Legacy of Jews in the MENA - World Jewish Congress
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The Jewish Legacy of Yemen

Historical Background 

Yemen has long been home to a Jewish community, the exact origins of which are unknown. According to one legend, after the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon, he sent a contingent of Jews to Southern Arabia. According to another, heeding the prophecy of Jeremiah, a group of Jerusalemites left their city before Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to it and destroyed the first temple in 586 BC. Some even contend that God created a magical passage directly from Jerusalem to Mount Nuqum, Sanaa. Even more miraculously, because Jews in Yemen would need specific plants unique to the Jerusalem area to fulfill their religious obligations, God moved a piece of the holy land to Yemen as well. In a sense then, being in Yemen wasn’t being outside of Eretz Israel at all (Parfitt, 4). Though obviously fictitious, this story highlights the deep connection to both Israel and Yemen that Yemeni Jews have felt throughout history.  

In the Common Era, evidence for a Jewish presence in Southwest Arabia became clearer, and scholars believe that by the fourth century CE, the Himyarite Kingdom was Jewish, or at least Judaized. The last Jewish Himyarite King, Dhu Nuwas, was conquered by Aksum under King Kaleb in the early 7th century. From the beginning of the Islamic period until the twentieth century, Jews were a minority community but were well integrated into the social and economic fabric of Yemeni society. Throughout their history, Yemeni Jews maintained connections with Jews in other parts of the Islamic world. For example, the Cairo Geniza evinces Yemeni Jewish donations to Jewish institutions outside of the country, financial relationships between Yemeni and Egyptian Jews, and Jewish immigration to Yemen for commercial purposes. Starting in the sixteenth century, there is evidence of emissaries from the Levant traveling to Yemen to collect donations for religious institutions and for some individual migration from Yemen to Jerusalem.   

 Jews of Sanaa in 1907 (c) Hermann Burkhardt
Jews of Sanaa in 1907 (c) Hermann Burkhardt

There are no accurate population figures for the Yemeni Jewish community, but estimates for the early twentieth century range from sixty to eighty thousand. Unlike the Levant, where Jews were largely urban, Yemeni Jews lived in both cities and rural areas, and were dispersed throughout the country. The largest Jewish community was in Sanaa, where a Jewish quarter existed. The majority of Jews in Yemen were merchants or craftsmen and rarely worked in agriculture.  

The nineteenth century witnessed two major events that altered Yemeni life and ultimately led to Jewish emigration. In 1839, the British conquered Aden and transformed it into one of the most important port cities en route to British India. Increased European and Ottoman competition for influence in the area led to the Ottoman reconquest of the Red Sea coast. In 1869, the Suez Canal opened, further incorporating Yemeni into a global economic system and increasing its strategic importance. In 1872 the Ottomans conquered Sanaa. Ottoman rule had a profound influence on the Jewish community, and its leaders were hopeful that the Ottoman Tanzimat (legal reforms) would be implemented in Yemen, making Jews legally equal to Muslims. However, Ottoman rule over Yemen was tenuous, and the government was not willing to provoke the ire of Muslim notables by enforcing these laws. As such, Yemeni Jewish political expectations were not met. Likewise, Ottoman rule, coupled with the British influence in the region, opened Yemen to outside market forces. More and more low-priced imported goods entered the country, making it increasingly difficult for Jewish traders to earn a living.  Political and economic dissatisfaction, along with easier transportation and increased knowledge of events outside of Yemen, led to the first migration to Palestine on a communal scale in 1881.  

In addition to local economic and political transformations, the insertion of Yemen into global networks during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provoked ideological changes within the community. Reformers began to push for the removal of dhimmi restrictions and greater rights. Likewise, community leaders advocated for the establishment of a modern school, and in 1910 the Ottomans appointed Yihye Qafih headmaster of a Maktab school specifically for Jews. Other well-known reformers were Hayyim Habshush, who worked with Orientalists Joseph Halevy and Eduard Glaser during their respective trips to Yemen to collect Sabean inscriptions. Habshush later wrote an account of his travels with Halevy and Shalom Gamliel, an advisor to Yemen’s ruler Imam Yahya. published as Ru’ya al-Yaman,  

Migration to Palestine 

In 1881, the Ottoman government placed a notice outside of the palace of the governor in Sanaa stating that Jews were permitted to move to Jerusalem. It is unclear why it did so, since there is no evidence of any official request to emigrate. At the time, however, European Jews had begun to query the Ottoman government about resettling Jews in Ottoman territory and, according to contemporaneous Hebrew newspapers, the Sultan was favorably inclined toward such schemes.  As a result, rumors reached Yemen that the Rothschilds had purchased property in the Holy Land and was distributing it to Jews who wished to resettle there.  Three groups of immigrants left Sanaa in 1881, and by 1884 there were approximately 450 Yemeni Jews in Jerusalem. Thus began a gradual process that resulted in the emigration of almost all of Yemen’s Jews by 1950. 

The early migrants were not particularly well organized and did not receive assistance from any government or organization. In fact, they faced financial hardship in Jerusalem and were forced to look for employment elsewhere. By 1909, however, several families of Yemeni immigrants had moved to Zionist settlements in Rehovot and Rishon Lezion to work as agricultural laborers. At that time, the Zionist movement was particularly interested in finding Jewish workers to replace Arab farmers on its plantations as part of the ideology of Hebrew labor. As a result, in 1911, Shmuel Yavnieli, a significant figure in the Labor Zionist movement, was sent to Yemen by the World Zionist Organization (WZO), in cooperation with the labor movement and the Planter’s Union, to stimulate migration to Palestine. 

A young Jewish teenager grinds coffee beans in Sanaa, Yemen.  (c) Carl Rathjens
A young Jewish teenager grinds coffee beans in Sanaa, Yemen. (c) Carl Rathjens

From that point on, Yemeni Jewish migration was more organized and benefited from the assistance of state or state-like structures, most importantly the WZO. The real turning point came in 1929, when the Jewish Agency established an immigration office in Aden to facilitate Yemeni Jewish emigration to Palestine. This organizational assistance, coupled with poor economic conditions in Yemen and the increased strength of the Jewish economy in Palestine, meant that more Jews would immigrate. By 1936 there were approximately 20,000 Yemeni Jews in Palestine, as well as several thousands in more traditional sites for Yemeni migration such as Egypt, East Africa, and India. The flow to Palestine slowed somewhat from 1936 until the end of World War II, first because of increased German Jewish immigration, and then because of the difficulty of wartime travel; however, throughout that period, Yemeni Jews attempted to immigrate to Palestine and sometimes got stranded in the Aden colony. In 1946 and 1947, the British authorities in Aden even pressured Yemeni Jews to return to Yemen to avoid overcrowding in the Colony. By July 1947, over 1,000 had repatriated.  

The United Nations Partition Plan of late November 1947 altered the British calculus. For one thing, it meant that Jews would anticipate being allowed to migrate to Palestine and therefore would be less likely to return to Yemen. More seriously, in December 1947, a protest in Aden over the plan degenerated into anti-Jewish riot. The British were forced to move several thousand Yemeni Jews into an abandoned army camp near Shaykh Uthman. Given the political tension, the British government could no longer compel Yemeni Jews to return to their home country. The assassination of Imam Yahya on February 17, 1948, and the ensuing political chaos made sending these Jews back even more implausible. 

After declaring independence in May 1948, the State of Israel discontinued the British regulations on Jewish immigration and put the Jewish Agency in charge, with a mind to bringing in as many immigrants as possible.  The Agency, with the American Joint Distribution Committee, quickly began organizing migration from Aden to Israel. Additionally, in April 1949, Imam Ahmad gave his consent for the emigration of Jews from Yemen. This quickened the pace of immigration, and by the fall, several thousand Yemeni Jews were reaching Aden weekly. In what became known as Operation On Wings of Eagles (also known as Operation Magic Carpet), hundreds of flights brought close to 50,000 Yemeni Jews to Israel by January 1950.  

Maghen Abraham Synagogue in ʿAdan (c) Wikimedia Commons
Maghen Abraham Synagogue in ʿAdan (c) Wikimedia Commons

Yemeni Jews in Israel 

With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the immigration of the majority of Yemeni Jews immediately afterwards, Israel became the center of Yemeni Jewish life. It is worth noting, however, that Yemeni Jews in Israel made significant efforts to remain connected to Yemen, for example, through the import of foods from Yemen to Israel. Unfortunately, as the Arab–Israeli conflict intensified, this became impossible, and cultural and religious practices increasingly became the only way to preserve a sense of “Yemeni-ness.” It is also important to note that even after Operation On Wings of Eagles, a few thousand Jews remained in Yemen and Yemeni Jewish communities existed elsewhere, for example in the U.S. and the U.K. Jewish emigration from Yemen continued gradually throughout the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, but throughout this period, some Jews preferred to remain in Yemen. The Yemeni Civil War that began in 2014 made life untenable for the small number of remaining Jews, and almost all have since left.  

