JERUSALEM — In a secret mission involving an assortment of tribes and a mystery African nation, 17 Jews from Yemen escaped their country’s deadly civil war and landed in Israel early Monday morning.
The group consisted of 12 Jews from the town of Raydah in northern Yemen and a family of five from the capital, Sanaa, according to representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-governmental organization that assists Jewish immigration.
They will join about 200 Jews who have been brought to Israel secretly over the past few years, as well as a much larger community of Jews with Yemeni origins who came to Israel more than 60 years ago.
Professor Uzi Rabi, an expert on Yemeni Jews at Tel Aviv University who assisted in bringing the most recent group of Jews to Israel, said that only about 40 to 50 members of the community now remain in Yemen. Most of them live in a guarded compound in the capital where foreign embassies were once located. They are not interested in leaving their homeland, he said.
The majority of Yemeni Jews, some 50,000 people, were resettled in Israel in 1949-1950 as part of a special immigration known as Operation Magic Carpet.
Rabi said that Yemeni Jews come from “the cradle of civilization, the place where almost everything in this world began.” One of those who reached Israel on Monday was a rabbi from Raydah, who brought with him a 600-year-old Torah scroll.
There are varying theories as to how the Jews originally arrived in Yemen and how long they have lived there. But since the country descended into war a year ago, the community has found itself in an increasingly precarious situation. The Houthis, Shiite insurgents who toppled Yemen’s government in Sanaa, launched a vitriolic campaign against the Jews.
The official slogan of the Houthi movement, which calls for Israel’s destruction, is outright anti-Semitic and similar to revolutionary Iran rhetoric: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.”
The Yemeni Jews who remained in Yemen had initially seemed reluctant to accept help.
“Israel has been sending messages to the community for a while, but their response was ‘If you want to help us, then stop naming us as Jews,’ ” Rabi said. As the situation deteriorated, however, they began to realize that moving to Israel might be an option, he said.
Getting them to Israel was complicated, however.
Israel and Yemen have no diplomatic ties, and Western embassies, which helped Yemeni Jews to leave in the past, have closed since the war began. There is also an air and naval blockade of Yemen imposed by Saudi Arabia. Flights to and from Sanaa must stop there.
It is still a mystery how the group managed to escape. Rabi said only that it was down to “individual tribes and tribesmen.”
“That is the key to this escape story,” he said. “Yemen has been torn up by the war, it is a failed state. This was not done via government channels but by government officials with a tribal affiliate.”
With the help of middlemen and an unidentified country in East Africa, possibly Ethiopia, with which Israel has good relations, a system was created to first provide information to both sides and then create a chain of logistics.
Arielle Di-Porto, a representative of the Jewish Agency, said Monday in an interview with Israeli media that the U.S. State Department was also involved indirectly in the secret operation. She would not say how.
However, she did say that the Jewish Agency had been working on helping the community leave for many months.
“In the last few months, we got people out all the time, except for this group,” she said in an interview with Israel Radio. “We brought out four children and nobody knew. Today they were reunited with their parents. There are other Yemenite children in Israel who haven’t seen their parents in 10 years.”
Two Yemeni Jews from the same community arrived in Israel last week. The recent arrivals include the family of Aharon Zindani, who was killed in an anti-Semitic attack in Sanaa in 2012.