Highest Jewish Population: c. 60,000 in 1920s
The Republic of Yemen was established in 1990 when North and South Yemen merged. Sanaa (the former capital of North Yemen) is the political capital, whilst Aden (the former capital of South Yemen) is the economic capital. Whilst the area of land that constitutes today’s united Yemen has a similar early history, this history diverged in the 15th and 16th centuries. Whilst North Yemen was less affected by global politics, South Yemen was culturally influenced by both Ottoman and British colonial rule. This means that the Jews of North Yemen (typically referred to as Yemeni Jews), and the Jews of South Yemen (typically referred to as Adeni Jews) have slightly different histories, cultures, and traditions.
There is archaeological evidence for a Jewish community in Yemen dating back 2,300 years. Yemen came under Muslim Arab control in 630CE, during the lifetime of Mohammad. Towards the end of the 9th century, Zaidi Islam rose to prominence in Yemen and remained the dominant sect in the region for the next 1,000 years. Over the next few centuries dynastic wars took place, however it was not until the 13th century that the Rasulid dynasty established Sunni Islam in Southern and Western Yemen. During this period, the Jews of Yemen were treated with varying degrees of hostility by the various rulers of the day, often subjected to harsh taxes and restrictions.
The Ottoman Empire briefly gained control of Yemen between 1517 and 1636, until they were once again replaced by Zaidi tribal leaders. 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, these Jews were allowed to return to re-defined Jewish quarters in the cities as the economy began to suffer without the high taxes they had been 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 manufacturing supplied Muslim landowners and farmers. During the 18th century, Yemenite Jews enjoyed a brief resurgence of communal and religious life as they were permitted to practice crafts such as tailoring and blacksmithing.
In 1872 the Ottoman Empire regained control over North Yemen. During this period of Ottoman rule, Jews in North Yemen were once more subjected to dhimmi status. However, being part of the Ottoman Empire made travel easier and a small but steady number of Jews began to leave Yemen for what was at the time British Mandated Palestine. In 1904 the Zaidi’s once more wrested control from the Ottomans and North Yemen became effectively independent. In the same year, a famine broke out in Sanaa, prompting many Jews, as well as Muslims, to flee to South Yemen.
In 1911 Sharia law was instated in North Yemen, with the social and legal status of Jews lowered further. North Yemen became officially independent in 1918. In 1922 the Orphan’s Decree was passed. This stated that any Jewish child under the age of 12 whose father died would be converted to Islam. Violence against Jews went largely unpunished and antisemitism was rife. The community began to leave in large numbers with many moving south to Aden. Despite a prohibition on travel to British Mandated Palestine, at least 15,000 Yemeni Jews made this journey. Others emigrated to Egypt, Eritrea, and India. All had to leave their property behind.
The British Empire colonised South Aden in 1839, and the situation of Adeni Jews became considerably better than their Yemeni counterparts, with Jews able to practice freely. In 1922, emigration to British Mandated Palestine was prohibited and in 1935, after 23,000 Jews arrived in Aden from North Yemen, the port was closed to all non-Adeni Jews. In 1947 riots broke out in Aden, resulting in the murder of eighty-seven Jews, as well as the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses.
When the State of Israel was declared one year later, further riots broke out. This dangerous situation led to what has become known as ‘Operation Magic Carpet’. From the summer of 1949 to the Autumn of 1950, nearly 50,000 Jews were airlifted from all over Yemen, via British camps just outside of Aden, to Israel. The operation, facilitated by the British government, was not without controversy, and living conditions for the Yemenite Jews once they arrived in Israel was poor.
A small number of Jews chose to remain in Aden and a continuous migration to Israel was permitted until 1962. In 1967 when the Six Day War broke out, Aden’s remaining Jews were subjected to further violent rioting and those who wished to leave were evacuated to either Britain or Israel. South Yemen gained independence in 1968 and North and South Yemen united in 1990.
In 2009 a further 110 Jews were evacuated to Israel with the permission of the Yemenite government. In 2016 Israel carried out a final airlift of all remaining Jews from Yemen. Fifty chose to stay.