Religious Freedom: The Secret Rescue Flight of Yemen’s Jews to Freedom

In November 2007, Ninwe Al Naeti, a young Yemenite Jewish woman was allegedly kidnapped and converted to Islam against her will in Yemen, home to the oldest Jewish community in the world. As the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, it was my obligation to discover more about this incident and whether it was isolated or part of a larger pattern of harassment and anti-Semitism in Yemen.

After initial investigation and fact finding, I traveled to Saana, Yemen’s capital, in December to examine the situation first hand. What I discovered there was a country beset with strife. A fundamentalist rebellion in the north has been launched by the Al-Houti Shiite. They had nailed a note on the door of a Jewish family in Saada in February 2007, threatening them if they did not leave within days. I also found a government, steeped in ancient tribal structure and boundaries, not fully in control of its own territory.

When I asked to visit the main Jewish community in the northern town of Raida, I was told that the government could not guarantee our safety and therefore, even with government troops, we could not venture up that far into the country. We lacked any tribal permission to enter certain areas. We eventually did travel to the provincial capital of Amran province, accompanied by troops driving a gun-mounted jeep.

On that trip, I was struck by the vastly undeveloped, primitive nature of the country. We saw field upon field of khat, the native-grown hallucinogenic drug that is chewed and sucked on as a wad of leaves in the cheek by many Yemenites. The fields found abundantly in Yemen, are guarded by young men with guns who are holed up in small towers in the fields. The khat fields consume much of Yemen’s diminishing water supply.

When I arrived at the Governor’s office, I was greeted by dozens of armed men waiting to escort me up to the Provincial Governor’s office. The Governor was a firm and imposing man who offered me tea and assured me that “his Jews” were safe in Yemen and that despite what I had heard, Ninwe Al-Naeti had chosen to marry the man of her dreams and that there should be no worries. He did complain about the outside support the Jews received from the United States but that as long as they remained good Yemenite citizens, meaning not offering support for Israel, all would be well for them.

Upon my return to Saana, I met with the Jewish community from Saada that had been housed in the capital, at government expense, a deed that both our Ambassador and I had urgently sought following the Al-Houti threats in February of that year. What I heard were stories of extreme harassment: forced conversions of boys and girls, forced marriages, ethnic intimidation, and cruel unequal treatment. These people were scared and told us so. When I was given a list of over 200 names of people who would leave if they could come to the United States, I knew that something had to be done. The stories, the conditions they were living in and the security situation told me that their time was running out.

When I conveyed these concerns to Yemenite government officials they expressed understanding and assured me that they would do all that they could to protect “their Jews,” a common theme heard there. There was in fact, concern for this community by the government and they did try to do what they could and spent some resources protecting these citizens, a point that cannot be argued. Nevertheless, when I complained about the allegations of forced conversions and marriages, I was quite blithely told that Muslims “don’t mind conversions.” That statement told me that they took the threats not quite as seriously as they should have. This was enough for me.

Upon my return to the U.S., I reported on my trip and what happened. I immediately expressed my opinion that these people need to get out and we need to find a way to accomplish that. Soon the Embassy staff, which had been with me in Yemen and saw every day what was occurring there, agreed and helped facilitate a quiet program by which the Jews of Yemen could leave for the United States if they so desired.

As the Wall Street Journal article of October 31, 2009 detailed, events of the summer of 2008, including the bombing attacks against the U.S. Embassy and the brutal killing of Moshe Nahari in the market on December 11, 2008 by a crazed gunman, made clear to all that the Jews of Yemen were not safe and that the time had arrived for them to leave. The Embassy plan was put into action and by summer 2009, following my departure from the State Department with the change of administrations, some 60 Yemenite Jews had traveled to New York and an untold number more to Israel.

For those Yemenite Jews that remain, I continue to fear for their lives. For a variety of reasons, they remain in Yemen, clinging to a measure of familiarity and tradition, hoping against hope that they will not fall prey to the strife that so afflicts Yemen. I hope that one day soon they too will join their brethren outside of Yemen, where they will be safe from intimidation and attacks like they faced in their ancient homeland.

Cutting Edge contributor Gregg J. Rickman, served as the first U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism from 2006-2009. He is a Senior Fellow for the Study and Combat of Anti-Semitism at the Institute on Religion and Policy in Washington, DC; a Visiting Fellow at The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; and a Research Scholar at the Initiative on Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.