In Israel, Yemeni Jews experienced prejudice and pressure to assimilate into Western Jewish culture, as did other Jews from the Islamic world. However, because Yemeni Jews had begun immigrating to Palestine in the late nineteenth century, they were better organized than other Middle Eastern Jews. In 1923, the Yemeni Union was founded to represent all Yemeni Jews in Palestine, and it provided material assistance and Zionist education. By the late 1930s, the Yemeni Union was providing housing for Yemenis in Palestine and was arranging immigration certificates for those in Aden. In fact, three Yemeni Jews were elected to Israel’s first Knesset:  Zecharia Gluska of the Yemenite Union, Avraham Tabib of Mapai, and Hayyim Meguri-Cohen of Herut. 

On the other hand, the Yemeni experience during the early years of the state was marred by the Yemenite Children Affair. According to allegations, in the first years of the state, thousands of babies were surreptitiously taken from their parents and given to European Jewish families for adoption. These babies were primarily Yemeni, but smaller numbers of children were taken from other Middle Eastern and Balkan families. Although the Israeli government has established several commissions of inquiry to study these allegations, it has yet to be proven or disproven conclusively. There is, however, sound evidence that at least some medical professionals facilitated these adoptions, but the extent of government involvement remains unclear. Moreover, Yemeni Jews largely believe the claim that children were stolen, and this clearly affects their attitudes toward the migration experience and the early state period.  

A Jewish family in Yemen gathered around the table reading Psalms. (c) Christian-Julien Robin, President of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-lettres (France)
A Jewish family in Yemen gathered around the table reading Psalms. (c) Christian-Julien Robin, President of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-lettres (France)

Religious and Cultural Practices 

Yemeni Jews have preserved unique religious practices including the tradition of reading an Aramaic translation during Torah cantillation and a distinct pronunciation of Hebrew. Additionally, Jews in Yemen follow several liturgical traditions. The two most prominent of these are the older Baladi tradition, which dates back to the twelfth century and is often considered more authentically Yemeni, and the Shami tradition, which developed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries and incorporated Sephardic and Kabbalistic practices. In Yemen, the split between these groups sometimes led to conflict over leadership of the community and to an ideological schism between adherents of the kabbalah and those committed to the rationalism of the Haskalah [Enlightenment] movement. 

Yemeni Jews have made important contributions to the development of modern Israeli culture. For example, the Inbal Dance Theater, founded by Sara Levi-Tanai in 1949, was among Israel’s earliest cultural exports and received acclaim from such American dance luminaries as Anna Sokol, Jerome Robbins, and Martha Graham. Yemeni Jews were so important to the incorporation of falafel into the Israeli diet that an earlier generation of Israelis believed it to be a Yemeni dish. Today, more traditional Yemeni foods such as the flatbread mulawah, the shabbat bread jahnun, meaty Yemeni soup, and the spicy condiment zhug have all become part of a multiethnic Israeli cuisine.  

The Yemeni influence has been especially profound in music. Bracha Zefira was fundamental to the development of Israeli song in the pre-state period and was the first singer heard on the Palestine Broadcasting Service, the forerunner to Israeli radio, when it began transmission in 1936. Yemeni Jews have been pioneering artists in most Israeli musical genres, including Shoshana Damari in the Israeli song genre; Ofra Haza in world music; Zohar Argov, Haim Moshe, and Margalit Tzanani in musika mizrahit; and Dana International in dance-pop. At the same time, Yemeni Jewish singers such as Aharon Amram and Zion Golan have preserved traditional Yemeni music, and with the rise of the internet and social media have found an audience in Yemen itself. Through music, food, and other artistic practices, the Yemeni Jewish Diaspora in Israel and elsewhere (primarily in the United States and United Kingdom) remain deeply connected to Yemeni culture and people, and are ensuring the continued development of a modern Yemeni Jewish culture in the twenty-first century and beyond.   

Yemenite family celebrating Passover in Tel-Aviv, Israel. (c) Zoltan Kluger
Yemenite family celebrating Passover in Tel-Aviv, Israel. (c) Zoltan Kluger
  • Ariel, Ari. (2014). Jewish-Muslim Relations and Migration from Yemen to Palestine in the Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Brill.
  • Klorman, Bat-Zion Eraqi. (2014). Traditional Society in Transition: The Yemeni Jewish Experience. Brill.
  • Parfitt, Tudor. (1996). The Road to Redemption: The Jews of the Yemen 1900-1950. Brill.
  • Verskin, Alan. (2019). A Vision of Yemen: The Travels of a European Orientalist and His Native Guide, A Translation of Hayyim Habshush’s Travelogue. Stanford University Press.
  • Wagner, Mark. (2015). Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen. Indiana University Press.