East
Air strike 'kills 70' in Yemen
14 Dec 09 |  Middle East
Yemeni rebels 'cleared' by Saudis
29 Nov 09 |  Middle East
Saudi troops 'captured' in Yemen
27 Nov 09 |  Middle East
Yemen troops 'kill rebel leader'
19 Nov 09 |  Middle East
Saudis 'renew Yemen bombing'
13 Nov 09 |  Middle East
Saudis 'evacuated' from villages
13 Nov 09 |  Middle East
Yemen rebels urge Saudi ceasefire
11 Nov 09 |  Middle East


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific