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UAE helps reunite Yemenite Jewish family that was separated for 15 years

‘My soul felt reborn,’ one relative says at Abu Dhabi airport ceremony; tweeting about reunion, Emirati FM Abdullah bin Zayed hails his country as ‘homeland of coexistence’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A Jewish man originally from Yemen embraces a family member from whom he had been separated for 15  years, Abu Dhabi, UAE, August 2020. (Twitter)
A Jewish man originally from Yemen embraces a family member from whom he had been separated for 15 years, Abu Dhabi, UAE, August 2020. (Twitter)

In a further sign of the United Arab Emirates’s effort to position itself as a regional center of religious tolerance, the country’s government organized the reunion last week of a Jewish Yemenite family that had been separated for 15 years.

According to a report by the state-owned Emirates News Agency, UAE authorities “facilitated the travel of family members from Yemen to the UAE” and also arranged for other family members living in London to join them. Among the family members were several young children and at least one elderly woman sitting in a wheelchair.

The report did not make clear why the family had been separated or what role exactly Abu Dhabi played in reuniting them.

“It was nothing short of a miracle and the realization of an impossible dream,” the family was quoted as saying. “We thank the UAE for their great support in arranging the reunion. This is an example of the UAE’s humanitarian approach, as well as of its noble values of tolerance and coexistence.”

The news agency also posted a video showing the family members, some of whom were wearing black velvet skullcaps and long side curls, embracing and handing each other flowers and other gifts at the Abu Dhabi airport.

“My soul felt reborn the moment we were reunited,” an elderly person is heard saying.

“We never imagined we would reunite again after all these long, grim years,” a middle-age man adds, speaking in Arabic. “We lived alone in exile [in London] without family and siblings. I was lost.”

In the news agency’s report, additional family members were quoted thanking the UAE for its efforts and hailing the country as a beacon of tolerance and coexistence.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan on Saturday evening tweeted a link to the report, adding the words, in Arabic: “The homeland of coexistence.”

 

It is unclear how many Jews remain in Yemen today. In 2017, the country’s information minister said his government is unaware of the fate of the country’s few dozen remaining Jews, most of whom reside in the Houthi rebel group-controlled capital of Sana’a.

The Houthis, who are aligned with Iran, view the tiny remaining Jewish population as an enemy and are engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing that includes ridding Yemen of its Jewish community, he said at the time.

In March 2016, 19 members of the Yemenite Jewish community were brought to Israel in a secret operation that apparently involved bribing Houthi officials.

“The Jewish residents of the UAE have witnessed first-hand the sustained and courageous practice of tolerance and fraternity followed by the Rulers of the UAE over many years,” the Jewish Council of the Emirates said in a statement issued Sunday. The efforts to reunite the Yemenite family is “a further instance of this,” it read.

“The happiness of this family is something all of us can understand and share,” said Ross Kriel, the council’s president. “We are thrilled that the charitable efforts of the UAE, which are based on a concept of universal human dignity, have met with success and are becoming known to a broader global audience.”

In recent years, the UAE has made great efforts to portray itself as a tolerant country welcoming all religions, including Judaism. President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan declared 2019 to be the “The Year of Tolerance” in the UAE. In this context, the country announced the building of a massive interfaith compound in Abu Dhabi that will also include a synagogue. The so-called Abrahamic Family House is slated to open in 2022.

A Jewish community has been operating in Dubai for a decade, initially with tacit support but more recently with overt backing from the local authorities, and is currently in the process of officially becoming a licensed religious community.

The Abrahamic Family House, to be built in Abu Dhabi, UAE (courtesy of The Higher Committee for Human Fraternity)

Earlier this year, a breakaway Jewish congregation, led by a young rabbi affiliated with the Hasidic Chabad movement, embarked on an aggressive publicity campaign but has since been requested by local authorities to stop posting on social media.

Estimates of how many Jews currently live in the UAE range from 1,500 to the low hundreds. There is one kosher catering business in the country, called “Elli’s Kosher Kitchen,” which has also garnered a lot of attention, including UAE Culture Minister Noura al-Kaabi hailing it as a new chapter in “Gulf food history.”

“Just last month, a new kosher caterer launched in Dubai to serve the growing Jewish community, the first new community in the Arab world in more than a century,” the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, wrote in an unprecedented June 12 op-ed in Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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