Mission to airlift Jews out of Yemen heralds the end of one of oldest Jewish communities

Houthis, Sunni extremist groups, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and others have threatened the Jewish community in Yemen

Operation Magic Carpet was the first major airlift of Jews to the newly independent Israel. In 1949, more than 50,000 were flown from Yemen in secret flights before the operation was officially unveiled amid much publicity as a declaration of the Jewish State’s commitment to bring its people home.

Israel recreated the mission in recent days, once again flying Jews out of Yemen. The number this time was 19, reflecting how the community has dwindled in the intervening years. About 50 more refused to leave, preferring to stay on in a country enmeshed in a bitter civil war.

The US State Department was involved in co-ordinating the evacuation, Israeli officials said, as it revealed the covert mission. There are no American “boots on the ground” in Yemen, according to Washington, but private security contractors, including some former members of Western forces, have been hired by Sunni Gulf states for the campaign against Shia Houthi rebels.

The Houthis chanted “death to the Jews” and “death to Israel” as they entered the capital Sanaa in the early days of the rebellion. Sunni extremist groups, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) and those pledging allegiance to Isis have also threatened the community.

The evacuation, organised by Israel’s Jewish Agency, was from Raydah, in the north-west of the country, which had a long established Jewish community. The local rabbi, Saliman Dahari, who also had the role of the town’s kosher slaughterer, brought 600-year-old Torah scrolls with him to Israel. 

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The Jewish community in Yemen has dwindled in recent years (AFP)

There are differing chronologies of Jewish presence in Yemen. According to one account King Solomon sent merchants to Yemen to obtain gold and silver for his Temple in Jerusalem. According to the lore of the Jews in Sanaa, a settlement took place 42 years before the destruction of the First Temple, with 75,000 led to Yemen by the Prophet Jeremiah.

Also among the recent evacuees were the family of Aharon Zindani, a community elder, who was murdered in 2012. The same year a young Jewish woman was abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and disappeared after, according to reports, being forced to marry a Muslim. 

Those from the community staying behind are mainly in Sanaa, living  in an enclosed compound called Tourist City, which used to house foreign workers in more peaceful times. However, many in the deeply religious community feel they may not be able to settle in the more secular Israeli society.

Both the Yemeni government, backed by Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, supported by Iran, maintain that the Jewish community has been protected and there have been few anti-Semitic incidents.

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body, said: “From Operation Magic Carpet until the present day, the agency has helped bring Yemenite Jewry home to Israel. Today we bring that historic mission to a close… But Yemenite Jewry’s unique 2,000-year-old contribution to the Jewish people will continue in the State of Israel.”

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