JERUSALEM – Israel has spirited 19 Jews out of war-torn Yemen in a “covert operation” to rescue some of the last remnants of one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, officials said Monday.
The operation transporting them to Israel almost brings to an end the Jewish community in Yemen, which once numbered around 60,000 people and dates back some 2,000 years.
Only 50 or so Jews now remain in Yemen after choosing to stay, according to the Jewish Agency, responsible for immigration to Israel.
Most of them — around 40 — live in a protected compound adjacent to the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa.
“Nineteen individuals arrived in Israel in recent days, including 14 from the town of Raydah and a family of five from Sanaa,” the agency said in a statement.
“The group from Raydah included the community’s rabbi, who brought a Torah scroll believed to be between 500 and 600 years old.”
The Yemeni capital and the town of Raydah to its north are both controlled by Iran-backed Houthi-rebels who are battling loyalists of the internationally recognized government and its supporters in a Saudi-led coalition.
The agency declined to provide details of the operation, but a spokesman said it took several months to prepare.
It was initially to be carried out last week, but was delayed. Seventeen of those brought to Israel arrived on Sunday night. The others arrived over the preceding days.
Photos distributed by the agency showed them arriving and unrolling the yellowed Torah scroll.
They were taken to an immigration center in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba.
“If you only knew,” Jewish Agency spokesman Yigal Palmor said.
“Maybe one day we’ll make a movie out of it. We are talking about a secret operation in a hostile environment. It is not easy to transport people who are visibly and recognizably Jews.”
Palmor said that “being a Jew in Yemen right now is extremely dangerous. The Houthi militants, for example, are openly anti-Semitic.”
The agency also arranged for the remains of Aharon Zindani, a Jewish man stabbed to death in Sanaa in 2012 by a Muslim who accused him of witchcraft, to be brought to Israel.
Zindani’s son and his family were the ones brought to Israel from the Yemeni capital in the latest operation.
Yemen has been gripped by violence since September 2014, when the Houthi rebels, who had long complained of marginalization, stormed Sanaa and forced the internationally recognized government to flee south.
The Saudi-led coalition began bombing raids on Houthi positions across Yemen in March last year, but the insurgents still control swaths of the country, including the capital.
Al-Qaida and Islamic State group jihadis have gained ground in southern Yemen since the coalition launched its air campaign.
The Jewish Agency says more than 51,000 Yemenite Jews have immigrated to Israel since the country was founded in 1948.
Nearly 50,000 were brought over in 1949 and 1950 in a secret airlift known as Operation Magic Carpet.
The community in Yemen continued to dwindle in subsequent decades, and by the early 1990s it numbered only around 1,000 people.
The lifting of a long-standing travel ban in 1993 sparked a fresh exodus.
Since 2007, authorities in Yemen have moved members of the minority community from the northern province of Saada to the protected neighborhood in Sanaa near the U.S. Embassy.
“This chapter in the history of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities is coming to an end, but Yemenite Jewry’s unique, 2,000-year-old contribution to the Jewish people will continue in the state of Israel,” the agency said.
Elsewhere in the Muslim world, Iran, Morocco and Tunisia, still boast significant Jewish communities.
In Egypt, and war-torn Iraq and Syria, few if any Jews remain.