Yemeni Jews say they reached south Arabia more than 2,500 years ago, as merchants sent by Shlomo Hamelech to trade for gold and silver to adorn the Bais Hamikdosh in Yerushalayim. For centuries they flourished, living in towns and villages alongside Muslims and working as carpenters, masons and silversmiths because they were largely excluded from other professions.
Under the Shia imams who ruled Yemen for most of the past millennium, Jews were classified as dhimmi – non-Muslim citizens who had the right to reside and practice their faith in exchange for paying a tax. But there were pogroms, and Jews were set apart by law.
During the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel, anti-Jewish sentiment rose in Yemen and across the Middle East. Rioters killed some 80 Jews in the port city of Aden and plundered most of the Jewish shops in the city. Consequently, 49,000 Yemeni Jews, about two-thirds of the community, were airlifted to Israel between 1948 and 1951 in a secret British and American mission dubbed Operation Magic Carpet.
Today, as Yemen tries to navigate a path toward democracy and a more inclusive political system, the last wave of emigration looks to be under way. In August, the Jewish Agency for Israel, a semigovernmental Israeli organization, helped smuggle 17 Yemeni Jews to Israel. Less than 90 remain.
“Jews who lived their entire lives there and resisted the notion of leaving for a long time are going now. It’s time,” says Misha Galperin, the head of international development for the Jewish Agency, adding that the recent airlift was a “clandestine operation” because Yemen and Israel have no diplomatic ties.
Most of the 20 or so families that remain, including Habib’s, live behind the walls of a government compound for expats near the U.S. embassy in Sana‘a called Tourist City, cut off from the rest of society. The elders never leave. Now and again the younger men venture out to sell jewelry at a nearby market.
The Jews, who raise goats and chickens on plots of land next to the homes of Russian oil barons and aid workers, rarely leave the compound. Instead they rely on a monthly stipend for food and rent provided by the government.
“Living in a state of exile in your own country … that’s no life.” says Ibrahim, gloomily. “It’s a sad thing [because] Yemen will always be part of me, but I can no longer be part of it.”
Read the full report at TIME.