The earliest archaeological evidence of a Jewish presence in Yemen dates to 110BCE, however numerous legends date the community as far back as 900BCE. Throughout antiquity there were a large number of Jews living as equals amongst Christian and Pagan members of society. There is some evidence to suggest a Jewish Kingdom in Yemen in pre-Islamic late antiquity.
With the Islamic conquest of Yemen in 630CE came the introduction of higher taxes in exchange for the freedom to practice Judaism. Active persecution of Jews did not begin until the 10th century when the legal and social standing of Jews was significantly lowered. In the 12th century the Jews of Aden were briefly forced to convert to Islam. However, after this and until the Ottoman conquest of Yemen in 1517, Jews were allowed to enjoy a period of social and economic prosperity. The early Ottoman period was characterised by repression and violent suppression of politically motivated messianic figures. The Empire did, however, connect the Jewish community in Yemen to other Jews around the Middle East for the first time in centuries.
Ottoman rule in Yemen ended in 1630 when the Shi’a Zaydi Dynasty took over. In 1679 Jews were expelled to distant provinces, and as many as two-thirds of the exiled community died of exposure, disease and starvation. A year later, the Jews were allowed to return to designated Jewish quarters, as the economy began to suffer without the high taxes they were forced to pay. Towards the end of the 17th century the community had begun to recover. Jews and Muslims developed a co-dependent economy whereby Jewish manufacturers supplied Muslim landowners and farmers. During the 18th century Yemenite Jews were no longer classified as second-class citizens and they enjoyed a resurgence of communal and religious life.
In 1872 the Ottoman Empire regained control and the social status of Yemen’s 8,000 Jews was once more lowered. However, the Empire also meant that Jews were able to travel more freely, and many took the opportunity to move to the then British Mandate of Palestine. Between 1882 and 1914 10% of Yemenite Jews moved to what is now Israel. Yemen gained independence in 1914 and in 1922 an ancient Islamic law was introduced that declared all Jewish orphans under the age of 12 be forcibly converted to Islam.
In 1947, after the declaration of the State of Israel, Muslim rioters and the local police force began a pogrom in Aden. Eighty-two Jews were killed, hundreds of homes were destroyed and the community was left economically paralysed as all Jewish businesses were looted and destroyed. In 1948 a false rumour that Jews had murdered two Muslim girls led to further looting and riots. This dangerous situation led to what has become known as ‘Operation Magic Carpet’. From the summer of 1949 to the Autumn of 1950 over 50,000 Jews were airlifted from all over Yemen, via British camps just outside of Aden, to Israel. The operation was not without controversy and the living conditions of the Yemenite Jews in Israel was poor. A continuous migration from Yemen to Israel was permitted until 1962 when civil war in the country broke out. Despite this, illegal immigration of a further four hundred Yemenite Jews to Israel continued until 1976.
In 2009 a further 110 Jews were evacuated to Israel with the permission of the Yemenite government. The country’s remaining Jews were resettled in Sana’a and in 2015 they were given the ultimatum to convert to Islam or leave. In 2016 a covert operation helped all but 50 of Yemen’s Jews to leave the country. Those left behind chose to remain.
The customs and traditions of Yemenite Jews are unique as the community historically had very little contact with other Jewish communities around the world. It is estimated that no more than 40 Jews currently live in Yemen. They are all based around Sana’a, their situation in the ongoing war is unknown.