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As 13 Yemeni Jews leave pro-Iran region for Cairo, community of 50,000 down to 6

Family confirmed to depart for Egypt in deal with Houthis; country’s remaining half-dozen Jews live in areas controlled by Iranian-backed militias but seem to want to stay

File: New immigrants from Yemen arrive in Israel on February 19, 2009 (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
File: New immigrants from Yemen arrive in Israel on February 19, 2009 (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Thirteen Yemeni Jews were brought to Egypt from Yemen in a deal with Iranian-backed militias that ruled their areas, shrinking the number of Jews remaining in Yemen to six, The Times of Israel has confirmed.

Their departure was first reported by the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on Sunday. The paper said they had been expelled.

A knowledgeable official told The Times of Israel that the 13 Yemeni Jews — some of the ancient community’s last members — had not been directly forced to leave the country. Rather, they had reached an exit agreement with the Iran-backed Houthi militias, which rule parts of Yemen.

The 13 Jews received an offer to go to Israel by way of the port city of Aden, which is controlled by the United Arab Emirates’ proxy in the war-torn country, the Southern Transitional Council. But they refused.

“They reached an agreement with the Houthi leadership to go to Cairo. They wanted at first to go to the United Arab Emirates, but that proved impossible, so they went to Cairo. In Cairo, they have family there,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

In this Aug. 22, 2020 file photo, tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels raise their weapons during a protest against the agreement to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP/Hani Mohammed, File)

Several Yemeni Jewish families have been resettled in the Emirates in recent months. The families were given what the official termed “very good financial conditions,” including housing units.

The Yemeni Jewish community — once over 50,000 strong — has dwindled in recent decades. Between 1949 and 1950, Israel brought nearly 49,000 Yemenite Jews to the state.

The exodus was precipitated by growing anti-Semitism following the establishment of the State of Israel — but also by increasing anarchy in Yemen itself following a coup attempt. Zionist sentiment had also slowly grown among the Yemenite community for decades prior to the mass migration, spurred by the community’s religiosity.

Presently, six Jews remain in Yemen, including one currently in Houthi prison. Diplomatic efforts made to free the imprisoned Jew, Levi Salem Marhabi, have so far proved unsuccessful.

“They want to remain. There were overtures made for them to come to Israel, but for now, they want to stay put,” the official said.

Marhabi was arrested in 2016 by Houthi intelligence forces after allegedly smuggling a rare deerskin Torah scroll out of Yemen to Israel, along with 17 members of the Jewish community. The Houthis said the scroll, believed to be at least 500 years old, was a national artifact.

The Jewish emigrants and the Torah scroll were given a warm welcome in Israel at the time, including by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds an 500 hundred-year-old Torah scroll as he poses for a picture with some of the Yemenite Jews who were brought to Israel as part of a secret rescue operation, at the Knesset, on March 21, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The United States has condemned Marhabi’s detention; former secretary of state Mike Pompeo warned in a 2020 statement that the prisoner’s health was deteriorating.

“Mr. Marhabi is one member of an ever-shrinking community of Yemeni Jews, who have been an important part of Yemen’s diverse social fabric for thousands of years. We call on the Houthis to respect religious freedom, stop oppressing Yemen’s Jewish population, and immediately release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi,” Pompeo said.

Some of the departing family members have claimed that a quid pro quo deal was reached that would see Marhabi released in exchange for their leaving.

“They gave us a choice between staying in the midst of harassment and keeping Salem a prisoner or leaving and having him released,” one of the expelled family members told al-Sharq al-Awsat.

“History will remember us as the last of Yemeni Jews who were still clinging to their homeland until the last moment,” the interviewee continued. “We rejected many temptations time and time again, and refused to leave our homeland, but today we are forced.”

The official who spoke to The Times of Israel denied any knowledge of such a quid pro quo.

Both the Israeli and the Emirati foreign ministries declined to comment.

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